China Promises to Correct Human Rights Abuses

In post-Mao China, communist officials encouraged Chinese citizens to publicize their grievances against the government in a short-lived democracy movement.

Summary of Event

After the death of Chinese Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong, Mao Zedong many party leaders, under the leadership of then vice premier and veteran party cadre Deng Xiaoping, called for a major break from past political and economic practices. In the political arena, the reformers called for the rebuilding of the Chinese legal system, for the redress of wrongs committed since 1957 against Chinese of all political persuasions, and for the elimination from the Chinese Communist Party of the influence of the so-called Gang of Four Gang of Four —Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, Jiang Qing and three of her Cultural Revolution colleagues. China;human rights abuses
Human rights abuses;China
Beijing Spring
Democracy movement, China
[kw]China Promises to Correct Human Rights Abuses (Spring, 1978)
[kw]Human Rights Abuses, China Promises to Correct (Spring, 1978)
[kw]Rights Abuses, China Promises to Correct Human (Spring, 1978)
[kw]Abuses, China Promises to Correct Human Rights (Spring, 1978)
China;human rights abuses
Human rights abuses;China
Beijing Spring
Democracy movement, China
[g]East Asia;Spring, 1978: China Promises to Correct Human Rights Abuses[03220]
[g]China;Spring, 1978: China Promises to Correct Human Rights Abuses[03220]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Spring, 1978: China Promises to Correct Human Rights Abuses[03220]
[c]Human rights;Spring, 1978: China Promises to Correct Human Rights Abuses[03220]
[c]Government and politics;Spring, 1978: China Promises to Correct Human Rights Abuses[03220]
Deng Xiaoping
Peng Zhen
Wei Jingsheng
Fu Yuehua

In the economic area, Chinese post-Mao reformers called for the economic “responsibility system,” which would free both rural and urban economic institutions from overreliance on central control. Peasants would be able to leave the communes and lease farmland from the state. Factory managers would be responsible for running more efficient factories that sold goods to the market.

Such economic and political reforms were, however, resisted by at least some of the Communist Party members who had joined the party during the previous twelve years—that is, since the beginning of the 1966 Cultural Revolution. Cultural Revolution, China As many as one-half of the party’s members fell into this category. Reforms were also opposed by some of the older party members who still remembered Chairman Mao with fondness and who feared the subversive influence of new ideas. They particularly seemed to fear Chinese versions of liberal democracy.

In 1978, the leaders supporting Deng Xiaoping mobilized popular support to resist these attacks on reforms. They encouraged popular opposition to the Maoists and permitted people to air their grievances. The Cultural Revolution began to be characterized as the “Ten Lost Years,” and former Red Guards were encouraged to write about their feelings in an outpouring of writings called the literature of “the wounded.” Chinese from all walks of life were also encouraged to voice their criticisms of government policies during the Cultural Revolution using big-character posters posted on the Democracy Wall Democracy Wall, Beijing in Beijing (and similar walls in other cities) or in various unofficial publications. Leading publications included Explorations, Beijing Spring, April Fifth Forum, Today, and the Masses’ Reference News. Leading organizations included the Chinese Human Rights League, the Enlightenment Society, and the Thaw Society. The unofficial publications, and those who organized and contributed to them, generally used their new freedoms to call for a “fifth modernization”—that is, for democracy—in addition to the other four modernizations Four modernizations (China) (agriculture, industry, science and technology, and military), which focused on economic development.

In March of 1978, a new constitution was promulgated that guaranteed many new democratic rights, what were called the “four freedoms” (the rights to speak freely, to air views fully, to hold debates, and to put up wall posters). By the fall of 1978, about thirty-four thousand peasants had traveled to Beijing to publicize their problems and to seek redress from the authorities. In November, 1978, the Democracy Wall in Beijing became a rallying point for leaders of the democracy movement as well as for petitioners to the government.

Deng called for the rehabilitation of many of China’s political outcasts and sufferers from the previous twenty years. Among those whose verdicts were reversed were 110,000 people who had been imprisoned since 1957. Deng further insisted on righting the records of many others who had died in prison or were persecuted to death. During this period, the Chinese newspapers were filled with belated obituaries.

In the area of intellectual activity, Deng moved the society from the situation of “politics in command” that existed under former Chairman Mao to one of seeking truth from facts and using practice as the sole criterion for testing truth. Deng followed these general statements in 1978 with specific support for popular expression of criticism and discontent. He condoned the setting up of the Democracy Wall, calling the posters there “a good thing” in November of 1978. Also in November, 1978, Deng reaffirmed that unofficial media would be permitted to flourish, as guaranteed by the new constitution. He noted that it was useful sometimes for the party to be urged along by the masses. It was even rumored that the unofficial journal Beijing Spring had Deng’s tacit support.

The reaction of democracy movement participants in late 1978 was sometimes ecstatic. They wrote posters, composed articles, joined demonstrations, and made public statements. On November 29, 1978, a huge demonstration called for democracy and human rights, while cheering Deng Xiaoping and the late Zhou Enlai. One excited man was reported to have told a foreigner, “You are witnessing the greatest thing to happen in China.”

