December 14, 2012
Salt is so commonplace today, so cheap and readily available, that it is hard to remember how hard to come by it once was. The Roman forces who arrived in Britain in the first century C.E reported that the only way the local tribes could obtain it was to pour brine onto red-hot charcoal, then scrape off the crystals that formed on the wood as the water hissed and evaporated. These were the same forces that, according to a tradition dating to the time of Pliny the Elder, gave us the word “salary” because they once received their wages in the stuff.
Salt was crucially important until very recently not merely as a condiment (though of course it is a vital foodstuff; hearts cannot beat and nerve impulses cannot fire without it), but also as a preservative. Before the invention of refrigeration, only the seemingly magical properties of salt could prevent slaughtered animals and fish hauled from the sea from rotting into stinking inedibility. It was especially important to the shipping industry, which fed its sailors on salt pork, salt beef and salt fish. The best salt meat was packed in barrels of the granules–though it could also be boiled in seawater, resulting in a far inferior product that, thanks to the scarcity of fresh water aboard wooden sailing ships, was then often cooked in brine as well, reaching the sailors as a broth so hideously salty that crystals formed on the sides of their bowls. The demand for salt to preserve fish was so vast that the Newfoundland cod fishery alone needed 25,000 tons of the stuff a year.
All this demand created places that specialized in producing what was known colloquially as “white gold.” The illustration above shows one remnant of the trade in the Turks and Caicos Islands, a sleepy Caribbean backwater that, from 1678 to 1964, subsisted almost entirely on the profits of the salt trade, and was very nearly destroyed by its collapse. The islands’ history is one of ingenuity in harsh circumstances and of the dangers of over-dependence on a single trade. It also provides an object lesson in economic reality, for the natural products of the earth and sky rarely make those who actually tap them rich.
The islands, long a neglected part of the British empire, lie in the northern reaches of the Caribbean, far from the major trade routes; their chief call on the world’s notice, before salt extraction began, was a disputed claim to be the spot where Christopher Columbus made landfall on his first voyage across the Atlantic. Whether Columbus’s first glimpse of the New World really was the island of Grand Turk (as the local islanders, but few others, insist), there is no doubt about the impact the Spaniards had once they began to exploit their new tropical empire. The indigenous population of the Turks and Caicos—estimated to have numbered several tens of thousands of peaceable Lucayan Amerindians—made a readily exploitable source of slave labor for the sugar plantations and gold mines the conquistadores established on Haiti. Within two decades of its discovery, the slave trade and the importation of diseases to which the Lucayans possessed practically no resistance (a large part of the European portion of what is termed the Columbian Exchange), had reduced that once-flourishing community to a single elderly man. (More…)
December 6, 2012
To this day, he is considered one of the most influential politicians in U.S. history. His role in putting together the Compromise of 1850, a series of resolutions limiting the expansion of slavery, delayed secession for a decade and earned him the nickname “the Great Pacificator.” Indeed, Mississippi Senator Henry S. Foote later said, “Had there been one such man in the Congress of the United States as Henry Clay in 1860-’61 there would, I feel sure, have been no civil war.”
Clay owned 60 slaves. Yet he called slavery “this great evil…the darkest spot in the map of our country” and did not modify his stance through five campaigns for the presidency, all of which failed. “I’d rather be right than be president,” he said, famously, during an 1838 Senate debate, which his critics (he had many) attributed to sour grapes, a sentiment spoken only after he’d been defeated. Throughout his life, Clay maintained a “moderate” stance on slavery: He saw the institution as immoral, a bane on American society, but insisted that it was so entrenched in Southern culture that calls for abolition were extreme, impractical and a threat to the integrity of the Union. He supported gradual emancipation and helped found the American Colonization Society, made up of mostly Quakers and abolitionists, to promote the return of free black people to Africa, where, it was believed, they would have better lives. The organization was supported by many slaveowners, who believed that free blacks in America could only lead to slave rebellion.
Clay’s ability to promote compromise in the most complex issues of the day made him a highly effective politician. Abraham Lincoln said Clay was “the man for a crisis,” adding later that he was “my beau ideal of a statesman, the man for whom I fought all my humble life.”
