11 slogans that changed China

By Joe Boyle
BBC News

Image caption,
Mao Zedong (L) mastered the art of political manipulation, and almost destroyed the country he helped build

China is marking 120 years since the birth of former leader Mao Zedong. During his tumultuous three decades in power, Mao elevated political sloganeering to an art form.

Although Mao's successors have shaken off many of his more extreme doctrines, they continue to deploy slogans at a dizzying rate. Here are 11 slogans that transformed China.

1. Let 100 flowers bloom (百花齐放) 1956

The use of slogans is solidly linked to patterns in everyday Chinese speech, where short rhythmic phrases are considered to be the clearest way of speaking.

These kinds of phrases are often represented by four characters in Chinese and have been deployed by leaders for more than 2,000 years.

Image caption,
Scatter the old world, build the new, from late 1960s (IISH/Stefan R Landsberger Collections)

Mao often plundered classical Chinese works and employed rhythmic phrases to get his message across.

"Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend" was borrowed from a phase in the Warring States period, which ended in 221 BC.

Mao used it to indicate that criticism of the party would be allowed. But when the criticism came, it was widespread and vitriolic. Giant posters were hung criticising officials; students and lecturers openly denounced party policies.

A year after the Hundred Flowers period started, Mao brought it to an end.

"What should our policy be towards non-Marxist ideas? As far as unmistakable counter-revolutionaries and saboteurs of the socialist cause are concerned, the matter is easy, we simply deprive them of their freedom of speech," he said in a speech.

An anti-rightist purge took hold and intellectuals were denounced, jailed or sent to work in the countryside.

Academics still argue over the campaign: was it a genuine attempt at opening up that went too far, or a cynical ploy to encourage "counter-revolutionaries" to reveal themselves?

2. Dare to think, dare to act (敢想敢干) 1958

The crucial slogan during the Great Leap Forward, a two-year campaign where Mao encouraged peasants to join together in collective farms.

"Dare to think, dare to speak, dare to act" was the exhortation used by Mao to encourage the peasants to follow his lead.

But during the period agricultural production collapsed. Mao's policies combined with natural disasters contributed to the deaths of up to 30 million people.

Despite its association with the disastrous Great Leap Forward, Mao's supporters continued to use the phrase for years after.

3. Smash the four olds (破四旧) 1966

Image caption,
Posters became a crucial way of communicating in the Cultural Revolution

If one slogan sums up the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, this was it. It exhorted young cadres to destroy anything regarded as "old" - loosely defined as old ideas, customs, culture, and habits.

Jennifer Altehenger, of King's College in London, says in Western minds this is most closely associated with images of youths destroying temples. But the movement escalated and many older people and intellectuals were physically abused; many of them died.

The Cultural Revolution threw up an endless stream of slogans, including "to rebel is justified", which was very much the companion of "smash the four olds".

Mao encouraged attacks on virtually all forms of authority in an attempt to create permanent revolution. He was trying to reassert his authority after the Great Leap Forward had seriously damaged his reputation.

The campaign, which formally ended in 1976, cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Some believe millions died in violence related to the Cultural Revolution.

4. Smash the gang of four (打倒四人帮) 1976

Image caption,
The four were depicted as symbols of corruption

After Mao's death, a power struggle broke out at the highest levels of leadership.

Mao's designated successor, Hua Guofeng, took over all the formal roles of leadership, but faced opposition from Mao's wife Jiang Qing and three of her allies.

They were associated with the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, and were quickly arrested and purged.

Propaganda posters at the time portrayed them as traitors. The most famous featured caricatures of their faces with a red cross through it, stating: "Decisively Throw Out the Wang-Zhang-Jiang-Yao Anti-Party Clique!"

Hua was himself usurped by Deng Xiaoping, who ushered in an era of reform. The four eventually went on trial in the most public bloodletting of any power struggle in modern China.

The courtroom drama played out on TV, with particularly fiery exchanges involving Jiang Qing, who remained defiant even as her former allies denounced her. All were jailed for life. Jiang Qing died in 1991; she had apparently killed herself.

5. Reform and opening up (改革开放) 1978

Image caption,
Deng Xiaoping (R) pioneered China's re-engagement with the West

Deng Xiaoping was quick to set China on course for economic reform. First he quietly dropped references to "class struggle", the ubiquitous slogan printed in newspapers and hanging from banners for the previous 12 years.

Instead, newspapers and posters were now filled with the "four modernisations", a pithy policy platform proposed in the 1960s but never enacted under Mao.

He also instituted the "socialism with Chinese characteristics" idea, which allowed the leadership much more flexibility to deviate from Marxist dogma.

The overall motto for Deng's programme became "reform and opening up".

It was eventually incorporated into the preamble of China's constitution: "Chinese people of all nationalities will continue to adhere to the people's democratic dictatorship and the socialist road, persevere in reform and opening to the outside world."

6. Seek truth from facts (实事求是) 1978

Image caption,
Long live the People's Republic of China (1979)

With a whiff of pragmatism, a slice of common sense and a frustrating vagueness, this is an established favourite of Communist leaders.

