China’s Democracy Wall (1978 – 1979)

20 August 2019 | Hawkins Bay Dispatch

I do not claim to be an expert on anything China, but I do remember this period very well as a local newspaper reporter happened to be on the scene at the time and provided us with daily updates (see John Fraser, below.)

China’s Democracy Wall was going to be a game-changer. People from all walks of life were suddenly free to post articles and opinions on any subject they wanted. The ‘freedom’ was intoxicating.

But the honey-trap was also short-lived. 

Before long it became clear that the government was more-or-less ‘allowing’ dissidents to express their thoughts not as a sign of freedom, but as a means of identifying trouble-makers. 

It is a tried-and-true One cannot help but wonder if something similar is happening now in Hong Kong. 

James Porteous 

“During the November 1978 to December 1979, thousands of people put up “big character posters” on a long brick wall of Xidan Street, Xicheng District of Beijing, to protest about the political and social issues of China.

Under acquiescence of the Chinese government, other kinds of protest activities, such as unofficial journals, petitions, and demonstrations, were also soon spreading out in major cities of China.

This movement can be seen as the beginning of the Chinese Democracy Movement. It is also known as the “Democracy Wall Movement” . This short period of political liberation was known as the “Beijing Spring“.

Under the influence of the official discussion, the general public also started to put up big character posters to cause a debate. On August 18, 1977, the uninnovative 11th National Congress of the CCP recommended adding the “Four Freedoms” (Chinese: 四大自由) to Article 45 of the constitution. (“Four Freedoms” or “Four Big” was a political slogan during the Cultural Revolution, which means people have the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of debate, and freedom of putting up big character posters.) From June to July 1978, big character posters were widely spread on major universities of Beijing.[7]

The posters were initially encouraged to criticize the Gang of Four and previous failed government policies as part of Deng Xiaoping’s struggle to gain political power. In September, foreign journalists reported that they were allowed free contact with the Chinese people. This report was reproduced in the CCP’s internal journal, Reference Informations.[7]

The beginning of the Democracy Wall[edit]

Xidan Wall, 1979

On Oct 1st of 1978, the words “to liberate thought, to provide the best service to the people are the duties of CCP members”, a theme for the CCP Party, was posted on the Xidan Wall in Beijing by civilians.

Since then, people were allowed to post their opinions and free-style literature on street walls throughout the country. On November 23 of 1978, Lü Pu (Chinese: 吕朴) posted his writings on the Democracy Wall in Xidan. He critiqued Mao Zedong and pointed out that the real reasons behind the April 5th Movement were a backward economy, rigid thought control, and the poor living conditions of the people. This poster was called the “Fire Lighter of Democracy Wall”.[7]

November 25, The Democracy Assembly Group was formed by Ren Wanding and eight other youths. Two days later they gathered at Xidan Democracy Wall and led a public march to Tiananmen Square. Over 10000 participants demanded democracy and human rights for China. This date marks the beginning of the Democracy Wall.[7] (Wikipedia)

The writing on democracy wall

This reporter went to China only hoping for a big story but found, however briefly, he was it

DOUG FETHERLINGDECEMBER 1 1980 Macleans Magazine

The writing on democracy wall


This reporter went to China only hoping for a big story but found, however briefly, he was it

Doug Fetherling


by John Fraser (Collins, $19.95)

To many people, the idea of sending John Fraser to China in 1977 must have seemed curious at best. Seven different reporters had headed The Globe and Mail’s Peking bureau since it was opened in 1959; they were hard-nosed, hard-news types all, worldly veterans of the foreign correspondent’s peculiar game. But Fraser was something else again.

In The Chinese, his excellent and important memoir of his days in the People’s Republic, he refers to himself at one point as “a former ballet critic with occasional tendencies toward snottiness.” In another typically self-mocking moment, he remembers approaching the assignment (perhaps the most coveted and demanding non-executive task in Canadian journalism) “with all the disingenuous charm of the boy next door.”

