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The Party’s Secrets

Ni was four in 1950 when the victorious People’s Liberation Army entered the suburb of Shanghai where his family lived. His grandmother had taken the little boy to the local market where they came upon soldiers shooting the village’s former leaders in the backs of their heads with single pistol shots (still the thrifty method of execution in China today). As each man was killed, Ni observed that the peasants who had come into Shanghai from the countryside

were using bean curd skin, thin as paper but very strong, to scoop out small pieces of the dead men’s brains. As they put the human brains into their mouths, the people watching were spellbound and frightened. “Ze, ze, ze,” was the sound they made…. Uneducated villagers in traditional China often sought strength from eating the brains and drinking the blood of executed criminals.

Ni remembered the scene as “his first confrontation with evil, his first discovery of a world that was savage, brutal, and unfair.”

Ni came to be known as xiao congming—too smart for his own good—and xiao chiliao—charming but provocative. Before he was twelve he secretly wrote a libertarian “people’s constitution” and persuaded seven other boys to swear to work together to oppose injustice. A teacher warned Ni that if he had done such a thing as an adult “you would have your head chopped off.” In 1961, when China was wracked with the famine that killed off millions, the sixteen-year-old Ni was serving in a well-fed army unit in the midst of peasant poverty and hunger so great that the staple diet was wild grass and coarse grain. The pigs raised near Shanghai ate better. Soap was unknown and the skin of many people turned black. (One of the perennial themes in Chinese dissident literature is the shock of urban young people when they first encounter peasants, and realize the failure of the revolution.) The peasants never complained. They believed, Ni found, that it was “better to risk dying of hunger than oppose the party and live as a counterrevolutionary.”

Ni sent a thirty-page report directly to Mao describing the seriousness of the famine and suggesting, among many other things, that the communes be dissolved and that the fields for ten years be returned to the farmers free of government control. This caused a great commotion, and before he was twenty Ni was discharged from the army. Years later, Liu Binyan found that Ni’s letter to Mao remained a hot issue among Party officials.

In 1965, when he was twenty, Ni briefly overcame his reputation as a troublemaker; he had managed to strip his own security file in Shanghai of damaging material, perhaps a unique event in China, and was admitted to the Shanghai Maritime Academy. When the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, although he despised Mao for his cruelty and notions of class warfare, he supported the movement because, as Thurston writes, he felt that “Mao’s criticisms of the party leadership—of its bureaucratism, its special privileges, its abuse of power”—reflected his own deep malaise.

His next provocative project took a year; he made summaries of the collected works of Lenin that were intended to challenge the banalities of Mao’s Little Red Book and managed to get them published, although it took a year of borrowing money, scrounging paper, and persuading a small printer to take the risk. Charged with counterrevolution, he was arrested but escaped and went into hiding with his future father-in-law and several friends. Ni discovered that those who had persecuted and imprisoned him had been caught up in one of the Cultural Revolution’s reversals and were themselves now prisoners.

Later in the Cultural Revolution, sometimes put under brief arrest, sometimes assigned to menial labor and forced to watch executions of victims who had also written letters to Mao, Ni drifted away from his wife and baby and took up with Kajia, a militant young woman so beautiful that the dissolute son of Marshall Lin Biao, Mao’s second in command, had tried unsuccessfully to persuade her to join his harem. In 1977 Ni and Kajia covertly pasted up two poems dedicated to the exiled Deng Xiaoping and the dead Chou Enlai on the wall of a Shanghai hotel. They escaped without being seen and the following day watched a crowd weeping and copying the poems. A few months later, also with Kajia, he put up another poem, this one three feet high and thirty feet long, entitled “I Do Not Believe,” accusing China’s leaders of being murderers and demanding, “Have you no conscience, you living corpses, you worms? Where are the angry waves, the thunderings of revenge?” For this he was put in prison for two years, starved, isolated, made to wear handcuffs much too tight for him, and very nearly executed. When Ni was finally released, an official told him: “Never in all my years have I seen anyone with your luck. You’ll never know how close you were to being shot. Just this far. This far.”