Yet there was one crisis in Henry Clay’s life in which the Great Pacificator showed no desire to compromise. The incident occurred in Washington, D.C., when he was serving as secretary of state to President John Quincy Adams. In 1829, Charlotte Dupuy, Clay’s longtime slave, filed a petition with the U.S. Circuit Court against him, claiming she was free. The suit “shocked and angered” Clay, and whatever sympathies he held with regard to human rights did not extinguish his passion for the rule of law. When confronted with what he considered a “groundless writ” that might result in the loss of his rightful property, Henry Clay showed little mercy in fighting the suit.
Born into slavery around 1787 in Cambridge, Maryland, Charlotte Stanley was purchased in 1805 by a tailor named James Condon, who took the 18 year-old girl back to his home in Kentucky. The following year, she met and married Aaron Dupuy, a young slave on the 600-acre Ashland plantation in Lexington, owned by Henry Clay—who then purchased her for $450. The young couple would have two children, Charles and Mary Ann Dupuy.
In 1809, Clay was to elected to fill retiring Senator John Adair’s unexpired term at the age of 29—below the constitutionally required age of 30, but no one seemed to notice or care. The Dupuys accompanied him to Washington, where they lived and worked as house slaves for the congressman at the Decatur House, a mansion on Lafayette Square, near the White House. In 1810, Clay was elected to the House of Representatives, where he spent most of the next 20 years, serving several terms as speaker.
For those two decades the Dupuys, though legally enslaved, lived in relative freedom in Washington. Clay even allowed Charlotte to visit her family on Maryland’s Eastern Shore on several occasions—visits Clay later surmised were “the root of all the subsequent trouble.”
But in 1828 Adams lost in his re-election campaign to another of Clay’s rivals, Andrew Jackson, and Clay’s term as secretary of state came to an end. It was as he was preparing to return to Kentucky that Charlotte Dupuy filed her suit, based on a promise, she claimed, made by her former owner, James Condon, to free her after her years of service to him. Her case long predated the Dred Scott suit, which would result in the Supreme Court’s 1857 ruling that the federal government had no power to regulate slavery in the territories, that the Constitution did not apply to people of African descent and that they were not U.S. citizens.
Dupuy’s attorney, Robert Beale, argued that the Dupuys should not have to return to Kentucky, where they would “be held as slaves for life.” The court agreed to hear the case. For 18 months, she stayed in Washington, working for wages at the Decatur House for Clay’s successor as secretary of state, Martin Van Buren. Meanwhile, Clay stewed in Kentucky. The court ultimately rejected Dupuy’s claim to freedom, ruling that Condon sold her to Clay “without any conditions,” and that enslaved persons had no legal rights under the constitution. Clay then wrote to his agent in Washington, Philip Fendall, encouraging him to order the marshal to “imprison Lotty.” He added that her husband and children had returned with him to Kentucky, and that Charlotte’s conduct had created “insubordination among her relatives here.” He added, “Her refusal therefore to return home, when requested by me to do so through you, was unnatural towards them as it was disobedient to me…. I think it high time to put a stop to it…How shall I now get her, is the question?”
Clay arranged for Charlotte to be put in prison in Alexandria, Virginia. “In the mean time,” he wrote Fendall, “be pleased to let her remain in jail and inform me what is necessary for me to do to meet the charges.” She was eventually sent to New Orleans, where she was enslaved at the home of Clay’s daughter and son-in-law for another decade. Aaron Dupuy continued to work at the Ashland plantation, and it was believed that neither Clay nor the Dupuys harbored any ill will after the freedom suit was resolved—an indication, some historians have suggested, that Clay’s belief that his political adversaries were behind Charlotte Dupuy’s lawsuit was well-founded.
In 1840, Henry Clay freed Charlotte and her daughter, Mary Ann. Clay continued to travel the country with her son, Charles, as his manservant. It was said that Clay used Charles as an example of his kindness toward slaves, and he eventually freed Charles in 1844. Aaron Dupuy remained enslaved to Clay until 1852, when he was freed either before Clay’s death that year, or by his will.
Lincoln eulogized Henry Clay with the following words:
He loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country; and he burned with a zeal for its advancement, prosperity and glory, because he saw in such, the advancement, prosperity and glory, of human liberty, human right and human nature. He desired the prosperity of his countrymen partly because they were his countrymen, but chiefly to show to the world that freemen could be prosperous.