But in the two-year stint that became something like a legend,Fraser surprised those who didn’t know him while justifying the confidence of those who obviously did. He was a most shrewd and exemplary foreign correspondent and hehas written a most shrewd and exemplary book.

When Fraser arrived in the country, aged 33, he did not seem destined, as the old Chinese curse supposedly has it, to live in interesting times. His predecessors, not he, had had all the lucky breaks and big stories: the split with the Soviets, the Cultural Revolution, the renewed ties with the West.

Even the death of Mao had happened during the tenure of his predecessor, Ross Munro. But Fraser was a different kind of journalist, doing a different sort of job. He was interested in the people themselves, “interested in how people coped with what they had and how they related to life around them.” He went there mostly to learn, and it was a treat to learn along with him in the pages of the Globe. So it was an added bonus when the traditional Big Story, the kind he hadn’t sought, did drop into his lap.

The repression and general excess of Mao’s Cultural Revolution was bound to ease once the Great Helmsman was safely in his sarcophagus. It was at this stage that Fraser arrived, when Deng Xiaoping and Hua Guofeng were leading the backlash against the Gang

of Four and beginning to mechanize the country with Western technology—but when the Chinese people were starting to wish for even greater changes. For Fraser and other correspondents, the relaxation of tension meant access to facets of China previously off limits. He was free to visit Sichuan province and other poor areas, and to observe the problem of ethnic minorities in Tibet and other border districts. But the greatest break came when ordinary citizens began putting up dazibao, or largecharacter political posters, on the nowfamous wall on Peking’s Xidan Avenue and Fraser got dragged into a grassroots questioning of state practices.

“A young woman wearing braids and thick glasses,” Fraser writes about a day in November, 1978, “approached me and in impeccable English said, ‘We are anxious to ask you some questions about the state of democracy in your country. Will you talk with us?’ ” The “we” was a crowd of 5,000, and Fraser complied, trying to satisfy their brave curiosity. This made Fu Ruizhe (as close to “Fraser” as his Chinese friends could get) something between a celebrity and a hero. The next night, in a mass three times larger, he was hoisted on the shoulders of some members of the throng and his wife, Elizabeth MacCallum, was nearly trampled to death in the excitement. All this was recorded for Western consumption not only by

Fraser himself but by the syndicated Washington Post columnist Robert Novak, who happened to be visitingmaking Fraser both the involuntary epicentre of what seemed to be a new movement and an international figure who became the story he was covering.

For a time at least, the government seemed only to note these spontaneous goings-on without trying to stop them, and during this brief respite Fraser got a privileged look at the ways and minds of ordinary people; he became the first correspondent of recent years to be able to enjoy more or less normal relationships with the society. Fraser made Chinese friends, had them to dinner and visited their homes.

But it came to an end all too soon. The authorities began making menacing moves toward the “dissidents,” and Fraser himself was chased through the midnight streets of Peking by members of the ubiquitous Public Security Bureau. Finally, the real crackdown came, with some leaders of what has been disparagingly called “the tiny democracy movement” rounded up and locked away. The importance of the whole episode remains a subject of controversy. And though Fraser gives a complete account, he by no means builds his book around it, taking pains instead to continue at length in the educational spirit with which he began.

It has long since come to be expected that each returning Globe correspondent (as well as each nonresident reporter from the Toronto Star, etc.) will write a “China book.” Although it has probably never been remarked on, these works constitute a distinctive Canadian genre.

Such U.S. journalists as managed to visit the country at all before the gates were opened wide in 1979 produced how-we-lost-China-to-the-Reds tracts or something else similarly naive. By contrast, the Canadian books have been insightful, non-judgmental and altogether more coherent: useful counterweights to the mere travel accounts of China which continue to be produced after 300 years or so. The Chinese is clearly part of this tradition and yet it is something more than that, too.

