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China: The Uses of Fear

Instilling deadly fear throughout the population was one of Mao Zedong’s lasting contributions to China since the late Twenties. In the case of Dai Qing, one of China’s sharpest critics before 1989, fear seems to explain the sad transformation in her writing that is evident but never clearly acknowledged in Tiananmen Follies. Arrested, she confessed and was set free; her writing about the regime then took a different turn.

Dai Qing’s transformation—what in 1942 Mao’s chief torturer and extractor of confessions called “becoming conscious”—its causes, and its consequences are never explicitly mentioned by the translators and the editor of her essay collection. Yet here is a stark example of how mental persecution, so acute it must be called torture, can result in jettisoning a lifetime’s convictions. In Dai Qing’s case she feared execution and considered suicide.

The process of instilling deadly fear, which Mao admired when he saw peasants torturing and killing landlords in 1926 in Hunan, his home province,1 was perfected in 1942 at Yanan, his guerrilla headquarters. No one has described that “Rectification Campaign” better than Yale’s David Apter and Harvard’s Tony Saich in their Revolutionary Discourse in Mao’s Republic.2 In 1994 the authors interviewed 150 people from every walk of life, including peasants and poets, who had endured the Yanan ordeal; some of them were the “angry widows” of husbands who did not survive.

Very few of those interviewed had been exempt from physical abuse and verbal abuse, if not before then during the Cultural Revolution,” write Apter and Saich.

All had survived by learning to keep their mouths shut, except to parrot the appropriate line and use the exact words, phrases, and expressions countenanced by the authorities.

Such abject and long-lasting obedience was produced by terror followed by confession. Mao’s master at extracting information at Yanan was Kang Sheng, who had been trained by the NKVD and wore a black uniform. He saw confession as “a form of repentance that would bring the individual back into the fold.” To his victims he said,

Why does the Communist Party make so much effort to rescue you? When a person confesses to the party we immediately remove the evidence about him,…and we are happy that he has become conscious…. Finally, I warn those people who do not wish to confess, we have maintained a lenient policy, but leniency has a limit.

And just as the 1942 Rectification at Yanan concentrated the Party’s efforts to secure, through fear, the abject loyalty and acquiescence of its victims, so did the Tiananmen events after June 4, 1989. Last January the regime attempted to curb outpourings of emotion after the death of Zhao Ziyang, the Party general secretary in 1989 who spent fifteen years under house arrest for sympathizing with the Tiananmen demonstrators. Zhao would have known of the nationwide arrests and executions of those condemned for participating in the hundreds of other uprisings throughout China in the spring of 1989, comprehensively described by James A.R. Miles in The Legacy of Tiananmen.3 In addition to the hundreds of Chinese imprisoned last year for “endangering state security” and similar crimes, two hundred Tiananmen activists reportedly remain in jail; anyone who posts a critical remark about 1989 on the Internet risks arrest.

It is therefore an immediate difficulty with Dai Qing’s eight short essays and letters, all linked to her frightening seven months in solitary confinement after Tiananmen, that it is called Tiananmen Follies. Follies are foolish, useless, and ill-considered things—or light entertainment. None of these words apply in the case of Tiananmen. But the title Tiananmen Follies is not a mere publisher’s invention. Dai Qing regards what happened in Tiananmen as a series of mistakes by both the demonstrators and the government and she regrets her own—very tiny—part in them.

During her months in Qincheng prison she was accused of being involved in a conspiracy and she was eventually released with what seems at first a mild rebuke. Her detention was especially unfair because she had very little to do with the Tiananmen protests. Most Beijing intellectuals in the spring of 1989 kept their distance from the demonstration. It is plain from Dai Qing’s narrative that she knew almost nothing about what was happening in the square. She assumed that the students would treat her with respect since she was famous for her outspoken writings about the regime. Indeed, a sign had been held up in the square demanding “Where is Dai Qing?” On May 19, when she spent an hour or two with the demonstrators, she was treated with some derision.

This was unjust. Dai Qing’s life before May 1989 was exemplary. Born in 1941 (her original name was Fu Ning), the child of a Party martyr, she was raised in the family of Ye Jianying, one of China’s revolutionary marshals, and was, as she says, a “[Communist] Party princess.” She received an elite education in rocket science, working on the type of missiles, she says, that were aimed at the US, and she admits that she was trained as a spy. When she was twenty-three, “I was so loyal to the party. I was so loyal to Mao Zedong, I thought I would die if Mao Zedong needed me to die.”4 But in her late thirties she decided to become a writer and her writing made her reputation as an independent thinker. Her independence was her main quality, as Ian Buruma writes in his short introduction.