Books: David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, Henry Clay: The Essential American, Random House, 2010. Jesse J. Holland, Black Men Built the Capital: Discovering African American History in and Around Washington, D.C., Globe Pequot, 2007.
Articles: “The Half Had Not Been Told Me: African Americans on Lafayette Square, 1795-1965, Presented by the White House Historical Association and the National Trust for Historic Preservation,” http://www.whitehousehistory.org/decatur-house/african-american-tour/content/Decatur-House ”Henry Clay and Ashland,” by Peter W. Schramm, The Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, http://ashbrook.org/publications/onprin-v7n3-schramm/ ”Henry Clay: Young and in Charge,” by Claire McCormack, Time, October 14, 2010. “Henry Clay: (1777-1852),” by Thomas Rush, American History From Revolution to Reconstruction and Beyond, http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/biographies/henry-clay/ “American History: The Rise of the Movement Against Slavery,” The Making of a Nation, http://www.manythings.org/voa/history/67.html “Eulogy on Henry Clay, July 6, 1952, Springfield, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln Online, Speeches and Writing, http://showcase.netins.net/web/creative/lincoln/speeches/clay.htm
November 29, 2012
The redistribution of wealth, it seems safe to say, is vital to the smooth operation of any functioning economy. Historians can point to plenty of examples of the disasters that follow whenever some privileged elite decides to seal itself off from the hoi-polloi and pull up the ladder that its members used to clamber to the top of the money tree. And while there always will be argument as to how that redistribution should occur (whether compulsorily, via high taxation and a state safety net, or voluntarily, via the hotly debated “trickle-down effect”), it can be acknowledged that whenever large quantities of surplus loot have been accumulated, the sniff of wealth tends to create fascinating history—and produce some remarkable characters as well.
Take William Crockford, who began his career as a London fishmonger and ended it, half a century later, as perhaps the wealthiest self-made man in England. Crockford managed this feat thanks to one extraordinary talent—an unmatched skill for gambling—and one simple piece of good fortune: to be alive early in the 19th century, when peace had returned to Europe after four decades of war and a generation of bored young aristocrats, who a few years earlier would have been gainfully employed in fighting Napoleon, found themselves with far too much time on their hands.
The result was a craze for heavy gambling that ran throughout the notoriously dissolute Regency period (c.1815-1838). The craze made Crockford rich and bankrupted a generation of the British aristocracy; at the height of his success, around 1830, the former fishmonger was worth the equivalent of perhaps $160 million today, and practically every cent of it had come straight from the pockets of the aristocrats whom “Crocky” had lured into the luxurious gambling hell that he had built on London’s fashionable St. James’s Street. So successful was Crockford at his self-appointed task of relieving his victims of their family fortunes that there are, even today, eminent British families that have never properly recovered from their ancestors’ encounters with him.
October 11, 2012
With the election just weeks away and with the Democratic candidate poised to make his surging socialist agenda a reality, business interests across the country suddenly began pouring millions of dollars into a concerted effort to defeat him. The newspapers pounced, too, with an unending barrage of negative coverage. By the time the attack ads finally reached the screens, in the new medium of staged newsreels, millions of viewers simply did not know what to believe anymore. Although the election was closer than the polls had suggested, Upton Sinclair decisively lost the 1934 race for the governorship of California.
It wasn’t until decades later that the full extent of the fraudulent smear campaign became known. As one historian observed, the remarkable race marked “the birth of the modern political campaign.”
Sinclair had made his name as a muckraker, writing best-selling books that documented social and economic conditions in 20th century America. His 1906 novel, The Jungle, exposed unsanitary conditions and the abuse of workers in Chicago’s meatpacking industry, leading to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act (and to Sinclair’s becoming a vegetarian for long periods of his life). Although President Theodore Roosevelt opposed socialism and thought Sinclair a “crackpot,” he acknowledged the importance of the author’s work, telling him that “radical action must be taken to do away with the efforts of arrogant and selfish greed on the part of the capitalist.”