Unfortunately for Chinese human rights advocates, Deng Xiaoping began to react against the movement by January, 1979. He did this in part because the movement had served its political purpose of embarrassing Maoists and providing reformers with popular support, and now was no longer needed. Perhaps more important, Deng began to repress the democracy movement because it was beginning to call for substantial democratic reforms—reforms that could have led to the loss of the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly of power.

On January 18, 1979, Fu Yuehua became the first democracy movement leader to be arrested. On March 16, 1979, Deng, in a secret speech on the Sino-Vietnamese War, warned that the democracy movement had “gone too far” and that it was not in the interest of “stability, unity, and the four modernizations.”

The Communist Party in 1979 began to take steps to make arrests and detentions easier, steps that would rein in the democracy movement. The National People’s Congress reissued regulations using a 1957 Stalinist law that permitted Chinese police to practice administrative detention of people for three years without charges or trial. This detention was intended to accomplish what was called “reeducation through labor.”

By December, 1979, wall posters were banned on the Democracy Wall in Beijing. On January 1, 1980, the Democracy Wall was officially closed, and on January 17, Deng announced that the right to put up wall posters and to exercise the “four freedoms” would be deleted from the new constitution because of “abuse.” Many of the democracy movement leaders were arrested, and all the unofficial publications were either shut down by the government or voluntarily ceased publication. In sum, the Beijing Spring lasted from March, 1978, to March, 1979.


Unfortunately, once the Cultural Revolution was repudiated (as evidenced by the Gang of Four trial in early 1980), Deng’s economic reforms were approved, and the Communist reform leadership was consolidated, Deng no longer had a need for the democracy movement. He also feared this movement because the Beijing Spring leaders called for a democratization of the entire political structure, including free elections, a free press, and open criticism of the government. Beijing Spring leaders began to be arrested and were often given long sentences, ranging from two to fifteen years, and harsh treatment in prisons.

As has been the case with human rights movements in many countries, the Beijing Spring leaders paid a high price, including long prison terms and extremely harsh treatment, some of it documented by Amnesty International. At the same time, this movement and the democracy protests that occurred in China after 1978 appeared to move the country closer to a more democratic system. The leaders of the Beijing Spring, although in some cases still in prison, continued to be an inspiration to the leaders of democracy movements in 1984, in 1986, and at the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations.

In terms of immediate consequences, the 1978-1979 year of freedoms moved the entire range of Chinese civil rights forward. Although some reversal took place in the immediate post-Beijing Spring period, and the movement’s leaders endured much suffering, the sacrifices of each succeeding generation of human rights leaders in China seemed to move forward the entire cause of democratic rights in that nation. The long-term consequence of these human rights movements is that it became harder for the Chinese government to repress without cause, or to repress totally, later democracy movements. After the democracy movement of 1989, there was even more Chinese support for the goal of a fifth modernization, democracy, even though few were willing to express it publicly.

Throughout the last decades of the twentieth century, each new movement toward democracy in China received wider support, and each new movement built on the one before it. When the history of China’s democracy movement is eventually written, the Beijing Spring of 1978 will most likely be seen as the opening shot in a struggle that took many years but was ultimately successful, although at a high cost in human suffering. China;human rights abuses
Human rights abuses;China
Beijing Spring
Democracy movement, China

Further Reading

  • Amnesty International. China: Torture and Ill-Treatment of Prisoners. New York: Author, 1987. Describes the Chinese debate on the use of torture, the extent of torture and prisoner maltreatment, and some of the reasons for torture. Outlines the legislation against torture as well as the official efforts to reduce torture. Also offers conclusions and recommendations for changes that might reduce the practice of torture in the People’s Republic of China.
  • Chan, Anita, Stanley Rosen, and Jonathan Unger, eds. On Socialist Democracy and the Chinese Legal System: The Li Yizhe Debates. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1985. Collection of the 1974 writings of three former Red Guards that emerged during the democracy movement of 1978 as a major critique of Chinese bureaucracy and party dominance. Traces the lives of the three authors from their 1975 exile to their 1977 imprisonment through their 1978 vindication during the period of the “reversal of verdicts.” In 1981, one of the three was rearrested in the wake of the anti-Beijing Spring tide because of his continued calls for democracy.
  • Chang, David Wen-Wei. China Under Deng Xiaoping: Political and Economic Reform. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Discussion of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms helps to place the Beijing Spring movement in historical context.
  • Evans, Richard. Deng Xiaoping and the Making of Modern China. New York: Viking Press, 1994. Examines the life and career of one of the most important leaders of the post-Mao era.
  • Seymour, James, ed. The Fifth Modernization: China’s Human Rights Movement, 1978-1979. Stanfordville, N.Y.: Human Rights Publishing Group, 1980. Translations of many of the most important documents posted on Democracy Wall or published in the various democracy movement publications. Also includes an introduction to and description of the 1978 Beijing Spring.
  • Svensson, Marina. Debating Human Rights in China: A Conceptual and Political History. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. Detailed account of the history of human rights in China. Includes bibliography and index.

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