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In Chinese Prisons

Prisoner of Mao

by Bao Ruo-wang (Jean Pasqualini), by Rudolph Chelminski
Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 318 pp., $8.95

China Behind the Mask

by Warren Phillips, by Robert Keatley
Dow-Jones Books, 151 pp., $2.95 (paper)

A Chinese View of China

by John Gittings
Pantheon, 216 pp., $1.95 (paper)

In the global community of the postcold war world, freedom of individual expression is becoming a universal problem like food and energy. It is at issue on the Watergate and other fronts in the United States, and on the Sakharov-Solzhenitsyn front in Moscow, but will there be any Chinese Sakharovs? China is achieving technological development without political expression for the individual technician. The degree of individual freedom to be expected in the world’s crowded future is more uncertain in China than in most places because the Chinese are so well organized and so anti-individualist in custom and doctrine. Are they going to prove individualism out of date?

China is usually fitted into the international world either by a theory of delayed progress or by a theory of uniqueness. The first theory assumes that China has merely been slow to get on the path of modernity, but once launched will come along like all the rest of us with industrialization and all its ills and triumphs. The second theory, which of course is the stock in trade of most China specialists, is that China is unique and will never be like other countries. (Since China is obviously both like and unlike other places, this whole discussion is a great semi-issue in which each contestant must make his own mixture.)

The view that China must follow universal laws of development, which appeals to Marxists among others, can lead one to conclude that China’s growth in modern scientific scholarship still lags behind that of the Soviet Union, and so cases like that of academician Sakharov have not yet emerged in China but will do so in the future. Eventually, it may be assumed, a specialized scholarly elite cannot help having individual views and speaking out, but the People’s Republic is still at the stage of its evolution where egalitarianism is the dominant creed, education is to be only a matter of acquiring technical skills for public purposes, and in order to avoid the revival of the old ruling class tradition, no scholarly elite can be allowed to grow up in the universities. By this reckoning China, like the USSR, is on our track but has a long way still to go.

If one takes the other tack stressing the special character of Chinese society, one may conclude that the Chinese are far more sophisticated in their social organization and political life than we distant outsiders commonly realize. This view is compatible with the Maoist orthodoxy in China, which claims that the Soviets have lost the true communist vision while China retains it and can avoid the evils of capitalism including the American type of individualism.

From either point of view, China is seen to be setting a new style, achieving her own new solutions in applying technology to modern life. For example, helped by the press of numbers which makes automobiles for individuals inconceivable, the Chinese may escape the corrosive effects of automobile civilization. In such a crowded country, communities cannot be easily destroyed, and the apparent high morale of village life in the countryside betokens a people who can absorb a great deal more modern technology without having their local society disrupted.

In this view China is well rid of the Western type of individual political expression, opposed to it both because of tradition and because of present-day circumstances. Life in China will follow other norms than the Bill of Rights because the letter of the law and litigation through due process are still less esteemed than the common moral sense and opinion of the group, subordinating individual interests to those of the community. The mass of China is dense enough to permit this new Maoist way of life to be preserved there during industrialization, in spite of some growth of international contact through guided tourism. Given their numbers, resources, and traditions, the Chinese are obliged to create their own novel anti-individualist society. No one else has a model for them to follow, though the Soviets have offered the most.

Nevertheless, Western word-users of all sorts who appreciate their relative freedom of expression will continue to scan the variegated flood of China books for clues to the future of individualism there. Are all Chinese dutiful and interchangeable parts of Mao’s great production machine? What is the role of dissent in the society? What are its limits? How are dissidents handled?

China’s treatment of deviant individuals in labor camps owes something to Soviet inspiration but has developed in the Chinese style, not the Soviet. The contrast emerges from an unusual survivor account, by a Franco-Chinese who got the full treatment during seven lean years but learned how to survive in the system, and was discharged when France recognized China in 1964. His account is ten years old, from the time of troubles now attributed to Liu Shao-ch’i, before the Cultural Revolution.

Jean Pasqualini was born in China in 1926 of a French army father and a Chinese mother. He grew up with Chinese playmates, looking Chinese, speaking like a native. He learned French and English at French Catholic mission schools, and held the passport of a French citizen resident in China. In 1945 he worked for the Fifth US Marines as a civilian specialist with the Military Police, and later for the US Army Criminal Investigation Division until November, 1948. In 1953 he got a job in a Western embassy in Peking and was finally arrested during the anti-rightist campaign in December, 1957.

Under his Chinese name, Bao Ruowang, he then spent seven years of a twelve-year sentence for criminal activities in the Chinese communist labor camps, one of many millions undergoing Reform Through Labor (Lao Gai or Lao-tung kai-tsao), to be distinguished from the other multitudes undergoing Re-education Through Labor (Lao Jiao or Lao-tung chiaoyang). After de Gaulle’s recognition of the People’s Republic in 1964 led to Bao’s release, he came to Paris for the first time, where he is today a respected teacher of Chinese language.

