China: The Uses of Fear

Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong; drawing by David Levine

Instilling deadly fear throughout the population was one of Mao Zedong’s lasting contributions to China since the late Twenties. In the case of Dai Qing, one of China’s sharpest critics before 1989, fear seems to explain the sad transformation in her writing that is evident but never clearly acknowledged in Tiananmen Follies. Arrested, she confessed and was set free; her writing about the regime then took a different turn.

Dai Qing’s transformation—what in 1942 Mao’s chief torturer and extractor of confessions called “becoming conscious”—its causes, and its consequences are never explicitly mentioned by the translators and the editor of her essay collection. Yet here is a stark example of how mental persecution, so acute it must be called torture, can result in jettisoning a lifetime’s convictions. In Dai Qing’s case she feared execution and considered suicide.

The process of instilling deadly fear, which Mao admired when he saw peasants torturing and killing landlords in 1926 in Hunan, his home province,1 was perfected in 1942 at Yanan, his guerrilla headquarters. No one has described that “Rectification Campaign” better than Yale’s David Apter and Harvard’s Tony Saich in their Revolutionary Discourse in Mao’s Republic.2 In 1994 the authors interviewed 150 people from every walk of life, including peasants and poets, who had endured the Yanan ordeal; some of them were the “angry widows” of husbands who did not survive.

“Very few of those interviewed had been exempt from physical abuse and verbal abuse, if not before then during the Cultural Revolution,” write Apter and Saich.

All had survived by learning to keep their mouths shut, except to parrot the appropriate line and use the exact words, phrases, and expressions countenanced by the authorities.

Such abject and long-lasting obedience was produced by terror followed by confession. Mao’s master at extracting information at Yanan was Kang Sheng, who had been trained by the NKVD and wore a black uniform. He saw confession as “a form of repentance that would bring the individual back into the fold.” To his victims he said,

Why does the Communist Party make so much effort to rescue you? When a person confesses to the party we immediately remove the evidence about him,…and we are happy that he has become conscious…. Finally, I warn those people who do not wish to confess, we have maintained a lenient policy, but leniency has a limit.

And just as the 1942 Rectification at Yanan concentrated the Party’s efforts to secure, through fear, the abject loyalty and acquiescence of its victims, so did the Tiananmen events after June 4, 1989. Last January the regime attempted to curb outpourings of emotion after the death of Zhao Ziyang, the Party general secretary in 1989 who spent fifteen years under house arrest for sympathizing with the Tiananmen demonstrators. Zhao would have known of the nationwide arrests and executions of those condemned for participating…

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