The Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign (Chinese: 清除精神污染) was a political campaign spearheaded by conservative factions within the Communist Party of China that lasted from October 1983 to December 1983. In general, its advocates wanted to curb Western-inspired liberal ideas among the Chinese populace, a by-product of nascent economic reforms begun in 1978.
Spiritual Pollution has been called "a deliberately vague term that embraces every manner of bourgeois import from erotica to existentialism," and is supposed to refer to "obscene, barbarous or reactionary materials, vulgar taste in artistic performances, indulgence in individualism" and statements that "run counter to the country's social system" according to Deng Liqun, the Party's Propaganda Chief at the time of the campaign.
The campaign reached a climax in mid November 1983 and largely faded into obscurity into 1984 after intervention from Deng Xiaoping. However, elements of the campaign were rehashed during the "anti-Bourgeois liberalization" campaign of the late 1980s against liberal party general secretary Hu Yaobang.
The campaign against spiritual pollution can be said to have its origins in the Twelfth Party Congress held in September 1982, during which Deng Xiaoping stated his intention to continue China's march towards economic modernization and liberalization, a process that he initiated in 1978. Attempting to maintain balance between the conservative and moderate factions in the Party, Deng tempered his emphasis on continued economic development with a call to build up China's "socialist spiritual civilization" so as to preserve it socialist ideological orientation and protect against the unwanted societal impacts of "bourgeois liberalism," which had begun trickling in since the policy of opening up began in 1978. During the Party Congress, Hu Yaobang warned that "capitalist forces and other forces hostile to our socialist cause will seek to corrupt us and harm our country," and exhorted Party members to hold true to communist ideals and discipline.
The Twelfth Party Congress also laid the foundations for the establishment of a new constitution, approved by the National People's Congress in December of the same year. The constitution rejected ultra-left ideology of the Mao era, and provided for greater protection of citizens' dignity and civil liberties, and advocated for an orderly, institutionalized and accountable system of justice. The new constitution carried significant caveats, however; it specified, for instance that citizens' freedom of privacy and correspondence were protected, except in cases where it was of interest to the state.
Following the revisions to the constitution at the end of 1982, critical academic discourse grew. Scholars called for greater respect for human dignity and freedoms, and for a reconciliation of socialist and humanist ideals. By the spring of 1983, calls for a more humanist society were reaching a crescendo, with scholars very openly criticizing the excesses of the socialist dictatorship.
Although some Chinese officials, including Deng Liqun, saw some value in the writings of the humanist intellectuals, by the June 1983, fears were growing that criticism of this nature had the potential to severely undermine the political and ideological basis for the Communist Party's legitimacy.
In June 1983, Zhao Ziyang delivered an address at the opening of the Sixth National People's Congress warning against the growing liberal tendencies in academic and artistic circles, and criticized such trends as being representative of a decadent ideology at odds with the goals of socialism. Zhao linked trends in writing and artistic circles to rising instances of crime, murder, rape, and corruption, blaming the growing crime rate on "political and ideological apathy." He called on law enforcement to commence a strike-hard campaign to suppress counterrevolutionaries and criminal activities.
Following Zhao's speech, conservative Party journals began linking the recent crime wave with the scholarly discourse on humanism. The editors of Red Flag, for instance, declared that "Various kinds of crime are bound to occur where the influence of bourgeois extreme individualism...is still present. [...] If we speak of 'mercy' and 'humanism,' it will be a great dereliction of our duty...to the cause of socialism."
In October 1983, during the Second Plenum of the Twelfth Party Congress, Deng Xiaoping identified several types of individuals and intellectual trends as undermining the party's objectives. On the left, he targeted the remnant leftist ideas of the Cultural Revolution, and those who rose to power by following Lin Biao or the Gang of Four. To appease the conservative factions, he then turned to criticize intellectuals and party members who had focused their attention on questions of humanism. Deng criticized humanism as "un-Marxist", saying it "leads youth astray." Deng emphasized the need to combat "spiritual pollution" brought about by liberalization.
Although Deng attempted to warn Party comrades against taking extreme measures to rectify problems on the right or the left, almost immediately after the speech, the state-run press began publishing shrill attacks on the bourgeoisie liberal ideas of humanism, and condemning the spiritual pollution that such liberal influenced engendered. Deng Liqun, a prominent conservative in the party, was rumored to have been behind the attacks on humanism and spiritual pollution.
Spiritual pollution was described as taking many forms, including but not limited to excessive individualism, an obsession with money, the practice of "feudal superstitions", and the proliferation of pornography. Western hairstyles, clothing, and facial hair were also criticized as being symptomatic of spiritual pollution.
In December 1983, less than two months after the campaign began, Deng Xiaoping intervened to end the campaign against spiritual pollution.