Laszlo Ladany
Laszlo Ladany; drawing by David Levine


In any debate, you really know that you have won when you find your opponents beginning to appropriate your ideas, in the sincere belief that they themselves just invented them. This situation can afford a subtle satisfaction; I think the feeling must be quite familiar to Father Ladany, the Jesuit priest and scholar based in Hong Kong who for many years published the weekly China News Analysis. Far away from the crude limelights of the media circus, he has enjoyed three decades of illustrious anonymity: all “China watchers” used to read his newsletter with avidity; many stole from it—but generally they took great pains never to acknowledge their indebtedness or to mention his name. Father Ladany watched this charade with sardonic detachment: he would probably agree that what Ezra Pound said regarding the writing of poetry should also apply to the recording of history—it is extremely important that it be written, but it is a matter of indifference who writes it.

China News Analysis was compulsory reading for all those who wished to be informed of Chinese political developments—scholars, journalists, diplomats. In academe, however, its perusal among many political scientists was akin to what a drinking habit might be for an ayatollah, or an addiction to pornography for a bishop: it was a compulsive need that had to be indulged in secrecy. China experts gnashed their teeth as they read Ladany’s incisive comments; they hated his clearsightedness and cynicism; still, they could not afford to miss one single issue of his newsletter, for, however disturbing and scandalous his conclusions, the factual information which he supplied was invaluable and irreplaceable. What made China News Analysis so infuriatingly indispensable was the very simple and original principle on which it was run (true originality is usually simple): all the information selected and examined in China News Analysis was drawn exclusively from official Chinese sources (press and radio). This austere rule sometimes deprived Ladany’s newsletter of the life and color that could have been provided by less orthodox sources, but it enabled him to build his devastating conclusions on unimpeachable grounds.

What inspired his method was the observation that even the most mendacious propaganda must necessarily entertain some sort of relation with the truth; even as it manipulates and distorts the truth, it still needs originally to feed on it. Therefore, the untwisting of official lies, if skillfully effected, should yield a certain amount of straight facts. Needless to say, such an operation requires a doigté hardly less sophisticated than the chemistry which, in Gulliver’s Travels, enabled the Grand Academicians of Lagado to extract sunbeams from cucumbers and food from excreta. The analyst who wishes to gather information through such a process must negotiate three hurdles of thickening thorniness. First, he needs to have a fluent command of the Chinese language. To the man-in-the-street, such a prerequisite may appear like elementary common sense, but once you leave the street level, and enter the loftier spheres of academe, common sense is not so common any longer, and it remains an interesting fact that, during the Maoist era, a majority of leading “China Experts” hardly knew any Chinese. (I hasten to add that this is largely a phenomenon of the past; nowadays, fortunately, young scholars are much better educated.)

Secondly, in the course of his exhaustive surveys of Chinese official documentation, the analyst must absorb industrial quantities of the most indigestible stuff; reading Communist literature is akin to munching rhinoceros sausage, or to swallowing sawdust by the bucketful. Furthermore, while subjecting himself to this punishment, the analyst cannot allow his attention to wander, or his mind to become numb; he must keep his wits sharp and keen; with the eye of an eagle that can spot a lone rabbit in the middle of a desert, he must scan the arid wastes of the small print in the pages of the People’s Daily, and pounce upon those rare items of significance that lie buried under mountains of clichés. He must know how to milk substance and meaning out of flaccid speeches, hollow slogans, and fanciful statistics; he must scavenge for needles in Himalayan-size haystacks; he must combine the nose of a hunting hound, the concentration and patience of an angler, and the intuition and encyclopedic knowledge of a Sherlock Holmes.

