China flip-flops in campaign against 'pollution' from West

When a county committee in China was called in to investigate a pornography film club in the southeast province of Fujian recently, they were puzzled as to why the local branch of the Communist Party had taken no action against the offending ''mental pollution.''

The investigation committee soon discovered why. Nearly half the branch members held ''shares'' in the club.

The branch was soon disbanded and five members expelled from the party, but more significantly the official party paper, the People's Daily, was able to use the story as yet another example of ''unhealthy'' Western influences.

For nearly two months, the offical Chinese news media have been filled daily with stories of the horrors and dangers of Western philosophies, art, and literature as part of a campaign against ''mental'' or ''spiritual'' pollution.

But in the past few weeks, creeping in beside these tales of horror, have been stories deriding the ''leftists'' who supposedly have got it all wrong and who, taking the campaign too far, have been ordering little schoolgirls to tie up their hair and telling their older sisters to let down their hems.

Criticism of those campaigning against ''mental pollution'' has been followed by reassurances in the offical press that the fight against pernicious foreign influences would not develop into another Cultural Revolution. Indeed, a commentary in the People's Daily last month was adamant that the program was to be kept strictly within certain limits.

At the same time, phrases like ''spiritual pollution will be eradicated but life must still be embellished'' and Mao's famous ''let a hundred flowers bloom, '' referring to the blossoming of intellectual thought, began to appear.

The Guanming Daily, the paper of Peking's intellectuals, even started a regular column highlighting ''outstanding'' intellectuals late last month, saying that many had become ''fine Communists.''

Finally in a report to the third session of the standing committee of the National People's Congress, China's minister for culture, Zhu Muzhi, who had earlier been forced to make a ''self-criticism,'' detailed the successes of China's literature, art, and other cultural activities in recent years and reported that while ''spiritual pollution'' was ''serious, it involved only a minority.''

The attack on those referred to as rightists in Chinese politics, usually intellectuals and artists, does appear to have abated, at least on the propaganda level. One explanation is that the campaign, launched without warning and in seeming contradiction to Deng Xiaoping's planned rectification of leftist party members, may now have been brought under control by the moderate members of China's leadership and taken out of the hands of the more conservative leaders.

Although the rectification drive was announced on schedule during the second plenum of the party in early October, it was soon after that the theme of mental pollution and attacks on rightist rather than leftist tendencies began appearing in the national press.

There are several indications that Deng may have been forced to agree to such a campaign to placate the die-hard leftists of the Communist leadership who oppose his open-door foreign policy, believing it undermines China's socialist morality.

The timing of the attack on rightists, almost immediately after the launch of an onslaught on the left, effectively scared off many of those keen to implement the rectification policies.

A successful rectification of party members, involving the ousting or subduing of so-called leftists, is vital if Deng is to be succeeded by those he chooses and if China's open-door foreign policy and economic reforms are to continue. The fact that the gradual scaling down of the campaign in the offical press has coincided with several strong commentaries on the need for rectification indicates that Deng is now firmly in control.

One article last week, urging people ''actively (to) take part in the rectification and strive to be qualified party members,'' was signed Yue Ping, believed to be a pseudonym used by Deng.

Despite the apparent policy reversal, China's artists and intellectuals are still treading cautiously. The Communist Party's reputation on the treatment of rightists is too well known to allow anything to be taken for granted.

One Chinese involved in cultural work said recently. ''I wouldn't say it was over. I'd just say, watch and see.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.