I do not claim to be an expert on anything China, but I do remember this period very well as a local newspaper reporter happened to be on the scene at the time and provided us with daily updates (see John Fraser, below.)
China’s Democracy Wall was going to be a game-changer. People from all walks of life were suddenly free to post articles and opinions on any subject they wanted. The ‘freedom’ was intoxicating.
But the honey-trap was also short-lived.
Before long it became clear that the government was more-or-less ‘allowing’ dissidents to express their thoughts not as a sign of freedom, but as a means of identifying trouble-makers.
It is a tried-and-true One cannot help but wonder if something similar is happening now in Hong Kong.
“During the November 1978 to December 1979, thousands of people put up “big character posters” on a long brick wall of Xidan Street, Xicheng District of Beijing, to protest about the political and social issues of China.
Under acquiescence of the Chinese government, other kinds of protest activities, such as unofficial journals, petitions, and demonstrations, were also soon spreading out in major cities of China.
This movement can be seen as the beginning of the Chinese Democracy Movement. It is also known as the “Democracy Wall Movement” . This short period of political liberation was known as the “Beijing Spring“.
Under the influence of the official discussion, the general public also started to put up big character posters to cause a debate. On August 18, 1977, the uninnovative 11th National Congress of the CCP recommended adding the “Four Freedoms” (Chinese: 四大自由) to Article 45 of the constitution. (“Four Freedoms” or “Four Big” was a political slogan during the Cultural Revolution, which means people have the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of debate, and freedom of putting up big character posters.) From June to July 1978, big character posters were widely spread on major universities of Beijing.
The posters were initially encouraged to criticize the Gang of Four and previous failed government policies as part of Deng Xiaoping’s struggle to gain political power. In September, foreign journalists reported that they were allowed free contact with the Chinese people. This report was reproduced in the CCP’s internal journal, Reference Informations.
The beginning of the Democracy Wall
On Oct 1st of 1978, the words “to liberate thought, to provide the best service to the people are the duties of CCP members”, a theme for the CCP Party, was posted on the Xidan Wall in Beijing by civilians.
Since then, people were allowed to post their opinions and free-style literature on street walls throughout the country. On November 23 of 1978, Lü Pu (Chinese: 吕朴) posted his writings on the Democracy Wall in Xidan. He critiqued Mao Zedong and pointed out that the real reasons behind the April 5th Movement were a backward economy, rigid thought control, and the poor living conditions of the people. This poster was called the “Fire Lighter of Democracy Wall”.
November 25, The Democracy Assembly Group was formed by Ren Wanding and eight other youths. Two days later they gathered at Xidan Democracy Wall and led a public march to Tiananmen Square. Over 10000 participants demanded democracy and human rights for China. This date marks the beginning of the Democracy Wall. (Wikipedia)
March 4, 1981 | Henry S. Hayward | CSMonitor
For those who have visited the People’s Republic of China as tourists in recent years, this book will be welcome for its deeper insights and useful information about what they have already glimpsed. John Fraser, the Peking bureau chief of the Toronto Globe and Mail, was there from 1977 to 1979, and he has an exceedingly sharp eye and keen ear.
For those who are planning to go to China –book is a highly readable assessment of almost every major aspect of life there today. As a good journalist should, Fraser writes with plenty of color for ordinary people, not for the specialist or academic, and he has certainly covered a lot of ground, literally and figuratively.
As the title makes clear, his prime interest is the people of China — not officialdom, international relations, or government. So one gets a personal portrait of ordinary Chinese, sometimes as individuals, sometimes as typifying a large group. Along the way, however, most of the top officials and major issues come into the picture naturally enough, for, after all, they are what individual Chinese are thinking about, talking about, or reacting to.
For the beginner, Fraser takes us through his own early weeks in Peking, when everything was new and he was somewhat of a tourist himself — although one determined to convey every facet of Chinese life to his readers in the outside world (including those of The Christian Science Monitor). Later he came to know many Chinese personally and could delve into their thoughts and activities with greater perception. His affection for them grew, but it seldom blurred his ability to ferret out and record their shortcomings, too.
One of the book’s highlights is a section on Xidan Democracy Wall, which flourished in late 1978 and early 1979. There, for the first time under Communist rule, ordinary Chinese were allowed to voice their true sentiments aloud and in wall posters. They were even permitted to make contact with foreigners. And John Fraser was on hand night and day, eager to catch every nuance. Indeed, he himself once participated at the wall by giving (at the request of the crowd) a report on the meeting of US columnist Robert Novak with Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping.
Xidan was, he says, “a remarkable, unprecedented time,” and it was then that he first felt able to penetrate the curtain of inscrutability the Communist rulers have so carefully erected and find the genuine Chinese sentiments that lie behind the screen. His description of the crowds and his own interaction with them makes compelling reading.
There are profiles and anecdotes about well-known people Fraser encountered, such as Chinese writer Han Suyin, author of “A Many Splendored Thing,” along with a few caustic comments about visiting dignitaries who seem to speak mainly in platitudes — except for the Prime Minister of independent Fiji. (He put in a good word for his island’s former colonial mentor, Britain, which so dismayed his Chinese hosts that his speech was rigorously censored in the press.)
Yet, to my regret, the book seems to bog down in its later chapters. It is not that the material becomes less interesting. It is only that there is so much of it. Like China itself, it sweeps over you and begins to seem endless. There are the young and the old, the city and the countryside, the political elite and the poor, women and minorities, armed forces and police, housing and jobs, and children, and, of course, romance. One is reminded of a sumptuous Chinese dinner where the courses keep coming and coming until they begin to pall.
What one remembers best, however, is the Chinese people’s incredible ability to adapt to any system, no matter how repressive, to learn to survive under it, to bend before it, but also to bend it, and sometimes, with swift, silent strokes, to even the score with an oppressor. This carried them through the chaotic, unstable latter years of Chairman Mao, when universities were shut down and many educated urban families were sent into the hinterlands to live with the peasants and supposedly learn from them. The same doggedness and adaptability serves the Chinese today, when life is less unpredictable but still far from ideal.
In the years before US correspondents were allowed into China for more than brief visits, it is good that this candid, apparently tireless Canadian was there to chronicle what went on.