The Party’s Secrets

Time for Telling Truth Is Running Out: Conversations with Zhang Shenfu

by Vera Schwarcz
Yale University Press, 256 pp., $30.00

A Chinese Odyssey: The Life and Times of a Chinese Dissident

by Anne F. Thurston
Scribner’s, 440 pp., $24.95

Not long after Mao Zedong died in 1976, one of the editors of the Party’s People’s Daily said. “Lies in newspapers are like rat droppings in clear soup: disgusting and obvious.” That may have been true of the Party’s newspapers, which Chinese are skilled at reading, but the history of the Party itself is a rat’s nest of often deliberate deception, which the editors of the excellent multivolume Cambridge History of China, or solitary specialists like the late Lazlo Ladany, have tried to unravel. How did the Party, for instance, and Mao in particular, get the support of its own members and the public? How many millions died in the famine of 1959–1961? Who sided with whom during the main Party struggles—during the Long March for example or, more than sixty years later, just before the Tiananmen killings? Why are we only learning now that as many as 20 million Chinese are being held in the Chinese version of the Gulag Archipelago, of whom perhaps eight million have served their sentences and are still condemned to forced labor?

Against the odds, Chinese are always hoping for the truth. “The man who tells the truth about Tiananmen,” I was told in Peking in 1990, by a very senior official, “will rule China.” But so dangerous is the truth, he added, that it would have to be told “very subtly.” A frank account of who colluded in ordering the killings might result in the lynching of some very famous old men and their supporters.

Recent studies are providing us with new versions of Chinese history—new reports of how the Party took power, and new insights into the nature and extent of its deception. Time for Telling Truth Is Running Out shows that even a philosopher who had a brief, if dramatic, part in the Party’s early founding had to be eliminated from its records because he quit the Party a few years after he helped found it. In A Chinese Odyssey we learn how violent was the “liberation” of Shanghai in 1950, and to what lengths the Party went to torment even very young people who objected to it. Chinese Village, Socialist State exposes one of the biggest lies of all: that, at least in the countryside, the Party made life better for the very poor. In many ways, in fact, it made their lives worse.

We must talk frankly. Time is running out,” the old Chinese radical Zhang Shenfu told Vera Schwarcz in 1979. Schwarcz, a specialist in modern Chinese history at Wesleyan University, met Zhang almost accidentally in 1979, when he was already eighty-six, in the National Beijing Library, where Zhang, a political essayist and mathematical logician who during the 1930s had taught at Peking’s Qinghua University, had been more or less exiled for years. Although they were surrounded by officials, it was plain to Schwarcz that the old man “was bent on telling me his own story.”

When …

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