Subsequent Sinclair novels targeted New York’s high society, Wall Street, the coal and oil industries, Hollywood, the press and the church; he acquired a broad spectrum of enemies. He moved from New Jersey to California in 1916 and dabbled in politics with the Socialist Party, with little success. In the throes of the Great Depression, he was struck by the abandoned factories and farms with rotting crops that dotted the California landscape and the poverty among the state’s million idled workers. “Franklin Roosevelt was casting about for ways to end it,” Sinclair later wrote. “To me the remedy was obvious. The factories were idle and the workers had no money. Let them be put to work on the state’s credit and produce goods for their own use, and set up a system of exchange by which the goods could be distributed.”
Some friends and supporters convinced him to run for office once again, but as a Democrat. In 1933 Sinclair quickly wrote a 60-page book titled I, Governor of California, And How I ended Poverty: A True Story of the Future. The cover also bore the message: “This is not just a pamphlet. This is the beginning of a Crusade. A Two-Year Plan to make over a State. To capture the Democratic primaries and use an old party for a new job. The EPIC plan: (E)nd (P)overty (I)n (C)alifornia!”
Sinclair’s EPIC plan called for the state to turn over land and factories to the unemployed, creating cooperatives that promoted “production for use, not for profit” and bartered goods and services. Appalled that the government was telling farmers to burn crops and dispose of milk while people across the country were starving, he was convinced that his program could distribute those goods and operate within the framework of capitalism.
Aside from transforming agriculture and industry, Sinclair also proposed to repeal the sales tax, raise corporate taxes and introduce a graduated income tax, which would place a larger revenue onus on the wealthy. EPIC also proposed “monthly pensions for widows, the elderly and the handicapped, as well as a tax exemption for homeowners.” Though there were similarities to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, EPIC emphasized “the democratic spirit of each individual,” as one academic observed, and called for reforms on a national level.
“There’s no excuse for poverty in a state as rich as California,” Sinclair said. “We can produce so much food that we have to dump it into our bay.”
To his great surprise, Sinclair’s book became another best-seller, with hundreds of thousands of copies circulating around the state. More than 2,000 EPIC clubs sprang around California, and they organized massive voter registration drives. Within months, Sinclair became a legitimate candidate for governor. In August of 1934, after choosing Democratic stalwart Sheridan Downey as his running mate, “Uppie and Downey” received 436,000 votes in the primary, more than all of the other candidates combined.
That result sent a shock wave throughout the state. Sinclair predicted that his candidacy and his plan would meet stiff resistance. “The whole power of vested privilege will rise against it,” he wrote. “They are afraid the plan will put into the minds of the unemployed the idea of getting access to land and machinery by the use of their ballots.”
EPIC critics were perplexed by Sinclair’s vision of working within the framework of capitalism; why, for example, would investors, as historian Walton E. Bean wrote, “buy California state bonds to finance the public enterprises that would put them out of business”? Indeed, Sinclair acknowledged that the “credit power of the state” would be used to motivate “a new system of production in which Wall Street will have no share.”
Sinclair’s opponent in the general election would be acting governor Frank Merriam, a Republican who had endured a summer of unrest as new labor laws led to strikes that were designed to test the New Deal’s commitment to organized workers. Longshoremen in San Francisco closed the port for two months. When police tried to break through the picket lines, violence broke out; two men were killed and dozens were injured. Merriam declared a state of emergency and ordered the National Guard to preserve order, but labor unions were convinced the governor had used the Guard to break the strike. A citywide protest followed, where more than a hundred thousand union workers walked off their jobs. For four days, San Francisco had become paralyzed by the general strike. Citizens began hording food and supplies.
Working quietly behind the scenes were two political consultants, Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter. They had formed Campaigns, Inc. the year before, and had already been retained by conglomerates like Pacific Gas and Electric and Standard Oil. The two consultants, like their clients, where determined to stop “Sinclairism” at any cost, and they had just two months to do it.
Newsreels footage of troops firing at so-called communist labor infiltrators led to popular fears that the New Deal had put too much power in the hands of working people, which might lead to a nationwide revolution. As the general election approached, the Los Angeles Times, led by editor Harry Chandler, began publishing stories claiming that Sinclair was a communist and an atheist. William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers spotlighted Merriam’s campaign and mocked Sinclair’s. Whitaker and Baxter fed the state’s papers erroneous but damaging Sinclair quotes, like the one spoken by a character in his 1911 novel Love’s Pilgrimage, on the sanctity of marriage, but attributed to Sinclair: “I have had such a belief… I have it no longer.” Of the 700 or so newspapers in California, not one endorsed Upton Sinclair. Merriam was advised to stay out of sight and let the negative campaigning take its toll.