"It is an ancient Chinese philosophical concept, but during the [late 1970s] reform period, it really takes off," says Dr Altehenger.

Phrases like this have forebears in debates going back to the 2nd Century BC, when legal experts framed such maxims as "follow the constancy of nature" and "comply with the four seasons".

In fact, Chinese "slogans" can be closer to chengyu - four-character phrases or series of phrases with a deep cultural meaning. In other words, an effective way of communicating.

"Seek truth from facts" is a good example. The phrase was deployed by Mao, possibly in the 1930s, so the new leadership could reuse it and claim legitimacy.

"Only if we emancipate our minds, seek truth from facts, proceed from reality in everything and integrate theory with practice, can we carry out our socialist modernisation programme smoothly," Deng said in a 1978 speech.

Dr Altehenger says it is a broad concept and presumes that there is an objective truth. In reality, whoever is running the show can dictate its meaning.

7. Have fewer children, raise more pigs (少生孩子多养猪) 1979

Image caption,
Fewer births, better births, develop China vigorously (1987)

A bizarre example from a slew of phrases connected with the one-child policy.

Such slogans were not necessarily approved by the central authorities, but have been daubed on walls by zealous local officials for decades.

More graphic slogans have included: "Induce labour! Abortion! Anything but an excess baby", "If one family has an excess baby, the whole village will be sterilised" and "One more baby means one more tomb".

As China's birth rate has steadily dropped, the one-child policy has been under constant scrutiny.

In a 2007 directive, and a 2011 campaign, the National Population and Family Planning Commission suggested softer alternatives to the more direct slogans.

Their new approach suggested phrases such as: "Mother Earth is too tired to sustain more children."

8. Three represents (三个代表) 2000

Image caption,
Propaganda posters took a turn for the garish in the 2000s

Jiang Zemin's pet project during his 10 years at the helm of Chinese politics was enshrined in the preamble to China's constitution, characterised as the "important thought of the three represents".

Mr Jiang put it forward in a 2000 speech, and further elaborated during a 2002 speech celebrating the party's 80th anniversary.

"The party must always represent the requirements of the development of China's advanced productive forces, the orientation of the development of China's advanced culture, and the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the people in China," he said.

But unlike some of Mao's classically inspired phrases, there appears to be little deeper resonance.

Instead, it reflects Mr Jiang's background as an engineer. He was much more of a technocrat than an inspirational poet-warrior in the mould of Mao.

9. Harmonious society ( 和谐社会) 2005

If the way to judge the success of a slogan is its inclusion in China's constitution (see above), Hu Jintao must be waiting nervously. Deputies at China's parliament (NPC) first proposed for his harmonious society to be included in the constitution in 2005, but he is still waiting.

However, there are other measures of success. Dozens of policies, rules, regulations and reforms have flown from the initial harmonious society idea (or have been categorised under its umbrella).

For example, massive projects to develop the western cities of Qinghai and Urumqi fall under its banner. But crackdowns on free speech and repression in Tibet and Xinjiang have also been put into the same family of ideas.

Mr Hu launched his platform as a deliberate response to the inequalities caused by rapid economic growth in the 1980s and 1990s, saying in a 2005 speech: "A harmonious society should feature democracy, the rule of law, equity, justice, sincerity, amity and vitality."

However, perhaps a victim of its own success, the harmonious society has since been widely lampooned by Chinese web users. They use the Chinese word for "river crab", which sounds like "harmony", as a way of criticising the government without falling foul of the censors.

10. Three supremes (三个至上) 2007

It might sound like a Motown group, but in Hu Jintao's mind it was a way of controlling an increasingly reform-minded judiciary.

"In their work, the grand judges and grand procurators shall always regard as supreme the party's cause, the people's interest, and the constitution and law," he said.

Mr Hu effectively shut down the discussion of legal reforms by appointing as Supreme Court president Wang Shengjun, an apparatchik with no legal training.

Mr Wang set about making sure the courts obeyed the three supremes doctrine. Since then, the interests of the party have reigned supreme over the other two supremes.

11. Chinese dream (中国梦) 2013

Image caption,
The Chinese dream is everywhere, but what does it mean?

The jury is still out on Chinese dream. It is the favoured slogan of Xi Jinping, who took over as paramount leader in early 2013. Even for hardened apparatchiks, it seems a bit vague.

"The Chinese government and Communist Party have a problem: these slogans no longer resonate with the broader public or the political class that is supposed to be absorbing them," says Tom Kellogg, a China expert at the Open Society Foundation in Washington.

"Xi Jinping has tried to change that with the Chinese dream. But that is problematic because other people can latch on to it, so you can have the Chinese dream of constitutionalism, or the Chinese dream of social harmony."

This slogan perhaps belongs in the same category as the UK Labour Party's "forward, not back" 2005 election slogan or, even more reductively, "forward", the slogan of team Obama in last year's US election.

Essentially, the Chinese dream can mean anything to anyone. Mr Xi is likely to deploy many more technical slogans before deciding which to truly throw his weight behind.

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