In the early 1980s he was back in the Maritime Academy, under surveillance as a class enemy, denied pay rises and promotions, but always responding vigorously to the Party hacks who continued to attack him. When Liu Binyan wrote about him in the daily press, Liu himself was accused of opposing Chairman Mao and sympathizing with counterrevolutionaries. Before long no paper would publish anything Liu wrote and he announced that he would write no more. In 1986 Ni found an American consul who had read about him in the Hong Kong press and arranged for him to receive a visa. After borrowing money from Kajia, whom he promised to bring to the US, he made it to New York.

In the US Ni’s life has been controversial, and disturbing questions have been raised about his behavior. Thurston writes that so much of her book comes from Ni Yuxian that she cannot claim “complete responsibility for its contents”; but her concluding passages show her disillusion. After spending many hours with Ni, and then comparing his accounts with others close to him—especially women—she has many reservations about his credibility and his character.

Since he arrived in New York in 1986, Thurston says, Ni has had to face a new set of accusations “that he had misused the funds [of] the Committee for the Promotion of Democracy in China…. The allegations of financial malfeasance have damaged Ni’s reputation, especially with the overseas Chinese community.” Nor does Thurston admire the Liberal Democratic Party, of which Ni was a founder, and which he and his colleagues-in-exile see as a possible successor to the Communist Party after Deng Xiaoping’s death inevitably plunges China into chaos. She finds the Party to be “disturbingly Leninist”—hierarchical, secretive, and punitive toward members who don’t conform. Thurston also believes that

Ni Yuxian’s pursuit of democratic ideals, and the suffering he personally has been willing to endure…have forced sacrifices upon his wife and children that they would have preferred to avoid…her personal tragedy is all the more poignant because Ni’s political heroics have not been matched by personal loyalty to his wife.

Ni eventually brought his wife and child to be with him in the US, but they soon separated. In 1991, when Thurston finished her book, Kajia, who had spent six months in jail for helping Ni with his giant poster, was still waiting for him to bring her to America. He had written to her, “Little sister, how you have suffered on my behalf.” Thurston observes that Ni “owes her a debt that has yet to be repaid.”

Ni has no doubt had astonishing luck. Had he come, as in fact most Chinese do, from a village such as the one described in Chinese Village, Socialist State, he could hardly have defied the authorities as he did in Shanghai, and he would not have survived if he had tried. Chinese Village, Socialist State not only contains more telling detail and acute analysis than any other study I have seen of Chinese rural life; it gives a new understanding of the methods by which the Chinese Communists took control of the villages and deceived the world about what was actually happening in them.

In 1978 the authors—Edward Friedman, a political scientist at Wisconsin, Paul Pickowicz, an historian at the University of California at San Diego, and Mark Selden, a sociologist at SUNY Binghamton—were regarded by Peking as friendly to the regime and were allowed to become “the first American social scientists to conduct systematic research in the countryside of the People’s Republic.” They spent ten years on the project and made eighteen visits to Raoyang county in central Hebei Province, the site of Wugong village. Somewhere along the way. what seems to have begun as a study of successful village development became an exposé of how the “systemic and structured dynamic of the socialist state…intimidated and improverished millions of patriotic and loyal villagers.”

The authors had to overcome much obstruction, not to say lying. They wanted, for example, to interview one of the surviving landlords, but were warned that villagers would be unwilling to talk to anyone who had also spoken with “a class enemy.” The authors decided the price of the interview was too high; after four more visits over a period of two years they were asked, in 1981, if they now cared to interview the once-taboo landlord. By then the Party had largely condemned Mao’s record during the middle Fifties and certain kinds of criticism were possible; but the authors say that officials asked them not to mention torture, official corruption, falsified statistics, and the cannibalism that took place during the famine of the early 1960s, at a time when Deng Xiaoping had been general secretary. They include all these in their book, as well as facts of village life that have seldom been reported. They describe for example the local toughs, who would show their machismo by handling boiling cauldrons with their bare fingers, and to whom the Party gave considerable power. These toughs were employed to bully people who were politically suspect and to terrify the Party’s enemies. The authors identify the village’s most powerful officials as coming from the Geng family—pro-Communist people of peasant background, who were relatively well-educated and had a talent for organization.

