The writing's on the wall.

Back in the good old days—when Mao Zedong was always right and Deng Xiaoping was a capitalist roader—wall posters were all the rage in China. In one frenzied week during the Cultural Revolution in 1966, students at Peking University churned out 100,000 posters, enough to cover the Great Wall from end to end. Communist party cadres had to string wires along factory and office corridors so workers could hang up their latest attacks against revisionist superiors, “Anything goes,” a Communist party official told a group of factory workers. “The main thing is to get the discussion going. We’ll sort out the truth later on.” More recently, the outpouring of dazibao (literally, “big character posters”) on Peking’s “Democracy Wall” has demonstrated extraordinary ideological flexibility. In 1978 workers from a Peking garage put up a poster charging that Mao had become “metaphysical” in the last years of his life; a few days later a schoolboy denounced his teachers as “unreconstructed radicals” because they gave him too much homework.

China’s vice-premier, Deng Xiaoping, himself has been for years a prime target of wall-poster hostility. In 1967 one wall poster called him a “restorationist maniac,” another in 1973 labeled him China’s “leading capitalist reader,” and last May a poster in Canton called him “old” and “incompetent,” Now, according to reports from Peking, Deng wants to make wall posters illegal, despite the fact that the Chinese constitution guarantees the right to put up dazibao (it’s right there in article 45 along with the rights to free speech, free assembly, and a free press), Deng apparently plans to introduce a constitutional amendment at the next meeting of China’s National People’s Congress to bring the law of the land into line with his wishes.

How boring Chinese politics threatens to become without wall posters! There will be no more demands that “revisionists” be boiled in oil (1967); no more attacks on Chinese leaders as “gnawing termites” and “malignant tumors” (1976); no more calls for China to throw off “modern superstition” and become a Western-style democracy (1978). The purge of the wall posters also gives the lie to any lingering illusion that China’s leaders will tolerate the views of dissidents and dissident expression any differently than their Soviet counterparts.

According to the People’s Daily, wall posters first appeared in China in 1957 as a “new way of fostering democracy.” That is, they attacked the people Mao wanted to purge, Mao himself, however, did not take up wall posters until August 1966. His first effort appeared on the eve of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. It charged that in recent months certain comrades had “stood facts on their heads and juggled black and white, encircled and suppressed revolutionaries, stifled opinions different from their own, imposed a white terror, and felt very pleased with themselves,” Not only that, they had “puffed up the arrogance of the bourgeoisie and defeated the morale of the proletariat.”

“How poisonous,” Mao declared. “Viewed in connection with the right deviation in 1962 and the wrong tendency of 1964, which was left in form but right in essence, shouldn’t this make one wide awake?” Communist party cadres spent many days studying this poster, the People’s Daily reported.

Two weeks after Mao’s first wall poster appeared, the Cultural Revolution was under way, and tens of thousands of radical Red Guards rampaged through Peking streets plastering dazibao everywhere. One poster ordered stores to stop selling cosmetics and “outlandish” Western fashions. Another called for restaurants to simplify their “bourgeois” menus. A third demanded the alteration of “odious imperial street names.” Eternal Peace Boulevard quickly became East is Red Boulevard; Street of Prince’s Well, Struggle Against Revisionism Street. The Red Guards then moved on to more direct action. In Shanghai, they dragged party officials out of their offices and paraded them in dunce caps through the streets. In Peking, they flocked to the airport and forced members of the British embassy to kneel down before a giant poster of Mao before they could catch a plane to Hong Kong. By the time the Cultural Revolution had run its course, Mao had purged all his moderate opponents, including China’s president Liu Shaoqi and Liu’s top deputy, Deng Xiaoping, Liu died in 1969; Deng spent his years out of power working in a school cafeteria and other “rehabilitative” jobs. Then in 1973 Deng suddenly reappeared at a state banquet. Premier Zhou Enlai introduced him to guests as China’s vice-premier. An unrepentant capitalist roader to the end, Deng quickly reintroduced material incentives in China’s factories and urged China to modernize as rapidly as possible.

