Five Injustices – From Small-Character Posters to Wrongful Execution

Menghan Yan (translation)
Puck Engman (introduction)

Nationwide rehabilitation of the political victims of the Cultural Revolution followed immediately upon the fall of the Gang of Four in October 1976. In the winter of 1976-1977, party committees across the country set up leading groups to oversee the implementation of reconciliatory policies.

In the early stage this work was predominantly carried out by the institutions of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rather than the courts. Although the judicial institutions had only been inactive briefly in the early stages of the Cultural Revolution, the norms guiding legal work during the Cultural Revolution were incompatible with the objectives of the so-called “restoring order from chaos” (boluan fanzheng) period.[1]

A pivotal event was the convening of the Eight National Judicial Conference in April 1978. New principles for legal work were introduced and local courts called upon to study the new constitution and carry out the reversal of “unjust, false, and mistaken cases”. Just seven months later, the Supreme People’s Court requested an even larger effort to speed up the reversals, while it estimated that approximately one third of the cases from the Cultural Revolution had already been reviewed. [2]

The small sample of cases presented here is meant to provide a glimpse into the type of cases that local courts dealt with. The cases come from Selection of Unjust, False and Mistaken Cases, a volume compiled and distributed in March 1979 for the purposes of educating legal personnel.[3] Although the following all showcase reversals of earlier verdicts, by 1979 many older cases were still unresolved.[4]

The Case of Fu Yucheng Who Used a Stapler to Staple a Portrait of Chairman Mao


The first case deals with the student Fu Yucheng, a fur factory worker in Lijiang County, Yunnan. In 1968, Fu was sentenced to seven years imprisonment as an “active counterrevolutionary” for documenting his family’s hardships under the Communist regime, for painting a bust of Mao Zedong with blue ink and for using a stapler to display a portrait of the Chairman. Fu was ultimately spared prison and instead placed under “supervision by the masses” (qunzhong jiandu) – in other words, his factory work unit was in charge of keeping him under control.[5]

After a review of the evidence in 1978, the county party committee proposed that even though Fu had committed serious political mistakes, the criminal verdict was to be reversed. The prefectural court agreed and Fu was declared innocent.


Sentenced for Upholding the Law


Criticism of local leaders and a bad attitude were enough in September 1975 for the courts to sentence this communard from Hainan to eight years in prison. The attitude of the accused was often an important factor when determining the sentence. Suspects were encouraged – or forced – to confess their crimes, as summed up by the oft-repeated phrase: “leniency with those who confess, severity for those who resist.”

By the end of 1975, a case review group from the provincial court had already decided that this particular verdict was mistaken. However, the convict had to wait until December 1977 to be officially declared innocent and released from prison. The delay was probably related to the campaign to “oppose the wind of rightist opportunist rehabilitation” (fan youqing fan’an feng) of early 1976.


After Eight Years of Unjust Treatment, Today Exonerated


This case from Yunnan involves a railway worker sentenced to five years of forced labor in 1970 on a rape charge. In 1974, an investigation into his case found that it was “full of contradictions,” but it still took another three years before a local court reversed the verdict and restored the reputation of this falsely accused man. The investigation in 1977 found that the false accusation had been given undue credence because the accusatory had “picked the right team” during the movement of “drawing lines and picking teams.”[6]  Local judicial organs sentenced this accusatory for having used his privileged position to fabricate the charges and extract a confession.


A Small-Character Poster Entitled, “The Nation’s Populace Ponders Deeply”


In another case, a former accountant from Chengdu was charged as an “active counterrevolutionary” for having participated in the wave of protest against the Gang of Four after Zhou Enlai’s death in January 1976.

A few months after the death of the Premier, people gathered to pay their respects at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on the customary day of mourning, the Qingming Festival. In Beijing as in other parts of the country, the mourning of the Premier provided an occasion to voice discontent with the political leadership and in particular with the Gang of Four. The leadership suppressed these nationwide protests and participants in the so-called Tiananmen Counterrevolutionary Incident were arrested and convicted.[7]

In a speech in preparation of the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee in 1978, Chen Yun unequivocally revoked this collective verdict.[8] The case presented here was thus one of many that were immediately reversed, but regrettably the wrongly accused had already passed away.


