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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?1

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.2

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 they first talked in his house in Peking, Schwarcz recalls, she wanted above all to hear his account of how he had been one of the earliest members of the Communist Party. But as they met during the next five years Zhang turned out to be an immensely lively and unpredictable man of many paradoxes, “a feminist womanizer, a Communist interested in mathematical logic, a follower of Bertrand Russell and admirer of Confucius, a philosophically inclined political activist.”

Unlike anyone else she had met in China, Zhang talked openly and humorously about anything that came to mind: philosophical problems, the women he had known, and the political history he had observed, as Schwarcz puts it, “during a life lived on the margins of Chinese revolutionary history.” In 1979, three years after Mao died, the official Communist Party historians decided that Zhang could be useful, and a story appeared in the People’s Daily about how in Peking in 1920—together with Li Dazhao, who is always credited by Chinese and Western historians with having been a founder of the Party—Zhang had taken the suggestion of the Comintern’s representative Grigori Voitinsky and set up the first Communist Party group in China, which was part of Lenin’s plan to defend the Soviet Union’s eastern flank from foreign invasion. This was one year before the hallowed traditional founding of the Party in 1921 in Shanghai, with Mao present in the room. In publicizing Zhang’s account the official historians were not trying to give him long overdue credit; they were attempting only to salvage what they could of the crumbling Party myth by getting Zhang to supply details about the early Party career of Chou Enlai as part of the Party’s revisionist account of itself after the catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution. This contrasted with the official account of the founding of the Party in 1921 with Mao in attendance.

Zhang, Schwarcz makes clear, was doomed to stay “on the margins” of revolutionary history because he had been concerned about liberty since he was a young man. In 1919, in an introduction to his translation of his idol Bertrand Russell’s “The State.” Zhang wrote that the state per se is “nothing but an instrument of oppression whose chief aim is to suppress the liberty of citizens. It deadens critical thought in the name of outwardly imposed loyalties.” This political perspective caused Zhang trouble all his life. In 1925 he angrily resigned from the Party he had helped found—although Chou Enlai begged him to return—partly because he disagreed with its policy of a united front with Chiang Kaishek’s Kuomintang, and partly, according to Schwarcz, because Zhang was an incorrigibly independent spirit who would not accept Party dogma or centralism, although for a year or two in the early Forties it suited the Party to pay him to write articles attacking Chiang Kaishek. In 1944, Zhang helped found the Democratic League, in which intellectuals could express their nationalism and growing disillusion with Chiang Kaishek’s Kuomintang. By 1948, the League, now completely under Party control, was accusing him of being “anti-people,” an early example, Schwarcz observes, of how “almost two decades before the Cultural Revolution intellectuals began to label one another with names that would mean imprisonment and death for many of them after 1949.”

If one consults standard modern histories of China, biographies of Mao, and surveys of modern Chinese intellectual history, Zhang is either ignored or barely mentioned.3 For many years, Schwarcz says, “Chinese Communism appeared to have sprung from Mao’s forehead, like Athena from Zeus.” After Mao’s death Party history became a little more informative, and recently, during the Party’s seventieth anniversary celebrations, references to Zhang have turned up in official political histories, mostly as a source of information about the early career of his old friend Chou Enlai.

Zhang showed Schwarcz a photograph of Chou which, she writes, “has become for me an emblem of the repressed memory that passes for Party history.” Taken in 1922, it shows four Chinese in a rowboat in Berlin, with Chou Enlai at the oars. Next to Chou is Liu Qingyang, the first Chinese woman inducted into the Chinese Communist Party in Europe. Another Chinese student sits in the bow and Zhang Shenfu is in the stern. Zhang was Liu’s lover and he brought both her and Chou into the Party, together with Zhu De, who with Mao was to found the Chinese Red Army, and become its most illustrious marshal. Intellectually Zhang had the closest rapport with Chou. He recalled to Schwarcz how on a night train to Berlin in 1921 he had described to Chou “the significant contributions of the three Jews who had helped create Western thought—Marx, Freud, and Einstein.”

An official version of the Berlin photograph shows Chou Enlai alone in the boat, and has the caption “Premier Chou in Europe.” This was intended to give Chou a central place in the Party’s early history, and to deny, as the original photograph would have suggested, that Chou was only one among a number of young Communists who, as Schwarcz puts it, were “trying to find themselves and seeking their mission in Europe.” Zhang disappeared not only from the photograph but from the Party’s annals between 1925 and 1979; he was never allowed to say a word in public about this falsification of history.

