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Chinese Communist Party

Hundred Years of Infamy

The execution of a presumed landowner after the 1949 communist victory in the Civil War. From the Livre noir du communisme (which I translated into Icelandic in 2009).

It is worth while taking a look at four remarkable works on China, all banned by the Chinese Communist Party...

The Communist Party of China is celebrating its centenary this month. Its scribes and censors are busy trying to reconstruct the past, both within China herself and through the extensive network the Chinese authorities have built in Western academia under the guise of ‘Confucius Institutes’. On this occasion I would like to recall four works on China under communism from which I learned a lot.

The Testimony of Nien Cheng

The first book is Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng, published in 1987. The author was born in 1915, the daughter of an affluent landowner. She was able to go abroad for her university education, graduating from the London School of Economics. In London, she met her husband, Kang-chi Cheng, and converted to Christianity. Kang worked in the Chinese Foreign Ministry and after the communist victory in the Civil War as a manager for Shell in Shanghai. When he died in 1957, Cheng became a consultant to the company. She lived with her daughter, actress Meiping, in a spacious house in the city, filled with antique furniture. But this was not to last. In 1966, Mao started his ‘Cultural Revolution’. Because of her Western ties and comfortable lifestyle, Cheng was an obvious target. Red Guards invaded her house, smashed her furniture, destroyed her paintings and burned her books. She was first placed under house arrest and then spent six years in solitary confinement. In endless interrogations, the fanatical Red Guards tried to break her. But she did not bend. She quoted Mao’s often ambigous sayings back to her captors and insisted that she had done nothing wrong, even if she had worked for Shell. She was finally released in 1973, as the Cultural Revolution was coming to an end. She was told that her daughter had committed suicide, but she found out that she had actually been beaten to death by a Red Guard when she refused to denounce her mother. She even managed to identify her daughter’s killer and have him indicted. In 1980, she was allowed to travel abroad, and she never returned, settling first in Ottawa and then in Washington DC where she passed away in 2009.

Cheng’s book, written in English, is highly readable and became an instant bestseller. One of its strengths is the broad perspective of the well-educated author who was middle-aged when her real troubles during the Cultural Revolution started. She was able to write on two levels, about China, but for Western readers. On the plane leaving China, a polite stewardess asked her: ‘Will you have a bloody Mary or a screwdriver?’ Cheng was startled. It took her a while to realise that bloody Mary was merely a drink and that a screwdriver in this case was not for tightening or loosening screws. Her book is at the same time depressing and uplifting. The brutality of the Red Guards, the sheer insanity of the whole Cultural Revolution and the tragic end of many of its victims are described in harrowing detail, but at the same time the reader finds it heartening to know of a person who maintained her dignity through it all. Unlike many others, Cheng survived to tell her story, and she told it well. Many books have been written about the Cultural Revolution, and hers is one of the best. Needless to say, it is banned in China. But behind this well-spoken, elegant, yet indomitable lady we see only the distant, grey silhouettes of the many nameless individuals who either lost their lives or languished for decades in prisons and labour camps and from whom we have never heard.

The Testimony of Jung Chang

The second book is Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, published in 1991. The author was born in 1952 in Yibin in Sichuan province, the daughter of two Communist Party of China officials. She joined the Red Guards at 14, but left after a short period. Her parents however became victims of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. They were publicly humiliated and imprisoned, and their lives destroyed. During the Cultural Revolution, Chang spent years as a peasant, steelworker and electrician, but when universities started to function again she started studying English, and eventually, after Mao’s death in 1976, she was allowed to continue her studies in the West, passing her doctorate in linguistics at the University of York in 1982. She married an Irish historian, Jon Halliday, and they settled in London.

It is not surprising that Wild Swans became an international bestseller. It is the riveting story of three generations, Chang’s grandmother, her mother and herself. Yu-fang came from a poor family and became the concubine of a warlord, by whom she had a daughter, Bao Qin. On his deathbed, the warlord unexpectedly freed her. She married a much older doctor, and together they brought up her daughter in Manchuria. Bao Qin was only fifteen when she became a communist. In the Party she met Wang Yu, a high-ranking officer. They married and moved to Wang’s hometown Yibin where they brought up five children. One of them was the storyteller, Jung Chang. In her book, she describes in vivid detail her brief spell as a Red Guard and the persecution of her parents, especially her father, during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which ultimately drove him insane. She also describes her own intellectual development: ‘I was extremely curious about the alternatives to the kind of life I had been leading, and my friends and I exchanged rumors and scraps of information we dug from official publications. I was struck less by the West’s technological developments and high living standards than by the absence of political witch-hunts, the lack of consuming suspicion, the dignity of the individual, and the incredible amount of liberty. To me, the ultimate proof of freedom in the West was that there seemed to be so many people there attacking the West and praising China.’ Chang’s book is still banned in mainland China, although the author has been able to visit her relatives there.