But nothing matched the impact of the three “newsreels” produced by Irving Thalberg, the boy wonder of the motion picture business, who partnered with Louis B. Mayer and helped create Metro Goldwyn Mayer while still in his early twenties. Mayer had vowed to do everything in his power to stop Sinclair, even threatening to support the film industry’s move to Florida if the socialist were elected governor. Like the other studios, MGM docked its employees (including stars) a day’s pay and sent the money to Merriam’s campaign.
Using stock images from past movies and interviews by an “inquiring cameraman,” Thalberg produced alleged newsreels in which actors, posing as regular citizens, delivered lines that had been written to destroy Sinclair. Some actors were portrayed as reasonable Merriam supporters, while others claiming to be for Sinclair were shown in the worst light.
“I’m going to vote for Upton Sinclair,” a man said, standing before a microphone.
“Will you tell us why?” the cameraman asked.
“Upton Sinclair is the author of the Russian government and it worked out very well there, and I think it should do here.”
A young woman said, “I just graduated from school last year and Sinclair says that our school system is rotten, and I know that this isn’t true, and I’ve been able to find a good position during this Depression and I’d like to be able to keep it.”
An African-American man added, “I’m going to vote for Merriam because I need prosperity.”
The inquiring cameraman also claimed to have interviewed more than 30 “bums” who, he claimed, were part of a wave of unemployed workers “flocking” to California because of Sinclair’s plan. Stock footage showed such “bums” hopping off packed freight trains. (Unemployed people did move to California, but did not pose the social and economic burdens implied by the newsreel.)
Greg Mitchell, author of The Campaign of the Century, wrote that the newsreels devastated Sinclair’s campaign. “People were not used to them,” Mitchell stated. “It was the birth of the modern attack ad. People weren’t used to going into a movie theater and seeing newsreels that took a real political line. They believed everything that was in the newsreels.”
Not everyone believed what they were seeing—at least not Sinclair supporters. Some of them booed and demanded refunds for having been subject to anti-Sinclair propaganda; others rioted in the theaters. After a California meeting with movie moguls, the Democratic National Committee chairman told FDR, “Everyone out there wants you to come out against Sinclair.” But Roosevelt said nothing. Sinclair sent telegrams asking for a congressional investigation of what he charged was “false” propaganda in the movie theaters.
“Whether or not you sympathize with me on my platform is beside the point,” Sinclair wrote. “If the picture industry is permitted to defeat unworthy candidates it can be used to defeat worthy candidates. If it can be used to influence voters justly, it can be used to influence voters unjustly.”
Roosevelt, worried about his New Deal program, received behind-the-scenes assurances from Merriam that he would support it. The president stayed out of the 1934 California gubernatorial campaign.
On November 6, Sinclair received 879,537 votes, about a quarter-million less than Merriam. But, as Sinclair had predicted, officeholders eventually adopted many of his positions. Roosevelt drew on EPIC’s income and corporate tax structures to support his New Deal programs. Merriam, as governor, took some of Sinclair’s tax and pension ideas (and was crushed in the 1938 election by Culbert Olson, a former EPIC leader).
Sinclair was a writer and a man of ideas, not a politician. After his bitter loss in 1934 he went back to writing, even winning a Pulitzer Prize for his 1943 novel, Dragon’s Teeth. He was never elected to a single office, but he died in 1968 as one of the most influential American voices of the 20th century.
Books: Upton Sinclair, I, Governor of California, and How I Ended Poverty: A True Story of the Future, End Poverty League, 1934. Upton Sinclair, I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked, University of California Press, 1934. Greg Mitchell, The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair’s Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics, Random House, 1992/Sinclair Books, Amazon Digital Services, December 5, 2011.