Thirdly—and this is his greatest challenge—he must crack the code of the Communist political jargon and translate into ordinary speech this secret language full of symbols, riddles, cryptograms, hints, traps, dark allusions, and red herrings. Like wise old peasants who can forecast tomorrow’s weather by noting how deep the moles dig and how high the swallows fly, he must be able to decipher the premonitory signs of political storms and thaws, and know how to interpret a wide range of quaint warnings—sometimes the Supreme Leader takes a swim in the Yangtze River, or suddenly writes a new poem, or sponsors a ping-pong game: such events all have momentous implications. He must carefully watch the celebration of anniversaries, the noncelebration of anniversaries, and the celebration of nonanniversaries; he must check the lists of guests at official functions, and note the order in which their names appear. In the press, the size, type, and color of headlines, as well as the position and composition of photos and illustrations are all matters of considerable import; actually they obey complex laws, as precise and strict as the iconographic rules that govern the location, garb, color, and symbolic attributes of the figures of angels, archangels, saints, and patriarchs in the decoration of a Byzantine basilica.


To find one’s way in this maze, ingenuity and astuteness are not enough; one also needs a vast amount of experience. Communist Chinese politics are a lugubrious merry-go-round (as I have pointed out many times already), and in order to appreciate fully the déjà-vu quality of its latest convolutions, you would need to have watched it revolve for half a century. The main problem with many of our politicians and pundits is that their memories are too short, thus forever preventing them from putting events and personalities in a true historical perspective. For instance, when, in 1979, the “People’s Republic” began to revise its criminal law, there were good souls in the West who applauded this initiative, as they thought that it heralded China’s move toward a genuine rule of law. What they failed to note, however—and which should have provided a crucial hint regarding the actual nature and meaning of the move in question—was that the new law was being introduced by Peng Zhen, one of the most notorious butchers of the regime, a man who, thirty years earlier, had organized the ferocious mass accusations, lynchings, and public executions of the land reform programs.

Or again, after the death of Mao, Western politicians and commentators were prompt to hail Deng Xiaoping as a sort of champion of liberalization. The Selected Works of Deng published at that time should have enlightened them—not so much by what it included, as by what it excluded; had they been able to read it as any Communist document should be read, i.e., by concentrating first on its gaps, they would have rediscovered Deng’s Stalinist-Maoist statements, and then, perhaps, they might have been less surprised by the massacres of June 4.

More than half a century ago, the writer Lu Xun (1889–1936), whose prophetic genius never ceases to amaze, described accurately the conundrum of China watching:

Once upon a time, there was a country whose rulers completely succeeded in crushing the people; and yet they still believed that the people were their most dangerous enemy. The rulers issued huge collections of statutes, but none of these volumes could actually be used, because in order to interpret them, one had to refer to a set of instructions that had never been made public. These instructions contained many original definitions. Thus, for instance, “liberation” meant in fact “capital execution”; “government official” meant “friend, relative or servant of an influential politician,” and so on. The rulers also issued codes of laws that were marvellously modern, complex and complete; however, at the beginning of the first volume, there was one blank page; this blank page could be deciphered only by those who knew the instructions—which did not exist. The first three invisible articles of these non-existent instructions read as follows: “Art. 1: some cases must be treated with special leniency. Art. 2: some cases must be treated with special severity. Art. 3: this does not apply in all cases.”

Without an ability to decipher non-existent inscriptions written in invisible ink on blank pages, no one should ever dream of analyzing the nature and reality of Chinese communism. Very few people have mastered this demanding discipline, and, with good reason, they generally acknowledge Father Ladany as their doyen.


After thirty-six years of China watching, Father Ladany finally retired and summed up his exceptional experience in The Communist Party of China and Marxism, 1921–1985: A Self Portrait. In the scope of this article it would naturally not be possible to do full justice to a volume which analyzes in painstaking detail sixty-five years of turbulent history; still, it may be useful to outline here some of Ladany’s main conclusions.