They also have much to say about “class enemies.” Party dogma required that some exist, even though, as the authors show, there had been very little economic exploitation in Wugong before the revolution. The people quite unfairly classified as class enemies in the mid-Forties even before the Nationalist defeat in 1949, could never free themselves of a label that was “passed on to women and children through the male line…. By freezing life in a single frame, fate was sealed for perpetuity.”

The unhappy history of Wugong under the Communists began in the mid-1940s and arose from a series of lies, including the Party’s claims that exploitation was responsible for rural poverty in that part of Hebei Province. During the 1930s, according to the authors, only a “minute fraction” of the land was farmed by tenants, and very few peasants worked as hired labor. Most families owned their own land but virtually everyone was suffering from economic decline reaching back to the Ching Dynasty. By the early Fifties, after Chinese officials, including the chief of the Geng clan, who had traveled to the Ukraine, naively accepted Soviet propaganda about collective farming—the Russians had hidden the realities from their awed Chinese guests—the village was forced to adapt agricultural methods based, as the authors say, on “principles never proven in Wugong. If anything, Wugong’s experience belied those principles.” To disguise the inevitable failure, which resulted in part from the Party’s refusal, on doctrinal grounds, to allow the peasants to have private plots, the villagers, as the authors put it, “were turned into wards of the state,” which “quietly” supplied them with grain. Wugong had become an artifically supported “model village.”

Well-connected local officials also arranged for Peking to provide Wugong with two million yuan for a power station, tractor facilities, a brick factory, and other facilities. These impressed peasants from other villages, who were brought to the village “to learn from Wugong” and then tried, but with no help from Peking, to do the same thing. Without water from the state-funded deep wells, like the ones at Wugong, other villages could not catch up.

In Wugong, as elsewhere under the Party’s rule following national “liberation,” the Party set out to destroy traditional village life, through

elimination of the temple fair, the destruction of temples, the cut-back in traditional opera, the loss of traditional medicine and traditional cooking utensils, and the coerced shrinkage of the market that had brought the goods needed for ritual celebrations.

But the Party destroyed more than village culture. In nearby Peking Edgar Snow believed Chou Enlai’s assurances that there was no famine in China, but the authors estimate that between 20 to 30 million died from 1959 to 1961. At the same time that the Hebei authorities were building, at the cost of several million dollars, a “virtual palace” for top officials, Wugong’s elderly and very young people starved to death; and not far away peasants were digging up corpses for food. It had been customary to speak of Party leadership as “Zhu-Mao,” a reference to Marshal Zhu De and Mao Zedong. In the Wugong region, however, when villagers used these words, “they were recalling a fortune-teller’s prophecy from the turn of the century that a pig (zhu) and a cat (mao) would bring hard times.”

The members of the Geng family, who pulled every string they could to preserve Wugong’s status as a model village, were less grasping than their counterparts elsewhere. As the authors show, intelligence, ability, and originality counted for less in the socialist sytem than pull and status—the traditional Chinese web of guanxi, connections and mutual obligation. The chief of the Geng clan explained to his adopted daughter that the socialist system was “the old family order writ large.”

This view seems to me highly debatable and leads to my only serious disagreement with the authors. Like many other American social scientists, they want to prove that even at its worst Maoist China was not a totalitarian system. Cruel though it was, with its pervasive police and security apparatus which spread fear down to the village level, “official socialist culture,” the authors contend, “was so alienating that primordial loyalties actually grew stronger and more sacred even as they perforce became invisible.”