In 1969 Rudolph Chelminski, the Life correspondent in Paris who had just spent two years in its Moscow bureau, heard Pasqualini’s amazing stories and began a three-year sparetime collaboration which produced this book. Chelminski soon “realized (to my surprise, I admit) that neither Jean nor the book we were developing was anti-Chinese or even anticommunist. In the camps he had been frankly employed as slave labor, and yet he couldn’t fail to admire the strength of spirit of the Chinese people and the honesty and dedication of most of the communist cadres he met.”

The book is indeed unique, probably a classic. Like William Hinton’s Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village,1 the story has been skillfully put together with conversations, personalities, and incidents made clear-cut and dramatic. It invites comparison with the accounts of Soviet labor camps, and the comparison goes in China’s favor. Pasqualini recounts a harrowing ordeal in grim detail but it is set in a social context of dedication to the revolution in word and deed. The individual is expected to submit completely and strive for reform, on the same ancient assumption that underlay Confucianism, that man is perfectible and can be led to proper conduct.

Pasqualini confirms the impression researchers gain from talking to Kwangtung escapees in Hong Kong, that the Chinese camps see little growth of an “inmate subculture.” Martin Whyte reminds us that in American prisons today, as also in Soviet labor camps under Stalin, “the very coercive nature of the prison gives rise to an informal but powerful subculture which dominates the lives of prisoners and obstructs rehabilitation.”2 In the Stalinist case little stress was put on political re-education. Instead, the genuine criminals were put in charge of the political offenders, which possibly fostered production but not reform.

These evils the Chinese avoided. Pasqualini says that Chinese camps are so effectively run that they make a profit, because the Chinese, unlike the Soviets, realize that mere coercion cannot get the most productive performance from prisoners. The Chinese system in Pasqualini’s time used hunger as a major incentive plus mutual surveillance, mutual denunciation, and self-evaluation as automatic disciplinary measures. But the main emphasis, after labor, was on study and self-improvement. For most of the millions who enter the labor camps the experience, he says, is permanent; few ever return to civilian life. Instead, after their terms have expired they continue as “free workers” in the camp factory with some extra privileges but under the same tight discipline, pretty thoroughly adjusted and continuously productive.

After his arrest Pasqualini, or Bao, to use his Chinese name, spent his first fifteen months in an interrogation center. Under the warders’ close supervision, his dozen cellmates constantly exhorted one another to behave properly and with gratitude to the government for their chance to expiate their crimes and achieve reform. The government policy was “leniency to those who confess, severity to those who resist, expiation of crimes through gaining merits, reward to those who have gained merits.” The key principle throughout was complete submission to authority.

Early on Bao was led into a torture chamber full of grisly equipment, only to be told after his first shock that it was a museum preserved from the Kuomintang era. Throughout his experience physical coercion of prisoners was strictly forbidden. Prison life was thoroughly organized to occupy nearly every waking moment. Prisoners moved at a trot with their heads bowed, looking neither right nor left. They followed punctilious daily routines, including periods for meditation when they sat cross-legged on their beds “exactly like a flock of Buddhist monks.” Five days a week were occupied with confessions and interrogations, which each man worked out laboriously for himself with his interrogators. Bao wound up with a 700-page statement. Sunday was free for political study and Tuesday for cleanup, including passing around “a little box for toenail parings” collected monthly and sold for use in traditional Chinese medicine. The proceeds paid for a movie every four months. During fifteen months in this detention center Bao “ate rice only once and meat never. Six months after my arrest my stomach was entirely caved-in and I began to have the characteristic bruised joints that came from simple body contact with the communal bed.” Vitamin deficiency led to his hair falling out and skin rubbing off.

Facing the government we must study together and watch each other” was the slogan posted on the walls. Occasionally the study sessions would be punctuated by a struggle meeting, “a peculiarly Chinese invention combining intimidation, humiliation and sheer exhaustion…an intellectual gang-beating of one man by many, sometimes even thousands, in which the victim has no defense, not even truth.” A struggle can go on indefinitely until contrition has been achieved. The only way out is to develop a revolutionary ardor and the only means for that is by full confession. When it was decreed that all prisoners should take a two-hour nap in the summer afternoon, “anyone with his eyes open would receive a written reprimand. Enough reprimands and he would be ripe for struggling. We were very well-behaved. Model children.”

  1. 1

    Monthly Review Press, 1966.

  2. 2

    Martin King Whyte, “Corrective Labor Camps in China,” Asian Survey, March, 1973, p. 267.

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