The Communist party is in essence a secret society. In its methods and mentality it presents a striking resemblance to an underworld mob.1 It fears daylight, feeds on deception and conspiracy, and rules by intimidation and terror. “Communist legality” is a contradiction in terms, since the Party is above the law—for example, Party members are immune from legal prosecution; they must be divested of their Party membership before they can be indicted by a criminal court (that a judge may acquit an accused person is inconceivable: since the accused was sent to court, it means that he is guilty). Whereas even Mussolini and Hitler orginally reached power through elections, no Communist party ever received an electorate’s mandate to govern.


In China, the path that led the Communists to victory still remains partly shrouded in mystery. Even today, for Party historians, many archives remain closed, and there are entire chapters that continue to present insoluble riddles; minutes of decisive meetings are nowhere to be found, important dates remain uncertain; for some momentous episodes it is still impossible to identify the participants and to reconstruct accurately the sequence of events; for some periods one cannot even determine who were the Party leaders!

As Ladany points out, a Communist regime is built on a triple foundation: dialectics, the power of the Party, and a secret police—but, as to its ideological equipment, Marxism is merely an optional feature; the regime can do without it most of the time. Dialectics is the jolly art that enables the Supreme Leader never to make mistakes—for even if he did the wrong thing, he did it at the right time, which makes it right for him to have been wrong, whereas the Enemy, even if he did the right thing, did it at the wrong time, which makes it wrong for him to have been right.

Before securing power, the Party thrives on political chaos. If confronted with a deliquescent government, it can succeed through organization and propaganda, even when it operates from a minuscule base: in 1945, the Communists controlled only one town, Yan’an, and some remote tracts of countryside; four years later, the whole of China was theirs. At the time of the Communist takeover, the Party members in Peking numbered a mere three thousand, and Shanghai, a city of nine million people, had only eight thousand Party members. In a time of social and economic collapse, it takes very few people—less than 0.01 percent of the population in the Chinese case—to launch emotional appeals, to stir the indignation of the populace against corrupt and brutal authorities, to mobilize the generosity and idealism of the young, to enlist the support of thousands of students, and eventually to present their tiny Communist movement as the incarnation of the entire nation’s will.

What is even more remarkable is that, before 1949, wherever the population had been directly exposed to their rule the Communists were utterly unpopular. They had introduced radical land reform in parts of North China during the civil war, and, as Ladany recalls,

Not only landowners but all suspected enemies were treated brutally; one could walk about in the North Chinese plains and see hands sticking out from the ground, the hands of people buried alive…. Luckily for the Communists, government propaganda was so poorly organised that people living in regions not occupied by the Communists knew nothing of such atrocities.

Once the whole country fell under their control, it did not take long for the Communists to extend to the rest of the nation the sort of treatment which, until then, had been reserved for inner use—purging the Party and disciplining the population of the so-called liberated areas. Systematic terror was applied on a national scale as early as 1950, to match first the land reform and then the campaign to suppress “counterrevolutionaries.” By the fall of 1951, 80 percent of all Chinese had had to take part in mass accusation meetings, or to watch organized lynchings and public executions. These grim liturgies followed set patterns that once more were reminiscent of gangland practices: during these proceedings, rhetorical questions were addressed to the crowd, which, in turn, had to roar its approval in unison—the purpose of the exercise being to ensure collective participation in the murder of innocent victims; the latter were selected not on the basis of what they had done, but of who they were, or sometimes for no better reason than the need to meet the quota of capital executions which had been arbitrarily set beforehand by the Party authorities.

From that time on, every two or three years, a new “campaign” would be launched, with its usual accompaniment of mass accusations, “struggle meetings,” self-accusations, and public executions. At the beginning of each “campaign,” there were waves of suicides: many of the people who, during a previous “campaign,” had suffered public humiliation, psychological and physical torture at the hands of their own relatives, colleagues, and neighbors, found it easier to jump from a window or under a train than to face a repeat of the same ordeal.