The authors certainly demonstrate the tenacity of tradition in the life of Raoyang county: “Villagers thought and acted on the basis of inherited institutions and values of lineage, religion, and village, of traditional norms embedded in cherished customs.” But surely one of the fundamental conclusions established in this powerful book is that the Party lowered the standard of living and the quality of life in an already poor region by largely destroying its local markets, religious institutions, marriage and burial customs, not to mention its opera. The Party thus desecrated “much that gave meaning to Chinese lives. These private bonds were social glue. To mourn and to celebrate is to be human. To share joy, grief, and pain is humanizing.”5

The authors go on to say that much of the traditional cultural heritage “burrowed deeper,” out of sight of the Communist authorities, and that many brutal aspects of local patriarchy and authoritarianism were taken over and made use of by the Party to enforce its control. Yet when traditions are forced to go underground in order to survive, or when they are used to reinforce the power of a dictatorial party, there developments seem themselves to be marks of what might be called totalitarianism. Short of genocide it is very hard to wholly wipe out culture, as the Chinese have discovered in Tibet, but the Party still could suppress any threat to its day-to-day power.

The authors seem ambivalent on this question. They are impressed by the fact that the “dynamic of the socialist state that intimidated and impoverished millions” did not entirely destroy village culture; and it is true that the reemergence of traditional marriages, funerals, and secret societies is a notable feature of Deng Xiaoping’s China today. But Chinese society was badly, perhaps lastingly, crippled by the Party’s implacable attempts to impose control. Any system that can both allow and conceal the death from hunger of twenty to thirty million of its subjects comes close to exercising total power.

The authors devastatingly observe, “By 1960 and 1961, China produced less grain, cotton, oil-bearing crops, and hogs than in 1951, far less per capita given the rapid population growth of the 1950s.” Yet in 1959 Mao attacked Marshal Peng Dehuai as a “right opportunist” for simply reporting that in Hunan, his home province, people were starving. The authors write that during this period “the sound of politics had the ring of death. The countryside fell silent.”

While Mao was prohibiting China from buying grain on the international market to feed its starving peasants, and his well-fed cronies were claiming that starving regions were in fact “advancing rapidly towards communism,” Wugong was being forced to empty its granaries to send twice its usual quota of grain to the cities. Indeed, in 1959, although grain output had fallen by 15 percent from the previous year, “the state would procure 32 percent more” from Hebei province. No wonder, when he was in Peking the following year, Edgar Snow believed Chou Enlai’s assurances about food supplies, even though, in a “model village” like Wugong, “households now had nothing left and nowhere to turn.” Had the CIA and the KGB installed their agents within the Chinese politburo to wreck agriculture they could hardly have done better than Mao.

Why did Mao pursue these policies? Benjamin Schwartz, Harvard’s leading Mao specialist for many years, says of the Chairman’s speeches during the period immediately preceding the famine, that they give “evidence of shifting moods, of deep anxieties, soaring exaltations, injured pride, deep resentments, and unexamined complacencies.”6 As Schwartz suggests, however, Mao was not a lonely thinker, but a political leader whose smallest wish could change the lives of millions. With deadly force, the authors of Chinese Village, Socialist State sum up the Chairman’s largest accomplishment: “The socialist state structured ideas, interests, and institutions that weighed against reforms that might empower or enrich the overwhelming majority of Chinese villagers.” In short, the message of Mao’s revolution was, “Do it my way—and starve.”

  1. 5

    Precisely the reverse view is taken by another authority on the Chinese countryside, William Hinton, the author of Fan Shen (pp. 7 and 9). In a recent collection of essays about Deng Xiaoping’s post-Mao policies, which he characterizes as “fascist” and “comprador-type,” Hinton charges that they have led to a revival of not only prostitution, drug abuse, and underworld gangs, but of extravagant funerals and weddings, which conflict with the “scientific rationalism,…simplicity, frugality, and thrift that the revolution had tried so hard, without success, to propagate and consolidate.” The Privatization of China: The Great Reversal (London: Earthscan, 1991), p. 20.

  2. 6

    In The Secret Speeches of Chairman Mao: From the Hundred Flowers to the Great Leap Forward, edited by Roderick MacFarquhar, Timothy Cheek, and Eugene Wu (Harvard University Press, 1969), p. 20; reviewed in these pages, June 29, 1989.

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