Articles: “Charges Threat to Movie Folk,” Daily Boston Globe, November 1, 1934. “Eyes of Nation on California,” Daily Boston Globe, November 6, 1934. “Sinclair Charges Movie ‘Propaganda,’” Daily Boston Globe, October 29, 2934. “The Brilliant Failure of Upton Sinclair and the Epic Movement,” by John Katers, Yahoo! Voices, January 23, 2006. http://voices.yahoo.com/the-brilliant-failure-upton-sinclair-epic-15525.html?cat=37 “Dispatches From Incredible 1934 Campaign: When FDR Sold Out Upton Sinclair,” by Greg Mitchell, Huffington Post, October 31, 2010, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/greg-mitchell/dispatches-from-incredibl_b_776613.html “The Lie Factory: How Politics Became a Business,” by Jill Lepore, The New Yorker, September 24, 2012. “Upton Sinclair, Author, Dead; Crusader for Social Justice, 90,” by Alden Whitman, New York Times, November 26, 1968. “Watch: Upton Sinclair, Irving Thalberg & The Birth of the Modern Political Campaign,” by Greg Mitchell, The Nation, October 12, 2010. “On the Campaign Trail,” By Jill Lepore, The New Yorker, September 19, 2012. “Upton Sinclair,” The Historical Society of Southern California, 2009, http://www.socalhistory.org/bios/upton_sinclair.html
September 26, 2012
In February 1957, Chairman Mao Zedong rose to speak to a packed session of China’s Supreme State Conference in Beijing. The architect and founding father of the People’s Republic of China was about to deliver what one scholar described as “the most important speech on politics that he or anyone else had made since the creation of the communist regime” eight years before.
Mao’s speech, titled, “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People,” began with a broad explanation of socialism and the relationship between China’s bourgeoisie and working class. Joseph Stalin, he said, had “made a mess of” unifying the classes in the Soviet Union. In a section of his speech that the Communist Party would delete before publishing the text in the Peoples Daily, he claimed that China had learned “from the mistakes” of the Soviets, who had killed too many people they should not have killed, as well as from those of the Hungarian communists, who had not executed enough. He acknowledged that the Chinese government had killed 700,000 “counterrevolutionaries” between 1950 and 1952, but said, “Now there are no more killings.” If the government had not carried out those executions, he claimed, “the people would not have been able to lift their heads. The people demanded their execution and the liberation of the productive forces.”
Yet Mao’s speech may be best known for marking the beginning of the Hundred Flowers Movement—a brief campaign that ended in the betrayal of the principle on which it was based and the people he had invited to take part. A few months earlier, as anti-Soviet demonstrations erupted in Eastern Europe, Zhou Enlai, China’s popular and highly influential premier, had emphasized a greater need for China’s intellectuals to participate in governmental policy-making. “The government needs criticism from its people,” Zhou proclaimed in a speech. “Without this criticism the government will not be able to function as the People’s Democratic Dictatorship. Thus the basis of a healthy government lost.…We must learn from old mistakes, take all forms of healthy criticism, and do what we can to answer these criticisms.”
Mao, in his speech before the Supreme State Conference, declared his support for a policy of allowing criticism of the bureaucracy, provided that writers and intellectuals put forth competing ideologies and opinion and did not engage in “destructive acts.” “Let a hundred flowers bloom” Mao declared, borrowing a line from a Chinese poem, “let a hundred schools of thought contend.” Such a campaign, he said, would allow truth to emerge from a sea of falsehoods. He even mentioned the Chinese writer Hu Feng, who had been detained in 1955 for publishing his “three-hundred-thousand-word letter,” which accused Mao of politicizing art and literature:
Among these hundred flowers blooming forth there are…all kinds of different flowers. They include flowers of different types. For example, among the hundred schools contending, idealism is present. Let a hundred flowers bloom. It may be that Hu Feng is locked up in his cell, but his spirit still roams the country, and we might still see some more works like his appear. It is all right if [people] don’t engage in destructive acts. What was it about Hu Feng? He organized a secret group; and that was something he should not have done. If only he had not organized a secret group…. What do a few flowers matter in a land of our size—nine million square kilometers? What’s so upsetting about a few flowers? Let them bloom for people to look at, and perhaps criticize. Let them say, “I don’t like those flowers of yours!”