But in 1962, during a brief period just after the famine that took place between 1959 and 1961, when Mao was in temporary retreat, Chou himself acknowledged Zhang’s significance; “I would like to thank Liu Qingyang and Zhang Shenfu,” he said, “for it was these two who introduced me when I entered the Party. Zhang Shenfu’s thought is very broad.” It reflects credit on Chou that he said this, since Zhang had not only been vilified for years by the Party he had left, but after the abrupt termination of the One Hundred Flowers Movement had been consigned to a deeper darkness in 1957 as a counterrevolutionary rightist. Chou reminded his audience, “All of us came from the old society. No matter where we are now, in the past we all belonged to the bourgeois intelligentsia.”

Even Chou’s generous recognition was not enough to redeem Zhang, however, and it is an illuminating instance of the Party’s perpetual need to dominate the past that after his death in 1986 a row broke out between the Party officials and his family about how his bugao, his death announcement, should be phrased. Should it say that Zhang “tuo dang“—quit the Party—or “tui dang“—withdrew from the Party—the latter (which was eventually chosen) leaving the impression of “an enduring, sympathetic relationship.” The sardonic Zhang no doubt would have predicted precisely this outcome.

The Party’s shadow can also move beyond China’s borders. In A Chinese Odyssey, Anne Thurston writes of Ni Yuxian, one of China’s leading dissidents, who escaped into exile and is now trying to oppose the regime from the US. His story provides both a “sense of the unrelenting pinpricks of daily life in a communist dictatorship…and the propensity of the system to pull everyone, even its victims, into its web of corruption and everyday deceit.”

Ni Yuxian, Thurston writes, “stood for years in the vanguard, isolated and often alone, daring to shout in outrage while others silently followed.” That is why China’s most famous journalist, Liu Binyan, who is also now in the US, endangered his own precarious career—he had already spent years in internal exile—by choosing Ni as one of two subjects for his essay “A Second Kind of Loyalty,” which praised the moral courage of dissenters; published as a short book, it sold a million copies in one province alone, and made Ni a hero to many intellectuals on the mainland and in Hong Kong. Contrasting Ni’s kind of loyalty to his liberal ideals with the deference typical of Chinese intellectuals, Liu described him as a man who “sees the world through his own heart and eyes and does not follow the herd…who stands up to injustice and doesn’t just protect his own skin.”4

  1. 1

    See Hongda Harry Wu, Laogai: The Chinese Gulag (Westview Press, 1992).

  2. 2

    Of course the deception was not always in words. Soon after Mao’s death on September 9, 1976, for example, a commemorative volume of photographs of the late Chairman was published, in most of which he appears alone or among “the masses.” In one such group we can spot, unidentified, Mao’s fourth and final wife, Jiang Qing, the leading member years later of the Gang of Four. She sits astride a horse twenty-five yards behind her mounted husband. The photograph is captioned “Chairman Mao during a battle in northern Shensi in 1947.”

    This caption is itself a small lie: the “battle” is actually a retreat from Yanan, Mao’s guerrilla headquarters, from which he was driven in 1947 by Chiang Kaishek’s forces, two years before the final Communist triumph. Even this setback on the road to victory could not be recorded.

    But the real lie came in the October edition of this album, by which time Jiang Qing, together with the rest of the Gang of Four, had been imprisoned. The photograph appears again, but now Jiang Qing has been air-brushed out. She has been expunged, as well, from the photographs of the lines of mourners at Mao’s funeral; a gap like a lost tooth remains—but she is pointedly disgraced in the caption where her two-character name has been replaced by two Xs.

  3. 3

    See, for example, Modern China, Vol. 1, No. 2 (April 1987), pp. 177–225. Cited in Time for Telling Truth Is Running Out, p. 223. In his From Friend to Comrade: The Founding of the Chinese Communist Party, 1920–1927 (University of California Press, 1991), Hans J. Van DeVen although not mentioning Zhang’s part in the founding of the Peking cell of the Party mentions that he played a small role in the introduction of Zhou Enlai into the Party while they were both in Europe, p. 76.

  4. 4

    Liu Binyan, A Higher Kind of Loyalty (Pantheon, 1990), p. 199; reviewed in these pages, April 26, 1990.

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