For one thing, Fraser writes like an angel. He interprets as fluently as he narrates, and at all times lets his own personality show through. The result is that we get a picture of a jocular but dedicated Upper Canada College old boy with the Canadian establishment’s characteristic love of the picturesque and the picaresque alike. For another, he’s a very sensitive man and applies the sensitivity to his reporting. (Between the lines, for instance, the perceptive reader will also find the story of how the Frasers’ marriage deepened under the pressures of confinement and cultural seclusion.) Nobody need have

worried about Fraser. Everyone who has taken the China posting seems to have come out of the experience a different person—more conservative or more cynical or whatever. Fraser went in a talented preppy. He came out surely one of the two or three best journalists of his generation.

A Westerner’s perceptive look at China’s people; The Chinese: Portrait of a People, by John Fraser

March 4, 1981 | Henry S. Hayward | CSMonitor

For those who have visited the People’s Republic of China as tourists in recent years, this book will be welcome for its deeper insights and useful information about what they have already glimpsed. John Fraser, the Peking bureau chief of the Toronto Globe and Mail, was there from 1977 to 1979, and he has an exceedingly sharp eye and keen ear.

For those who are planning to go to China –book is a highly readable assessment of almost every major aspect of life there today. As a good journalist should, Fraser writes with plenty of color for ordinary people, not for the specialist or academic, and he has certainly covered a lot of ground, literally and figuratively.

As the title makes clear, his prime interest is the people of China — not officialdom, international relations, or government. So one gets a personal portrait of ordinary Chinese, sometimes as individuals, sometimes as typifying a large group. Along the way, however, most of the top officials and major issues come into the picture naturally enough, for, after all, they are what individual Chinese are thinking about, talking about, or reacting to.

For the beginner, Fraser takes us through his own early weeks in Peking, when everything was new and he was somewhat of a tourist himself — although one determined to convey every facet of Chinese life to his readers in the outside world (including those of The Christian Science Monitor). Later he came to know many Chinese personally and could delve into their thoughts and activities with greater perception. His affection for them grew, but it seldom blurred his ability to ferret out and record their shortcomings, too.

One of the book’s highlights is a section on Xidan Democracy Wall, which flourished in late 1978 and early 1979. There, for the first time under Communist rule, ordinary Chinese were allowed to voice their true sentiments aloud and in wall posters. They were even permitted to make contact with foreigners. And John Fraser was on hand night and day, eager to catch every nuance. Indeed, he himself once participated at the wall by giving (at the request of the crowd) a report on the meeting of US columnist Robert Novak with Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping.

Xidan was, he says, “a remarkable, unprecedented time,” and it was then that he first felt able to penetrate the curtain of inscrutability the Communist rulers have so carefully erected and find the genuine Chinese sentiments that lie behind the screen. His description of the crowds and his own interaction with them makes compelling reading.

There are profiles and anecdotes about well-known people Fraser encountered, such as Chinese writer Han Suyin, author of “A Many Splendored Thing,” along with a few caustic comments about visiting dignitaries who seem to speak mainly in platitudes — except for the Prime Minister of independent Fiji. (He put in a good word for his island’s former colonial mentor, Britain, which so dismayed his Chinese hosts that his speech was rigorously censored in the press.)

Yet, to my regret, the book seems to bog down in its later chapters. It is not that the material becomes less interesting. It is only that there is so much of it. Like China itself, it sweeps over you and begins to seem endless. There are the young and the old, the city and the countryside, the political elite and the poor, women and minorities, armed forces and police, housing and jobs, and children, and, of course, romance. One is reminded of a sumptuous Chinese dinner where the courses keep coming and coming until they begin to pall.

What one remembers best, however, is the Chinese people’s incredible ability to adapt to any system, no matter how repressive, to learn to survive under it, to bend before it, but also to bend it, and sometimes, with swift, silent strokes, to even the score with an oppressor. This carried them through the chaotic, unstable latter years of Chairman Mao, when universities were shut down and many educated urban families were sent into the hinterlands to live with the peasants and supposedly learn from them. The same doggedness and adaptability serves the Chinese today, when life is less unpredictable but still far from ideal.

In the years before US correspondents were allowed into China for more than brief visits, it is good that this candid, apparently tireless Canadian was there to chronicle what went on.


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