Zhou died in January 1976. On February 17 a wall poster appeared at Peking University demanding the removal of China’s leading “capitalist roader.” Although the wall poster didn’t attack Deng by name (wall posters seldom did) it quoted his most famous saying—”It doesn’t matter if it’s a black cat or a white cat. As long as it catches mice it is a good cat”—as evidence of his hopeless pragmatism. A few weeks later, another poster immortalized another, less famous, quotation from Vice Premier Deng: “He who occupies the toilet without success must leave the room to make way for someone else.” The radical leaders of the anti-Deng campaign thoughtfully supplied buses so students and workers from all over Peking could visit Peking University and copy down the wall posters, Richard Nixon, back in China on a private visit, also made the tour. After looking at the posters, the former president turned to his hosts and said, “I thought your power struggle had been resolved in 1968,”

The Cultural Revolution was a hard act to follow. By the time Mao died in September 1976, wall posters were in danger of becoming as passé as toasts to Sino-Soviet friendship, the campaign against Deng notwithstanding (that campaign ended successfully in April 1976, when the Politburo, “on the proposal of Chairman Mao,” stripped Deng of all his posts following a riot in Peking’s Tienanmen Square), The arrest in October 1976 of the Gang of Four, however, on charges of planning a coup d’etat breathed new life into a dying art form. Even at the height of the Cultural Revolution, China’s leaders had toned down several wall posters demanding that revisionists be “boiled in oil” for fear that foreigners might take the posters literally. This time there were no limits.

The first poster attacking the Gang of Four appeared on October 16. It pictured Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife and a leader of the gang, hanging from the gallows, her face twisted in agony. The next day’s poster portrayed Mrs. Mao as a snake and charged that she had tormented Mao during the last days of his life. On October 18, a poster charged that Jiang Qing had personally tried to kill Mao on his deathbed. The anger of the masses knew no bounds: “Criticize her until she stinks!” “Crush Jiang Qing like crawling vermin!” In the following days, the Gang of Four was called, successively, “fleeing rats,” “wolves with a human face,” “gnawing termites,” “malignant tumors,” and finally, “dog excrement,” But the last word, even in death, belonged to Chairman Mao, “I am already 80 years old,” a wall poster quoted Mao telling his wife a year before he died, “I am too old and my physical condition is getting weak. Why don’t you have any sympathy? How I envy Mr. and Mrs. Zhou Enlai.”

It was only a matter of time before the wall posters took on Mao himself. Emboldened by official criticism of many of Mao’s policies, poster writers began attacking Mao on Peking’s Democracy Wall in November 1978, At first they tried to be tasteful, suggesting that Mao’s advancing age perhaps had impaired his Marxist judgment in 1976 when he proposed the purge of Deng Xiaoping, “Because Chairman Mao’s thought was metaphysical in the last years of his life and for all sorts of other reasons,” workers from a Peking garage wrote, “he supported the Gang of Four in getting rid of Deng Xiaoping.” Four days after that poster appeared, however, a Chinese railway worker asked more directly: “Didn’t Chairman Mao know that his wife Jiang Qing was a traitor?” Another poster declared that Mao had been positively “muddled” from 1969 on.

The climax came on November 25. A poster appeared declaring that Mao was “70 percent good and 30 percent bad”—the same judgment Mao had once placed on Joseph Stalin, This was too much even for Deng Xiaoping, Mao was much better than 70-30, he told an American journalist, “and I myself am only 60-40.” But the criticism of Mao continued, A few days after Deng made his remark, a poster went up on Democracy Wall praising Mao. On it someone scrawled, “Bastard.”

Deng’s evaluation of Mao in November 1978 was the first attempt by China’s leaders to rein in the latest excesses of the wall posters. But the criticism of Mao appearing on Democracy Wall persisted, and soon broadened to include criticism of China’s legal system and, once again, of Deng Xiaoping, this time for not giving China more democracy. In one of the most famous wall posters, Wei Jingsheng, a 29-year-old former Red Guard, called for a “fifth modernization”—democracy—to go along with China’s four economic modernizations of agriculture, industry, defense, and technology. “Of course you can put an end to the democracy wall,” the poster declared, “but you cannot help trembling before us, the explorers.”

Last March, the Chinese authorities arrested Wei as part of a general crackdown on dissidents. He was charged with disseminating “counterrevolutionary” ideas through his wall posters and with passing unidentified foreign secrets to an unidentified foreign agent. Five months later, on October 16, a Peking court sentenced Wei to 15 years in prison. In a report on Wei’s trial, the People Daily noted that Wei had “brazenly exercised his constitutional right to defense.”

So much for freedom of expression.

Jonathan Kaufman is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal who recently spent a year in Hong Kong. This article originally ran in the February 23, 1980, issue of the magazine.

Follow @tnr on Twitter.