At first, Zhou told Mao, writers and intellectuals were wary and skeptical of what would be called the Hundred Flowers Movement. He advised Mao to encourage the central government to help create an exuberant response to the policy, reassuring intellectuals that their criticism was not only welcome but necessary for reform. Soon, writers, lawyers, academics and scientists began speaking out, criticizing party cadres for meddling and obstructing important work. Students began protesting low standards of living, pointing out the hypocrisy of corrupt party members enjoying privileges at the expense of the workers.
By the summer of 1957, millions of letters began to arrive at Zhou’s office. Some of them adhered to the constructive criticism he envisioned, but many rose to what Mao later described as a “harmful and uncontrollable” pitch. A “Democratic Wall” had been erected at Beijing University, with posters criticizing the Communist Party. There were calls for the Party to give up power through transitional governments, claims that communism and intellectualism could not co-exist, and demands for more freedoms. Some posters attacked Mao himself.
Mao began to sense that the movement was spiraling out of control, and in July, he quashed it. The “fragrant flowers,” he announced, must be distinguished from the “poisonous weeds”; criticism would no longer be tolerated. In the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957, critics and detractors were rounded up by the hundreds of thousands and shipped off for execution or re-education through labor. The Hundred Flowers Movement, Mao would later say, had “enticed the snakes out of their lairs.”
The government’s treatment of Ai Qing, one of China’s first modern poets, was typical. He had joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1941, and after the party took power in 1949, Ai Qing consulted with Mao on China’s literary policies and traveled the world representing the government. But in 1957, after he defended the writer Ding Ling against accusations that she was a “rightist,” Ai Qing was denounced and stripped of his writer’s association membership and his possessions. He and his family were exiled to the new city of Shihezi, in the remote region of Xinjiang in northwest China, where they lived amid squalor and hunger. Among hundreds of thousands of “Reform through Labor” convicts, he was assigned to cleaning public toilets seven days a week. After he and his family were relocated to a farm on the edge of the Gobi Desert, they lived in a “pithouse,” a cave-like structure that had been built for the birthing of livestock.
Ai Qing performed backbreaking work until he was in his 60s, moving heavy stones in construction assignments at labor camps. At times, he was paraded in public, forced to wear humiliating signs while villagers taunted him and threw paint in his face. Prohibited from writing, the poet attempted suicide several times.
By the end of the Cultural Revolution, in 1976, Ai Qing was deemed “rehabilitated,” and after nearly twenty years in exile, he was allowed to return to Beijing with his family. His son Ai Weiwei remembers one advantage he had as a child: when he wasn’t working in a factory, he was going to schools where the teachers were exiled intellectuals. He may have grown up in a remote land known as “Little Siberia,” but the exposure to writers and artists living in exile, and the indelible stamp of a government’s suppression of ideas and free speech have all played a vital role in Ai Weiwei’s work today, and helped him become China’s best-known contemporary artist and highest-profile government critic.
The tragedy of the Hundred Flowers Movement was compounded by its timing: critics of the government were silenced just as Mao tried, with the Great Leap Forward, to transform China quickly into a modern industrialized state. The social plan, which lasted from 1958 to 1960 and mandated collective farming, led to catastrophic grain shortages and a famine that killed tens of millions of Chinese. Mao ensured that no one dare speak out about the potential for catastrophe.
Books: Robert MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, Volume 1, Contradictions Among the People, 1956-1957, Oxford University Press, 1974. Mao Tse-tung, Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People, February 27, 1957, [Speech at the Eleventh Session (Enlarged) of the Supreme State Conference. Comrade Mao Tsetung went over the verbatim record and made certain additions before its publication in the People's Daily on June 19, 1957.] http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-5/mswv5_58.htm Robert Weatherley, Politics in China Since 1949: Legitimizing Authoritarian Rule, Routledge, 2006.
Articles: “Original Contradictions on the Unrevised Text of Mao Zedong’s ‘On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People’,” by Michael Schoenhals, The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, No. 16, July, 1986. ”An Early Spring: Mau Tse-tung, the Chinese Intellectuals and the Hundred Flowers Campaign,” by John M. Jackson, 2004. http://filebox.vt.edu/users/jojacks2/words/hundredflowers.htm
Film: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry: A film by Alison Klayman, MUSE Film and Television, 2012.