In 1978 she began her career as a journalist on Guangming Daily, a newspaper often overpraised for its appeal to intellectuals. She began writing on a variety of subjects. Using her high-level knowledge of the Party’s history, she showed how long, and in what ways, the Party had been persecuting its critics. Most startling was her analysis of the fate of Wang Shiwei, an intellectual who criticized corruption inside the Party during Mao’s guerrilla days at Yanan. Her article in 1988, “Wang Shiwei and ‘Wild Lilies,’”5 revealed that Wang was falsely accused of being a Trotskyite and Chiang Kai-shek spy—and had been beheaded in 1947, and that some of those involved in his case were now among China’s leaders. She wrote, too, about Chu Anping, an editor of Guangming Daily, who in 1957 became a victim during the Anti-Rightist Movement. She condemned the “world of the party” for, as Princeton’s Perry Link puts it, its “slow pulverization” of “liberalism in almost any form.”6 In 1989 Dai Qing told Professor Link that between 1936 and 1946 perhaps 10,000 Communists, accused of being Trotskyists and spies, had been “‘eliminated’ by drowning, burying alive, or death in squalid prisons.”7

Perhaps Dai Qing’s most famous contribution to public life was Yangzi, Yangzi,8 her edited collection of essays exposing the corruption and environmental destruction of the Yangzi Gorge Dam project. She condemned China’s leaders who

don’t know the difference between a country and a family. To them, the dam is fun, like their big toy. It gives them great face…. To me all this “national prestige” business, at the Olympics or anywhere, is shallow, worthless stuff.9

In March 1989 Dai Qing was one of the signers of a petition calling on the government to allow more political freedom and to cease imprisoning people for their ideas. Zhao Ziyang ordered that no newspaper should publish any of the petitions or, for six months, any articles written by the signers.

In the West we are used to revelations about the past and public life, and we value whistleblowers, but in China such acts are rare and anyone who makes unauthorized revelations about abuses is in danger. Their corresponding effect, therefore, is explosive. Dai Qing has vividly described this:

To appreciate why Chinese readers can be so interested in one little article, you should imagine living in a dark room with all the shades drawn. If one shade goes up—just a crack—the light that enters is suddenly very interesting. Everyone will rush to look. People in a normally lit room would find the same ray of light unremarkable.

But it is not mere curiosity, Dai Qing contends. People want to know “How did we get into this mess? Where did we go wrong?”

Dai Qing, then, was a significant voice for liberty for at least a decade before June 1989. So why is it, as Ian Buruma puts it in his introduction, that

she [has] ended up being distrusted, even hated by all sides. The government regarded her as a dangerous, subversive liberal, and the students as an establishment stooge who stood in the way of their ideals.

Tiananmen Follies, however, conveys nothing of Dai Qing’s transformation. It consists, rather, of short pieces about her imprisonment, including her confession. A smattering of footnotes by the translators identify a few of her allusions; hardly anything is said about her admirable past. One of her editors has explained that Dai Qing wants her readers to figure out for themselves what the text means, without the interpretation of an expert. This is very different from the previous approach of a writer who made her reputation by clear explanation. Nor do the editors correct her errors, such as her statement that Wei Jingsheng, China’s most famous political dissident, was putting out a journal at a time when, in fact, he was in prison.

As one would expect from a confession made under the Maoist system, Dai Qing suggests more than once that illegal conspirators had fomented the Tiananmen uprising; she makes a cryptic reference to “the one who was ultimately behind the ‘planned conspiracy.’” It would have been easy for her editors and translators to ask Dai Qing who this was, or whether she still thinks there was such a person. She is hinting here at dark forces, thus echoing the Party’s traditional suggestion that any organized acts it deplores are the result of “black hands.” Yet in another one of her short essays Dai Qing also dismisses the idea of conspiracy, deriding the Party’s official view of a “planned conspiracy” as “careless” and criticizing Deng Xiaoping’s opinion “that everything transpiring outside his window [during Tiananmen] was the product of such a ‘conspiracy.’”

I sympathize with Dai Qing’s confusion. I was in Tiananmen Square from almost the beginning of the demonstrations until the killings of June 4 and for both foreign observers and Chinese participants—many of whom were workers and citizens of Beijing, and who are barely mentioned in her book—it was impossible to know who, if anyone, was guiding the demonstrations, and what the attitude of the regime was. Until May 20 and the declaration of martial law, the authorities were silent. Nor were we aware of the increasing number of demonstrations in other cities and towns resembling those in Beijing. What we journalists saw, with astonishment, was that the normal forces of law and order in Beijing had almost completely disappeared. There were no policemen to be seen, although undercover agents must have been present. We knew there were army units outside the city and we knew they were drawing closer, often through Beijing’s network of tunnels. We all wondered how this drama would end.

  1. 1

    Mao’s Road to Power: Revolutionary Writings, 1912–1949, edited by Stuart Schram and Nancy Hodes (M.E. Sharpe, 1994), Vol. 2, pp. 425ff.

  2. 2

    Harvard University Press, 1994.

  3. 3

    University of Michigan Press, 1996.

  4. 4

    Dai Qing, Environmentalist, Writer, China,” BusinessWeek online, June 14, 1999.

  5. 5

    Dai Qing, Wang Shiwei and “Wild Lilies”: Reification and Purges in the Chinese Communist Party 1942–1944, edited by David E. Apter and Timothy Cheek (M.E. Sharpe, 1994).

  6. 6

    Perry Link, Evening Chats in Beijing (Norton, 1992), p. 146.

  7. 7

    Link, Evening Chats in Beijing, p. 147.

  8. 8

    International Rivers Network, 1991.

  9. 9

    Link, Evening Chats in Beijing, p. 209.

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