Ma Yufang Was Unjustly Killed


The last case tells the tale of peasant Ma Yufang, wrongfully executed as a counterrevolutionary in July 1970. Ma’s fate shows how relatively minor charges of ideological backwardness could escalate quickly during the height of the Cultural Revolution. The verdict that led to her execution was based on reports that she had slandered Jiang Qing and used Chaiman Mao’s portrait as a menstrual pad. Following her posthumous rehabilitation in 1977, the local party committee used this unfortunate case to stress the need to “sum up experiences” and “learn lessons.”[9]

[1] An overview of Cultural Revolutionary law can be found in 《中华人民共和国法制通史(下)》(ed. Han Yanlong, 1998), pp. 581-689.

[2] 中发(1978)78号《中共中央批转中共最高人民法院党组《关于抓紧复查纠正冤、假、错案认真落实党的政策的请示报告》[Center Comments on and Circulation of the CCP Supreme People’s Court Party Group’s “Report with request for instructions regarding how to firmly grasp the review and correction of unjust, false and wrong cases and earnestly implementing the party policy”], 29 December 1978 (Available in the Maoist Legacy Database).

[3] 西南政法学院刑法教研室 [Education and Research Office of the Southwestern Institute of Political and Legal Studies]《冤假错案选编》 [Selection of Unjust, False and Mistaken Cases] (1979), pp. 9-10, 57-59, 70-71, 77-79, 96-97.

[4] Daniel Leese writes: “Between 1967 and 1976 approximately 287,000 sentences of counterrevolutionary crime had been given, of which some 241,000 verdicts had been revised by late 1979. Among these some 131,000 cases had been considered “unjust” and the victims therefore rehabilitated. The overall number of sentences delivered by judicial and public security organs during the Cultural Revolution was much higher still and given at over 2 million in 1983, of which some 670,000 cases implicating more than 725,000 persons had been reversed and the defendants rehabilitated. Another 33,000 counterrevolutionary cases had been tried in 1977 and 1978, of which 21,000 were later revised” in Maoism at the Grassroots – Everyday Life in China’s Era of High Socialism (eds. Jeremy Brown and Matthew D. Johnson, 2015), p. 105.

[5] “Supervision by the masses” (群众监督) was and continues to be one of the measures by which convicted criminals are deprived of their freedom in the PRC. According to the 1980 Criminal Law (Chapter III, art. 33-36), this measure is only applicable as a way to carry out “control” (管制), a type of sentence distinctively different from a prison sentence. However, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, regional regulations allowed for both “prison sentences carried out under supervision by the masses” (判处徒刑交群众监督执行) and “prison sentences effectuated outside of prison” (判处徒刑监外执行).

[6] On the particularities of the “drawing lines and picking sides” movement in Yunnan, see Wang Haiguang《一个人的冤案和一个时代的冤案》[The Unjust Case of One Person and the Unjust Cases of an Era].

[7] See Guo Jian, Yongyi Song, Yuan Zhou (eds.) Historical Dictionary of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, (2015), p. 317.

[8] 《陈云同志在中央工作会议东北组的发言》[Comrade Chen Yun’s Speech to the Northeast Group at the Central Work Conference], 12 November 1978 (Available in the Maoist Legacy Database). See also Jiang Changqing and Liu Li 《陈云与“天安门事件”的平反》[Chen Yun and the Reversal of the Tiananmen Incident] for the process leading up to this key speech.

[9] The rehabilitation (昭雪) of those who had already died was of course important as political ritual, but it also had concrete effects for the next of kin, as the wording of a rehabilitation decision could determine the treatment of the family of the deceased. An illustrative example is that of the relatives of victims of the anti-Trotskyist campaign in the 1930s. Even though the victims of this campaign were declared to have been wrongfully killed, the State Council confirmed earlier instructions when it explained that they were not martyrs. As a consequence, their families could not enjoy the special benefits reserved for the relatives of martyrs. See《国务院批转民政部关于对第二次国内革命战争时期肃反中被错杀人员的处理意见的通知》 [State Council Comments on and Circulation of the Ministry of Civil Affairs Notice with Suggestions on the Handling of Personnel who were Wrongfully Killed during the Anti-Counterrevolutionary Movement of the Second Revolutionary Civil War], 8 June 1983 (Available in the Maoist Legacy Database).