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An Unnatural Disaster

Liu Binyan, translated by Perry Link

Lishi de yibufen (A Part of History)

by Zheng Yi
Tianyuan Publishers Wan-hsiang Book Co.

Hongse Jinianbei (Red Memorial)

by Zheng Yi
Unpublished Manuscript

It took twenty-four years for the news of the shocking facts about cannibalism in China’s Guangxi Autonomous Region in southern China to reach the ears of the world. Most of the Chinese people know nothing of the truth even today. Similarly the grim truth about China’s great famine of the early 1960s, which snuffed out more than 30 million lives, has continued to be sealed off from the Chinese people. The remarkable success of the Communist government’s propaganda can be seen in the fact that nearly all Chinese people continue to refer to that huge famine as “the three years of natural disaster” or “the three-year period of difficulty.” These are euphemisms for man-made catastrophe on a scale seldom seen in world history. But what does the ordinary Chinese citizen know of it? At most, only the tiny part that he or she experienced personally.

When the Chinese writer Zheng Yi’s first accounts of the cannibalism in the Guangxi region appeared, many of the Chinese who saw them were reluctant to face the evidence squarely. Frustrated at this reluctance, Zheng Yi eventually decided, after living and writing underground in China for three years, to leave the country. If Chinese people have trouble dealing with these facts, Zheng reasoned, then I’ll have to begin by presenting my evidence abroad. At the end of March 1992, he escaped to Hong Kong in a small wooden boat. He now lives in the US.

He carried with him a documented story of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution at its worst. In Guangxi, as elsewhere in China, the Cultural Revolution began in 1966 when Mao declared that “rebellion is justified” and sought to mobilize student rebels in “Red Guard” organizations to attack Liu Shaoqi, then president of the People’s Republic, and others of Mao’s own political rivals. Young people responded enthusiastically, taking the “right to rebel” as permission to express pentup popular resentment against corrupt and repressive Party bureaucrats at local levels.

The first rebel groups were composed mostly of students and intellectuals. When they began threatening local power, more conservative groups, consisting largely of workers and government officials, emerged to oppose them. In a great many places two or three factions, each claiming to be the most steadfast in its loyalty to Mao, struggled for dominance in an increasingly lawless environment. Mao fanned the flames of the strife by promoting ambiguous slogans that convinced each side more than ever of its own righteousness: Dictatorship means the masses’ dictatorship; If we don’t finish them, they will finish us; and so on. As the factional strife worsened during 1967, garrison troops sometimes became involved. Rifles and other arms—in some places even machine guns and tanks—were employed. By 1968 there were pitched battles, sieges, makeshift prisons, and executions.

In most places, “revolutionary committees” controlled by the dominant faction (usually the one that had repressed the original student rebels) became a de facto local government. These regimes sought to create an atmosphere of terror in order to enforce their rule. One way they did this was to make examples of people who had been, or whose relatives had been, “class enemies” before the revolution—former landlords, rich peasants, “bourgeois” intellectuals, and others. It did not matter if one had been an infant in 1949 and a docile citizen ever since; in 1968 such a person could be forcibly taken from home and subjected to “struggle” (douzheng).

This term, which arose during China’s land reform movement in the late 1940s, refers to collective accusation and taunting of an accused person at a public meeting. During land reform in the later 1940s, peasants would take turns relating their cases of suffering at the hands of a landlord, pressing their accusations until the landlord confessed. After 1949, “struggle” became a standard tactic in other kinds of political campaigns. Party leaders would identify a victim and direct the events. The presumption of guilt hung over the victim as soon as the accusation was made. The victim was not allowed to answer charges, and bystanders, even if inclined to offer a word of defense, could not possibly take such a risk because of the certainty that the taint would spread to themselves. At the end of each struggle session a sentence was pronounced. It was based not on evidence but on a “confession” that the struggle itself had elicited.

During the Cultural Revolution struggle sessions could end in beatings, torture, forced denunciations of family members, and killings. Many people resorted to suicide, divorce, or internal exile in order to avoid being “struggled.” No one has been able to count the number of killings and suicides that took place throughout China. The government says one-tenth of the population “suffered political persecution.”

Nor has anyone been able to describe all the local variations of the violence. (In Dao County, Hunan, for example, activists lured family members of class enemies back to their home villages for traditional holidays, then beheaded them in public using a large grain cleaver.) But there is wide consensus that the brutality was worst in Guangxi, where “unnatural deaths” during the Cultural Revolution are officially estimated at 90,000, but said among the populace to be at least twice that number. The original Red Guard “rebels” in Guangxi were students who called themselves the “April 22 Group” after the day of the group’s founding in 1967. They were opposed by “The United Headquarters of Proletarian Revolutionary Factions,” who had the backing of local Party bureaucrats, who were, in turn, backed by Wei Guoqing, governor of Guangxi. Wei secured from Central Cultural Revolution officials in Beijing an order to suppress the April 22 group, then lent his army in support of this effort. Thus, while “unnatural deaths” elsewhere in China meant primarily suicides or street-side killings, in Guangxi the term included the slaughter of April 22 members both in battle and in mass executions after their surrender or capture.