What is puzzling is that in organizing these recurrent waves of terror the Communists betrayed a strange incapacity to understand their own people. As history has amply demonstrated, the Chinese possess extraordinary patience; they can stoically endure the rule of a ruthless and rapacious government, provided that it does not interfere too much with their family affairs and private pursuits, and as long as it can provide basic stability. On both accounts, the Communists broke this tacit covenant between ruler and ruled. They invaded the lives of the people in a way that was far more radical and devastating than in the Soviet Union. Remolding the minds, “brainwashing” as it is usually called, is a chief instrument of Chinese communism, and the technique goes as far back as the early consolidation of Mao’s rule in Yan’an.

To appreciate the characteristics of the Maoist approach one need simply compare the Chinese “labor rectification” camps with the Soviet Gulag. Life in the concentration camps in Siberia was physically more terrifying than life in many Chinese camps, but the mental pressure was less severe on the Soviet side. In the Siberian camps the inmates could still, in a way, feel spiritually free and retain some sort of inner life, whereas the daily control of words and thoughts, the actual transformation and conditioning of individual consciousness, made the Maoist camps much more inhuman.

Besides its cruelty, the Maoist practice of launching political “campaigns” in relentless succession generated a permanent instability, which eventually ruined the moral credit of the Party, destroyed much of society, paralyzed the economy, provoked large-scale famines, and nearly developed into civil war. In 1949, most of the population had been merely hoping for a modicum of order and peace, which the Communists could easily have granted. Had they governed with some moderation and abstained from the needless upheavals of the campaigns, they could have won long-lasting popular support, and ensured steady economic development—but Mao had a groundless fear of inner opposition and revolt; this psychological flaw led him to adopt methods that proved fatally self-destructive.

History might have been very different if the original leaders of the Chinese Communist party had not been decimated by Chiang Kai-shek’s White Terror of 1927, or expelled by their own comrades in subsequent Party purges. They were civilized and sophisticated urban intellectuals, upholding humanistic values, with cosmopolitan and open minds, attuned to the modern world. While their sun was still high in the political firmament, Mao’s star never had a chance to shine; however bright and ambitious, the young self-taught peasant was unable to compete with these charismatic figures. Their sudden elimination marked an abrupt turn in the Chinese revolution—one may say that it actually put an end to it—but it also presented Mao with an unexpected opening. At first, his ascent was not exactly smooth; yet, by 1940 in Yan’an, he was finally able to neutralize all his rivals and to remold the entire Party according to his own conception. It is this Maoist brigade of country bumpkins and uneducated soldiers, trained and drilled in a remote corner of one of China’s poorest and most backward provinces, that was finally to impose its rule over the entire nation—and, as Ladany adds, “This is why there are spittoons everywhere in the People’s Republic.”

Mao’s anti-intellectualism was deeply rooted in his personal experiences. He never forgot how, as a young man, intellectuals had made him feel insignificant and inadequate. Later on, he came to despise them for their perpetual doubts and waverings; the competence and expertise of scholarly authorities irritated him; he distrusted the independence of their judgments and resented their critical ability. In the barracks-like atmosphere of Yan’an, a small town without culture, far removed from intellectual centers, with no easy access to books, amid illiterate peasants and brutish soldiers, intellectuals were easily singled out for humiliating sessions of self-criticism and were turned into exemplary targets during the terrifying purges of 1942–1944. Thus the pattern was set for what was to remain the most characteristic feature of Chinese communism: the persecution and ostracisim of intellectuals. The Yan’an brigade had an innate dislike of people who thought too much; this moronic tradition received a powerful boost in 1957, when, in the aftermath of the Hundred Flowers campaign, China’s cultural elite was pilloried; nine years later, finally, the “Cultural Revolution” marked the climax of Mao’s war against intelligence: savage blows were dealt to all intellectuals inside and outside the Party; all education was virtually suspended for ten years, producing an entire generation of illiterates.

Educated persons were considered unfit by nature to join the Party; especially at the local level resistance to accepting them was always greatest, as the old leadership felt threatened by all expressions of intellectual superiority. Official figures released in 1985 provide a telling picture of the level of education within the Communist party—which makes up the privileged elite of the nation: 4 percent of Party members had received some university education—they did not necessarily graduate—(against 30 percent in the Soviet Union); 42 percent of Party members only attended primary school; 10 percent are illiterate….