A Thorough Study of a Monster

The third book I would like to recommend is also by Jung Chang, co-authored by her husband, Jon Halliday. It is a biography of the communist leader who dominated China for almost thirty years, Mao—The Unknown Story, and came out in 2005. Chang and Halliday devoted a decade to research on their subject. They interviewed hundreds of people, including two former U. S. Presidents and some former top Chinese officials, but also some of Mao’s former servants. They explored newly opened archives in Russia, China and other countries, even Albania, besides using a lot of recently available writings of Mao’s contemporaries. In their book, Mao is revealed as a monster with almost no redeeming human features. The opening sentences set the tone for the whole work: ‘Mo Tse-tung, who for decades held absolute power over the lives of one-quarter of the world’s population, was responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other twentieth-century leader.’ Half of these victims perished in the Great Famine of 1958–62 which was brought about by Mao’s disastrous ‘Great Leap Forward’. Indeed, in 1957 Mao had said to his stunned Soviet comrades: ‘We are prepared to sacrifice 300 million Chinese for the victory of the world revolution.’         

The authors painstakingly refute many claims about Mao’s personal valour. He was not one of the original founders of the Communist Party of China whose anniversary is now being celebrated. He was not really chosen by his comrades to lead the Party, but rather by Moscow which mostly financed it. (It was also partly financed for a while by opium-growing and trading.) During the celebrated Long March of 1934–1936 when the Chinese communists fled from their bases in the south to relative safety in Northeast China, Mao did little walking. ‘On the march, I was lying in a litter,’Chang and Halliday quote Mao as saying decades later. ‘So what did I do? I read. I read a lot.’ The communists could undertake the Long March because their chief adversary, nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, held off: He wanted the communists to weaken the power of local warlords so that he could deal more easily with those warlords later; moreover, Chiang’s son was held hostage in Moscow. Again, Mao and his acolytes produced vastly exaggerated accounts of their heroic deeds: For example, a famous battle on Luding Bridge over Dadu River never seems to have taken place.   

The book sheds new light on many major events. Two of them are the communist victory in the Chinese Civil War and the origins of the Korean War. It seems that after the Second World War the Chinese communists, isolated and embattled in Manchuria, were on the verge of losing the Civil War against the nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek when the Americans imposed a ceasefire which enabled the communists to break out of their isolation, assisted by the Soviets. It also seems that Mao encouraged Kim Il-sung, the North Korean dictator, to start the Korean War by invading South Korea. Mao thought that the West would not have the stamina to fight a long war. He wanted ‘to spend several years consuming several hundred thousand American lives’. The authors also demonstrate Mao’s callousness and personal pettiness. He agreed with Lenin that the worse things were, the better they would be for the revolutionaries. ‘People say that poverty is bad, but in fact poverty is good. The poorer the people are, the more revolutionary they are. It is dreadful to imagine a time when everyone will be rich.’ He treated his wives cruelly and took no interest in his childern. When Liu Shao-chi, who had replaced Mao as President of China, was imprisoned and tortured, Mao enjoyed reading reports about the torture of him. For a long time, Mao refused to allow his ever-loyal ally Zhou En-lai, the Premier, to undergo treatment for cancer, apparently because he wanted Zhou to die before himself.        

The book was well-received and became a bestseller like Jung Chang’s previous book. The criticisms of it mainly came from academics who presented themselves as specialists in Chinese studies. But they were mainly quibbling about minor issues. Should the Chinese Communist Party be regarded as having been founded in 1920 or in 1921? Was there only a minor skirmish or a full-blown battle on the Luding Bridge over Dadu River in 1935? Did Mao speak Standard Chinese with a strong accent, or a variant of his local dialect? The main point is that Chang and Halliday showed Mao to be a merciless mass murderer, responsible for the death of probably seventy million people. The two authors were certainly hostile to him, just as most biographers of Hitler and Stalin were hostile to them. It is rare to find historians call for a ‘more balanced and nuanced’ portrait of Hitler. Chang and Halliday sided with the victims, not with the executioner. But an interesting question is whether Mao should be regarded as the heir of the cruellest emperors of Chinese history, a modern Qin Shi, or rather as an orthodox Marxist-Leninist, the Chinese counterpart to Pol Pot or Kim Il-sung. The violence Mao committed certainly was on a much vaster scale than that of the old emperors; it seems to be a consequence of the Marxist-Leninist project, the destruction of old traditions and rules and the creation of a new man. Unsurprisingly, Mao: The Unknown Story is banned in China.