A person could claim credit for delivering blows against the opposing side. This was true everywhere in China during the Cultural Revolution, but again Guangxi defined an extreme. Zheng Yi documents a case in one town where teen-age girls formed a shock-force that would descend on “class enemies” and beat them to death. A girl who had killed six people was called “Sister Six”; another who had killed nine was “Sister Nine”; and so on. In Bobai County, an activist attempted to rape the daughter of a class enemy, but she resisted. He then killed her and reported to the Party branch with a request that he be made a Party member because of his demonstrated resolve in opposing class enemies. The officials told him that the demonstration must be made not just to them but to the village at large. The man returned to the girl’s corpse, severed its head, carried it to the school basketball court, and used it to shoot baskets as a crowd gathered and watched. Shortly thereafter a big meeting was held to induct the man into the Party.

In Qinzhou District, with a population around 300,000, Zheng Yi found official Party surveys, done in 1983, of the grisly phenomenon of promotion as a reward for murder: 10,420 people were killed in Cultural Revolution violence; 1,153 people were admitted to the Communist Party after demonstrating credit for a killing; 458 officials received promotions; and 637 people were given urban work permits, on the same basis.1

Zheng Yi, now forty-six years old, is a Chinese writer who has become well known for forcing his fellow citizens to face unpleasant facts. His first published story, “Maple” (1979), about a battle between two groups of armed Red Guards, stood for many years as the only piece of post-Mao “scar” literature to describe Cultural Revolution violence without indirection or euphemism. His most famous story, “Old Well” (1984), which was also made into an acclaimed film, shows how poverty-stricken peasants are driven to desperation and viciousness after their drinking water runs out.

Zheng Yi was not the first to expose the violence in Guangxi. In 1968, a few conscience-stricken local Party officials sent off urgent reports about it to the central authorities in Beijing. The only concrete results of these reports were reprisals against those who had issued them. Sixteen years later, shortly before Beijing’s famous “Democracy Wall” was suppressed, I personally read on the Wall about a hundred posters written by petitioners from Guangxi. They called upon the Deng Xiaoping leadership to deal severely with the primary offenders—the military and political strongmen in Guangxi. But the leader of those strongmen, Wei Guoqing, had been one of Deng Xiaoping’s favorite followers during revolutionary struggles decades earlier. Wei was, at least for the time being, untouchable.

But Wei continued to insist on the “correctness” of the Cultural Revolution while Deng Xiaoping, beginning in the late 1970s, sought increasingly to discredit the Cultural Revolution in order to win popular support for his own rule. This difference led to a split between Wei and Deng, and to Wei’s fall from power in 1983. Wei’s dismissal then cleared the way, at long last, for central authorities to send people to Guangxi to investigate the shocking reports. By the time Zheng Yi and his bride-to-be, Bei Ming, went to Guangxi to do their own investigation, in 1986, all of the most flagrant offenders among the officials had already been transferred elsewhere. Yet many who had been part of the murderous “United Headquarters” group were still in power. The families of the victims, as well as everyone who had been active in the ill-fated “April 22” group, continued to live under the threat of repression.

Zheng Yi was particularly concerned to investigate reports that victims of the Cultural Revolution had actually been eaten. The people who had been involved in such acts of cannibalism put him under tight surveillance and tried however they could to prevent him from gathering hard evidence. They tried to block access to Party archives. They tried to prevent him from traveling to outlying villages to interview accused murderers and the families of victims. An atmosphere reminiscent of the White Terror2 intimidated many from telling him what they knew. Those who sympathized with Zheng Yi were obliged to take elaborate precautions when helping him, as if doing underground work. In the end, thanks to assistance from a few Party officials and from the families of victims, Zheng Yi was able to get the evidence he needed.

Zheng’s book Red Memorial begins with detailed accounts of some selected cases of cannibalism. One tells of Deng Jifang, reportedly murdered by a man named Yi Wansheng. Deng’s father had been a landlord in the 1940s. In the early 1950s, when the Land Reform Campaign arrived, the father and his three sons fled into the nearby hills. When they were captured, the father and the two older sons were executed, but the youngest son, Deng Jifang, was let off with a two-year sentence at a labor reform camp because he was a minor. After his release he went back to his village to find that his mother had hanged herself and that no one in the village welcomed him. He then made his way to a neighboring village where a childless peasant family was willing to adopt him and later arrange a marriage for him so that they might continue their family line. The official file on Deng Jifang’s murder states that “after his marriage he always stayed at home honestly and straightforwardly growing rice and planting crops.” 3

  1. 1

    Leadership Group for Party Rectification in the Qinzhou District of the Communist Party of China in Guangxi, Qinzhou diqu ‘Wenhua da geming’ da shijian (Major events of the “Cultural Revolution” in Qinzhou District), 1987, p. 52.

  2. 2

    Referring to Kuomintang repression of Communists and others during the 1920s to 1940s.

  3. 3

    Zhongshan County Public Security Bureau, preliminary investigation file on the murder of Deng Jifang by Yi Wansheng, “Report on the Disembowelment of Deng Jifang,” p. 2.

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