The first casualty of Mao’s anti-intellectualism was to be found, interestingly enough, in the field of Marxist studies. When, after fifteen years of revolutionary activity, the Party finally felt the need to acquire some rudiments of Marxist knowledge (at that time virtually no work of Marx had yet been translated into Chinese!), Mao, who himself was still a beginner in this discipline, undertook to keep all doctrinal developments under his personal control. In Yan’an, like an inexperienced teacher who has gotten hold of the only available textbook and struggles to keep one lesson ahead of his pupils, he simply plagiarized a couple of Soviet booklets and gave a folksy Chinese version of some elementary Stalinist-Zhdanovian notions. How these crude, banal, and derivative works ever came to acquire in the eyes of the entire world the prestige and authority of an original philosophy remains a mystery; it must be one of the most remarkable instances of mass autosuggestion in the twentieth century.

In one respect, however, the Thoughts of Mao Zedong did present genuine originality and dared to tread a ground where Stalin himself had not ventured: Mao explicitly denounced the concept of a universal humanity; whereas the Soviet tyrant merely practiced inhumanity, Mao gave it a theoretical foundation, expounding the notion—without parallel in the other Communist countries of the world—that the proletariat alone is fully endowed with human nature. To deny the humanity of other people is the very essence of terrorism; millions of Chinese were soon to measure the actual implications of this philosophy.

At first, after the establishment of the People’s Republic the regime was simply content to translate and reproduce elementary Soviet introductions to Marxism. The Chinese Academy of Sciences had a department of philosophy and social sciences but produced nothing during the Fifties, not even textbooks on Marxism. Only one university in the entire country—Peking University—had a department of philosophy; only Mao’s works were studied there.

When the Soviet Union denounced Stalin and rejected his History of the Communist Party—Short Course, the Chinese were stunned: this little book contained virtually all they knew about Marxism. Then, the Sino-Soviet split ended the intellectual importations from the USSR, and it was conveniently decided that the Thoughts of Mao Zedong represented the highest development of Marxist-Leninist philosophy; therefore, in order to fill the ideological vacuum, Mao’s Thoughts suddenly expanded and acquired polyvalent functions; its study became a reward for the meritorious, a punishment for the criminal, a medicine for the sick; it could answer all questions and solve all problems; it even performed miracles that were duly recorded; its presence was felt everywhere: it was broadcast in the streets and in the fields, it was put to music, it was turned into song and dance; it was inscribed everywhere—on mountain cliffs and on chopsticks, on badges, on bridges, on ashtrays, on dams, on teapots, on locomotives; it was printed on every page of all newspapers. (This, in turn, created some practical problems: in a poor country, where all paper is recycled for a variety of purposes, one had always to be very careful when wrapping groceries or when wiping one’s bottom, not to do it with Mao’s ubiquitous Thoughts—which would have been a capital offence.) In a way, Mao is to Marx what Voodoo is to Christianity; therefore, it is not surprising that the inflation of Mao’s Thoughts precluded the growth of serious Marxist studies in China.2

No tyrant can forsake humanity and persecute intelligence with impunity: in the end, he reaps imbecility and madness. When he visited Moscow in 1957, Mao declared that an atomic war was not to be feared since, in such an eventuality, only half of the human race would perish. This remarkable statement provided a good sample of the mind that was to conceive the “Great Leap Forward” and the “Cultural Revolution.” The human cost of these ventures was staggering: the famines that resulted from the “Great Leap” produced a demographic black hole into which it now appears that as many as fifty million victims may have been sucked. The violence of the “Cultural Revolution” affected a hundred million people. If, on the whole, the Maoist horrors are well known, what has not been sufficiently underlined is their asinine lunacy. In a recent issue of The New York Review, Jonathan Mirsky quoted an anecdote (from Liu Binyan, Ruan Ming, and Xu Gang’s Tell the World) that is so exemplary and apposite here that it bears telling once more: one day, Bo Yibo was swimming with Mao. Mao asked him what the production of iron and steel would be for the next year. Instead of replying, Bo Yibo told Mao that he was going to effect a turn in the water; Mao misunderstood him and thought that he had said “double.” A little later, at a Party meeting, Bo Yibo heard Mao announce that the national production of iron and steel would double the next year.3