A Meticulous Study of Maoist China

Finally, one of the most important works on communism surely has to be Frank Dikötter’s recent trilogy on Maoist China. The author, Professor of the Humanities at the University of Hong Kong, has done extensive research in Chinese local archives and writes lucid, accessible prose, with a keen eye for the telling detail. The first volume, The Tragedy of Liberation, deals with the Chinese Civil War of 1945–1949 and the first eight years of communist rule, until 1957. Dikötter shows that this era was much more violent than most Western observers or commentators had envisaged. The Civil War was merciless, but after the communist victory a bloodbath followed, with perhaps two million people executed. Dikötter points out that most of them were supposed to be ‘landowners’, but that in many Chinese villages there were no big landowners, only peasants. ‘The countryside echoed to the crack of the executioner’s bullet, as real and imaginary enemies were forced to kneel on makeshift platforms and executed from behind the assembled villagers.’ Mao and his henchmen had only ruled China for a year when they sent hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers to fight against the U.N. forces, led by the U.S., in the Korean War. Sometimes life imitates art. George Orwell had in his 1949 novel written about ‘Hate Weeks’. In his book, Dikötter describes ‘hate meetings’ which took place all over China during the Korean War where the aim was to whip up hatred of the Americans. Another Orwellian feature of the Chinese society the communists sought to build was that people had not only to obey Big Brother, but also to proclaim their love for him. ‘We know, of course, that there is no freedom of speech,’ a Chinese philosopher, Hu Shi, commented. ‘But few people realise that there is no freedom of silence, either.’          

The second part of Dikötter’s trilogy, Mao’s Great Famine, is even more tragic. The author opens with a sweeping statement: ‘Between 1958 and 1962, China descended into hell. Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, threw his country into a frenzy with the Great Leap Forward.’ Dikötter points out that unlike the disasters that took place under Hitler and Stalin, the true dimensions of what happened during the Great Leap Forward remain little known. He substantiates his unequivocal conclusion with well over a thousand archival documents, collected all over China, including confidential reports from the Secret Police, detailed minutes of top party meetings, confessions of leaders responsible for the deaths of millions of people, and inquiries compiled by special teams. In their biography of Mao, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday had estimated the death toll of the Great Famine to be around 35 million, but Dikötter convincingly argues that ‘at least 45 million people died unnecessarily between 1958 and 1962’. He rejects the common view that these deaths were the unintended consequences of ill-conceived and poorly executed economic programmes. On the contrary, he says, coercion, terror and systematic violence were the foundation of the catastrophe. The excesses were unbelievable. When a boy stole a handful of grain in a village in Hunan, the local party boss forced his father to bury his son alive. The father died of grief a few days later. This was but one drop in a sea of sorrow.

The third part of the trilogy, The Cultural Revolution, on the period from 1962 to 1976, is not only about chaos, but also about violence which then abounded. Dikötter argues that the Cultural Revolution was both an attempt to create a socialist world free of revisionism and vengeful plotting by Mao against real and imagined enemies. Discredited by the failure of the Great Leap Forward, Mao could not rely on the party machine so he turned to young radical students, encouraging them to cleanse the country of reactionary thinking. In 1966–1967 China erupted. Hunters became preys: Top communists such as Liu Shao-chi and Deng Xiaoping who relentlessly had persecuted perceived ‘counter-revolutionaries’, now found themselves being persecuted. In 1967 the army stepped in to impose some kind of order, sending 17 million Red Guards to the countryside. Slowly, in the next few years, the Cultural Revolution petered out, having destroyed countless lives, not to mention property and cultural artifacts. Of special interest, however, is Dikötter’s discussion of the ‘silent revolution’ starting at the end of the Cultural Revolution: the gradual movement in rural areas away from central planning to some kind of free enterprise, as in some places cadres had to tolerate that farmers carved out private plots from communes and sold their products on the black market. This was capitalism by stealth. Of course, Dikötter’s books are banned in China.

Four Chinese Economies

In the late 1970s onwards, the Communist Party of China adopted capitalism in some parts of the economy, although it firmly retained its grip on power and maintained government ownerships of some important sectors. Predictably, the main consequence of these market-orientated reforms was rapid, indeed spectacular, economic growth. But it should not be forgotten that the economy of mainland China is only one of four Chinese economies in the world, the other three being those of Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong. In mid-20th century, all four Chinese economies were desperately poor. But the economic performance of these three countries far surpasses that of mainland China. In 2021, GDP per capita is estimated by the IMF to be US$ 107,200 in Singapore, 62,800 in Hong Kong, 59,400 in Taiwan and 18,900 in China (at PPP, purchasing power parity). Crucially, the three other Chinese economies were not subjected to the same costly and painful process, with the loss of perhaps 70 million lives, as mainland China. All three are also much freer than is mainland China.