Mao first announced his call for criticism to the members of the party on 27 February 1957. After they overcame their initial fears of being labelled ‘anti-party,’ members acquiesced to Mao’s request on a tremendous scale, sending millions of letters complaining of corruption, inefficiency, and lack of realism within the party. But then, suddenly, on 19 July 1957, only five months after its conception, Mao halted the campaign and began the Anti-Rightist Movement, a stark contrast to the Hundred Flowers Campaign.
It was now a time of harsh suppression; those who had criticized the party were now reprimanded. This sudden and completely turnaround change in policy seems to suggest that the Hundred Flowers Campaign had been a deliberate manoeuvre to lure Mao’s enemies into the open, where they could be easily identified and removed during the Anti-Rightist Movement. Indeed, Mao seemed to have successfully trapped his opponents with this cunning trick. The harshness of the Anti-Rightist Movement also suggests that the campaign was a trick.
Those who responded to Mao’s call for criticism most vehemently were now forced to withdraw their statements. Furthermore, thousands of party members were sent to ‘re-education camps,’ where some spent the next five or more years doing hard labour. Even Zhou Enlai, one of Mao’s most loyal supporters, was forced to make a specious and humiliating self-criticism in front of a large party gathering. Mao’s retaliation was severe, precise, and on an enormously large scale.
He was obviously poised to attack, and this hints that the Hundred Flowers Campaign was merely a wily method of enticing Mao’s prey. There is, on the other hand, much evidence to support that the campaign was a genuine attempt at reform. In his ‘Contradictions’ speech, given to leading party workers in early 1957, Mao complained of the oppressive way some party officials were applying policies and hinted that it was time to begin permitting intellectuals to voice their opinions.
Furthermore, in 1956, he had been tolerant of Hu Feng, a writer who challenged the idea that all artistic merit should be judged based on Marxist-Leninist values, even as other CCP leaders viciously censured him. These two examples show that Mao, although previously disdainful of intellectuals, may have begun to see their importance, and thus may have been honestly inviting their criticism when the Hundred Flowers Campaign began.
In addition, the launching of the Hundred Flowers Campaign may have been triggered by events in other communist states rather than a desire to trick party opponents. In 1956, Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev launched an attack on the previous leader Joseph Stalin, dead now for three years, and his ‘cult of personality,’ Mao probably saw how his own popularity—adulating portraits of him were being hung everywhere—could also be interpreted as a cult of personality. Mao obviously wanted to dispel this notion, and may have attempted to do so with the Hundred Flowers Campaign.
The campaign showed that he valued other people’s opinions, and that he was not just a heroic public image that deserved unquestioning flattery and praise. Seen from this light, it seems that Mao was not just aiming to trick his opponents. This theory also explains why the transition from the Hundred Flowers Campaign to the Anti-Rightist Movement was so sudden. If Mao indeed feared being compared to Stalin, his fear was relieved in late 1956 when Khrushchev crushed the Hungarian rising, an attempt to break away from the Soviet Union.
This event showed that Khrushchev, although critical of Stalin, did not have any intention of relaxing the Communist Party’s authoritarian control over the USSR and its people. Mao realized that he would not have to compete with Khrushchev in developing ‘Communism with a human face,’ and perhaps this caused him to change his mind about the necessity of the Hundred Flowers Campaign. A quick shift into the Anti-Rightist Movement then resulted.
After examining the evidence, it becomes clear that Mao did not design the Hundred Flowers Campaign as a trick to trap his opponents. Rather, he launched the campaign because of his increasing appreciation of the opinions of intellectuals, and more importantly, because of his fear of becoming a victim of de-Stalinisation. Although the sudden reversal of policy into the Anti-Rightist Movement may seem suspicious, it looses significance when juxtaposed against the defeat of the Hungarian rising: Mao simply changed his mind.