The anecdote is perfectly credible in the light of all the documentary evidence we have concerning Mao’s attitude at the time of the “Great Leap”: we know that he swallowed the gigantic and grotesque deceptions fabricated by his own propaganda, and accepted without discussion the pleasing suggestion that miracles were taking place in the Chinese countryside; he genuinely believed that the yield of cotton and grain could be increased by 300 to 500 percent. And Liu Shaoqi himself was no wiser: inspecting Shandong in 1958, and having been told that miraculous increases had been effected in agricultural output, he said: “This is because the scientists have been kicked out, and people now dare to do things!” The output of steel, which was 5.3 million tons in 1957, allegedly reached 11 million tons in 1958, and it was planned that it would reach 18 million in 1959. The grain output which was 175 million tons in 1957, allegedly reached 375 million tons in 1958, and was planned to reach 500 million in 1959. The Central Committee solemnly endorsed this farce (Wuchang, Sixth Plenum, December 1958)—and planned for more. Zhou Enlai—who never passed for a fool—repeated and supported these fantastic figures and announced that the targets laid in the Second Five Year Plan (1958–1962) had all been reached in the plan’s first year! All the top leaders applauded this nonsense. Li Fuchun and Li Xiannian poured out “Great Leap” statistics that were simply lies. What happened to their common sense? Only Chen Yun had the courage to remain silent.

Graphic details of the subsequent famine were provided in the official press only a few years ago, confirming what was already known through the testimonies of countless eyewitnesses.

As early as 1961, Ladany published in China News Analysis some of these reports by Chinese travelers from all parts of China.

All spoke of food shortage and hunger; swollen bellies, lack of protein and liver diseases were common. Many babies were stillborn because of their mothers’ deficient nutrition. Few babies were being born. As some workers put it, their food barely sufficed to keep them standing on their feet, let alone allowing them to have thoughts of sex. Peasants lacked the strength to work, and some collapsed in the fields and died. City government organisations and schools sent people to the villages by night to buy food, bartering clothes and furniture for it. In Shenyang the newspaper reported cannibalism. Desperate mothers strangled children who cried for food. Many reported that villagers were flocking into the cities in search of food; many villages were left empty…. It was also said that peasants were digging underground pits to hide their food. Others spoke of places where the population had been decimated by starvation.

According to the Guang Ming Daily (April 27, 1980), in the North-West, the famine generated an ecological disaster: in their struggle to grow some food, the peasants destroyed grasslands and forests. Half of the grasslands and one third of the forests vanished between 1959 and 1962: the region was damaged permanently. The People’s Daily (May 14, 1980) said that the disaster of the “Great Leap” had affected the lives of a hundred million people who were physically devastated by the prolonged shortage of food. (Note that, at the time, China experts throughout the world refused to believe that there was famine in China. A BBC commentator, for instance, declared typically that a widespread famine in such a well-organized country was unthinkable.)

Today, in order to stem the tide of popular discontent which threatens to engulf his rule, Deng Xiaoping is invoking again the authority of Mao. That he should be willing to call that ghost to the rescue provides a measure of his desperation. Considering the history of the last sixty years, one can easily imagine what sort of response the Chinese are now giving to such an appeal.

Deng’s attempts to revive and promote Marxist studies are no less unpopular. Marxism has acquired a very bad name in China—which is quite understandable, though somewhat unfair: after all, it was never really tried.

This Issue

October 11, 1990