A series of billboards along a street advertise everything from beauty cream to medicinal products. During the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign the Chinese government attempted to combat Western materialist influences without upsetting China’s economic growth. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN
The Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign, waged against corrupt and bourgeois ideological influences in Chinese society, took place in the autumn of 1983. Within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which had largely marginalized the factions of its late leader, Mao Zedong, this campaign was part of a struggle between reformers and conservatives, the latter being critical of some aspects of post-Mao policies of the CCP.
The origins of the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign, which began formally in October 1983 as a movement targeting corrupt and bourgeois ideological influences in Chinese society, date to 1978, two years after Mao’s death, when the party began to reject the key Maoist concepts of class struggle and continuous revolution. Instead, the party advocated the “Four Modernizations,” namely, agriculture, industry, science/technology, and national defense (but not what dissidents called the “Fifth Modernization,” that is, democratization). It also advocated the policy of “reform and opening,” that is, reforming the economic system and opening China to trade with other countries, especially those in the West.
In 1979 the party put forward the “Four Cardinal Principles,” namely, upholding the socialist path, upholding the people’s democratic dictatorship, upholding the leadership of the CCP, and upholding Marxist-Leninist–Mao Zedong thought. Well into the 1980s much debate still took place within a Marxist-Leninist framework.
In late 1979 and 1980 forces associated with CCP leader Deng Xiaoping and his policies of reform also began calling for the establishment of a “socialist spiritual civilization,” a set of ethical principles to be followed by all members of society, ignoring any notion of class.
These reforms provoked a reaction within the CCP. An emerging conservative faction became increasingly concerned about the implications of these reforms for Chinese socialism. As part of a wider strategy to combat the excess and errors of these reforms, conservatives tried to limit the spread of “bourgeois liberalization.” The Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign of 1983 was one aspect of this effort.
In 1980 conservatives publicly called on the party to combat “bourgeois liberalization.” In the autumn of 1983 calls to combat “spiritual pollution” per se began, although the campaign did not formally begin until the Second Plenum of the Twelfth Central Committee adopted the “Decision of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on Party Consolidation” on 11 October 1983. The decision called for the initiation of a three-year movement to consolidate the party, including forging greater ideological unity, rectifying work style, purifying party organizations, which meant removing those members who had risen to prominence during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), and fighting “spiritual pollution” while being clear that this campaign would not be a mass campaign like the Cultural Revolution in which the masses had been called on to evaluate and rectify the errors of party members.
The party’s campaign against “spiritual pollution” generally targeted corrupt and bourgeois ideological influences undermining the “Four Cardinal Principles,” socialist and communist causes, and the leadership of the party. More specifically, it targeted pornography, some forms of advertising, and—among intellectual and literary circles—such notions as humanism, alienation, and modernism.
Humanism and alienation are categories from the early writings of the German socialist Karl Marx that Maoists and other Marxists frequently dismissed as the immature writings of the “early Marx.” Humanism implies a universal human nature rather than one determined by material conditions and class struggle. Alienation suggests disaffection from this universal human nature and implies a critique of socialism by implying that even under socialism incorrect political and economic practices still cause alienation. Modernism, as a school of literature, was criticized for its implicit critique of not merely the Cultural Revolution but also virtually the entire history of the Chinese revolution.
Like the Cultural Revolution, which had failed to provide a clear definition of class, the campaign against spiritual pollution never had a clearly defined, comprehensive, or concrete target. This ambiguity allowed critics of the unfettered reforms to attempt to expand the scope of the campaign. The critics were mainly some allies of Deng Xiaoping, such as Deng Liqun, Chen Yun, and Hu Qiaomu. Although they had all suffered during the Cultural Revolution, they were still concerned about loosening the party’s control over intellectuals and culture and the spread of “ultra-individualism.” Critics of the party’s “reform” policies also included limited numbers of “leftist” party members. Because of the lack of a clear definition of “spiritual pollution,” critics rapidly attempted to extend the range of criticism to peasant entrepreneurs, who were seen as excessively focused on money, as well as forms of Western “decadence,” such as Western dress styles and permed hair.
Within two months of the campaign’s inception, because of fear that it would negatively affect foreign investment and trade, a key element of the “reform and opening” policy, Deng Xiaoping, who had initially supported the campaign, made it clear that it was to be reined in. By the end of 1983 it had ceased to exist in any meaningful fashion. Nonetheless, the campaign resulted in several of the more liberal opponents of the campaign in the higher levels of the party losing their positions.
Through the mid-1980s and after the 1989 “democracy movement” and Tiananmen protests, as well as the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, party conservatives who had supported the 1983 campaign against “spiritual pollution” continued to fight against “bourgeois liberalization” (such as discussions or advocacy of Western forms of democracy) and the policy of “peaceful evolution” (which, they believed, the West could use to undermine socialism in China). They even went so far as to characterize the reform road as a de facto road to capitalism.
Turning the Tide
However, in 1992 Deng Xiaoping undertook his six-week “Southern Tour” to the “special economic zones,” the controversial areas of experimentation showcasing the reform and opening policy, including significant foreign investment and new market-based forms of economic organization and development. The rapid economic development revealed by this trip turned the tide within the party decisively in favor of Deng’s overall policies of economic—but not political—reform, that is, economic reform without democratization.
China today is dominated by various groups of reformers whose policies have led to virtually unprecedented economic growth. However, with that growth has come increasing economic inequality, rising corruption, and many of the very practices criticized in the campaign against spiritual pollution and other subsequent campaigns.
Source: Levy, Richard. (2009). Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 68–70. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
An outdoor live advertisement of keyboard software, Shanghai. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN.
Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign (F?nj?ngshén W?r?n Yùndòng ???????)|F?nj?ngshén W?r?n Yùndòng ??????? (Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign)