Xu Hongci met Chairman Mao in June of 1953. Had the event been captured on film, it is highly likely that Hongci would have appeared like one of those people you see in the old propaganda films clapping and enthusiastically celebrating their great ruler. By the time Mao had passed away in 1976, with the blood of, minimum, 45 million people on his hands, Hongci was exiled in Mongolia and had a slightly less benevolent attitude towards the great leader.
Hongci was a member of the Chinese communist party in college and fully bought into their ideology before being branded a “rightist”. This cultish obsession with having to be morally correct and “purer” in your left-wing beliefs has continued to this day. In my view, it is a strategy that is always doomed to fail. It is not possible, or indeed even desirable, to always be morally purer than the next person. There will always be a more ethical human being. Taking the moral high ground results in relentlessly judging people and ostracising those with different political views. It is a potentially toxic mix, especially when you add violence into the equation.
“No wall too high” is Hongci’s journey through Mao’s labour camps from East to West China, beginning around the time of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”, which starved millions of innocent Chinese people to death.
The edition of the book that I took out from the library was extremely well printed and included an excellent map of China which outlined Hongci’s movements throughout, a boon for anyone who is as interested in Chinese geography as I am. Special credit must also go to the translator Erling Hoh here too. I have discussed in previous blogs what a key role translators play. Originally wanting to write about life in Mao’s camps himself, Hoh discovered Hongci’s account and changed his objective to translating his incredible life story for a Western audience. Hoh has also included copious amounts actual documents, such as newspaper clippings, from the era. It is a gripping read, one I could not put it down for two days.
A youthful Hongci declared himself willing to “sacrifice myself for the liberation of mankind” in 1948, at the tender age of 15. He was a fully paid-up member of the communist party and wanted to implement its ideals. However, it did not take long for him to realise the potential drawbacks to having such a narrow ideological mindset. After being sent to Shanghai, he “became aware of the communist party’s peasant origins and authoritarian, closed, narrow-minded, and factional character, which ran completely contrary to my ideals of democracy and freedom”. Despite this, “my motives were pure, and I was prepared to dedicate my life to the glorious cause of communism”. Hongci truly believed in the ideology of equality. He was tasked with helping with the redistribution of land, “In November 1950, we arrived at the agricultural committee for northern Jiangsu province in Yangzhou, where a local cadre by the name of Shi Ping reported that the masses have many misgivings regarding the redistribution of land and fear future retribution from the landlords. To strip the landlords of their prestige, we must execute some of them. Otherwise, the masses will not rally to the cause”. Alarm bells began ringing for Hongci at this point and he became uneasy and uncomfortable with the casual introduction of violence that he saw all around him.
To this day you still hear people espousing the potential virtues of taking over the means of production. Practically speaking, this means that you take the implements and land from workers with the vague promise to redistribute their produce equally. People in society will always resist the State taking away their “means of production” and will fight back. There is no way to force communism on people without being violent.
Moreover, once the State legitimatises violence to further its economic agenda, it normalises officers of the government to act with brutality on its own citizens. Hongci notes that, “when I was dispatched at our second assignment in Taizhou, not far from Yangzhou, the land reform movement was in full swing, and landlords and rich peasants were being killed in droves”.
By 1952, four million communist party members were ruling over 580 million people. Despite a frosty relationship with Stalin before he died, the influence of the Soviet system could be seen in the universities in China. While Hongci was studying medicine, all the medical books that they used to learn with were all in Russian. In 1956, Chinese Vice Premier Liu Shaoqi met with Khrushchev in Moscow to discuss whether the use of force was justified in Hungary to enforce communism. Hongci observed the mood in the Chinese communist party at the time, “A heated argument ensued. If Hungary was lost, what would happen in the other Eastern European satellites? The whole communist bloc would unravel, and the imperialists would be standing on Moscow’s doorstep”. I always find it deeply hypocritical when the Soviets decried Western imperialism whilst forcing a sovereign state to submit to its rule. It was around this time that Hongci was outed and arrested for being a “Rightist” after he put forward some democratic proposals for the party. He would go on to be branded a Soviet and US sympathiser, depending on how relations between China and each of those countries were at any given moment in time.
The individual in communist China:
Chinese communism destroyed the individual and their rights in society. The party monitored and recorded who each of their fellow party members socialised and had relationships with. When Hongci began seeing Ximeng, he was scolded on multiple occasions because she was classed as “bourgeois”. This is the danger inherent in trying to create a “classless” society. It does not account for the differences between people. Citizens in China were tarnished, usually with little or no evidence, of being bourgeois or rightists and then carted off to the labour camps.
During an infamous speech in 1957, Mao admitted that 780,000 people had been killed by taking over the means of production from 1951 to 1953. Mao agreed to democratise and liberalise China and sought suggestions from the people on how to achieve this aim. However, it was a ruse and, when Hongci put up a “Dazibao” in his university, he was sentenced to spend time in a labour camp. Hongci was one of between 550,000 and 3 million Chinese people that Mao would deem traitors, spies or rightists.
Hongci’s account of Maoist China is the closest real-life version of Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” that I have read. Due to his incomplete medical training, Hongci became what was known as a “barefoot doctor” in some of the labour camps that he was imprisoned in. These were unskilled and unqualified doctors, but they were the best that a lot of camps could manage.
Zhao Shiyi, a colleague in a mining camp with Hongci, was blown to bits doing his job and was, “buried hastily without a funeral”. A perfect and dastardly example of how the system did not at all care about people dying so long as the economic and social goals were met.
Similarly, when Hongci’s father sadly passed away, he was reported for having cried. Showing any empathy or compassion meant you were branded a traitor. Chu & Jinxian, two fellow campmates of Hongci were killed for being caught in the act of gay sex. Hongci wrote of this as a commonplace occurrence. The system drove another of Hongci’s fellow prisoners, Yuan Deli, insane and ended with him pleading desperately to be killed.
Life in the “Labour reform camps”:
The first camp that Hongci was imprisoned in was Laogai, where he observed that there was, “no regards for judicial concepts such as due process and a fair trial”. “A sarcastic comment or a postal stamp of the chairman pasted upside down was a crime that could send a person to the Laogai for many years”.
During the 1958 “Great Leap Forward”, 550,000 million rural people were divided into 26,000 communes and all private property was confiscated. Any person that tried to keep a spot of land for themselves was labelled a traitor and imprisoned in labour reform camps such as Laogai. This caused a massive increase in the numbers of people being imprisoned. The camps were unprepared for the injection of prisoners and struggled to cope. Inmates were only permitted a daily ration of two bowls of gruel to get through an entire day.
Part of the reasons for the food shortages in some of the ludicrously labelled camps like the “Eternal Happiness Farm”, were poorly made central decisions. Mao insisted that farmers plant each rice field with three times the previous quantity of rice seeds, which resulted in many of them being destroyed. It is strange that Mao did not learn from Soviet central planning experiments as all these previous attempts to steer an entire economy based on teleology alone had ended disastrously.
This had a knock-on effect in the camps and workers were starved due to the shortages. Naturally, the only response to the crisis was to force the inmates to work extra hard. Hongci regularly worked from 3 am to 10 pm in Laogai.
During the Cultural Revolution, Hongci was transferred to Lijiang prison where he was frequently put in giant iron shackles. The work was backbreaking, “we carried chunks of blasted boulders and rocks split by stonemasons up to the road”. The overly physical nature of this work nearly killed Hongci. When inmates at Lijiang were not working, propaganda would be played from first light at morning until 10 pm telling the prisoners how great their system was.
The effect of combining the paucity of food and the overworking of the inmates was catastrophic, “every morning around 3 am, I would wake with a terrible stomach ache”. Prisoners such as Dai Chaogang were worked to death. There was no respite either. Initially, the labour camps had made some reading materials available. Hongci recalled reading several types of books before the list of available works was narrowed down to one author: Mao Zedong.
Hongci wrote a moving account of the collective descent into madness, “on death’s doorstep, man can become an animal and abandon every moral principle he has established in the course of his life. In our prison, convicts stole like kleptomaniacs, defecated where they pleaded, fought, squealed, and were capable of every other hideous and despicable act. I saw prisoners run their faces with their own urine in the morning as a kind of self-inflicted punishment. Personal hygiene was almost non-existent, clean clothes even rarer. I too became a savage. During those months, I didn’t wash myself or my clothes one single time”
In the Chinese justice system, while Mao was in charge, Hongci noted that “once it has deprived you of your freedom, it will never restore it completely. Detainees are only marginally freer than convicts and are definitely not considered full citizens”. I made reference to this in a recent review of Kafka’s “The Trial”. The separation of power between the government and justice system had broken down completely. All trials became a Kafkaesque parody where genuine innocence and freedom were unattainable.
After serving his six-year sentence, Hongci was excited to get out, until Liang Manqi, the camp guard, informed him that, “you haven’t reformed your thinking…hard labour is the only way to purge your mind of all those reactionary ideas”. It is important to note that, in communist China, ideas were as dangerous as actions. Hongci complained to Manqi, “you haven’t even given me a trial?” to which the bleak response he received was, “we know everything about your case. There was no need for a trial”.
Fellow camp inmate Shukang was found guilty for writing to Beijing to tell them that 2,000 people had starved to death in Jiuhe during the Great Leap Forward. For this act of honesty, he received an extra 15 years in the camps. He duly killed himself.
Even after he was released from the camps, after Mao had died, it took until 1982 for the Chinese government to rescind Hongci’s wrongful conviction for being a “rightist”.
Whilst ostracised in Mongolia after escaping from the brutal forced labour camps, Hongci reminisced, “I was just sad and angry, confident that sooner or later the Chinese people would rise up to cast off the yoke of Mao’s tyranny and establish a democratic nation. I told myself, on that day I shall return”
Sadly, Hongci never lived to see this moment materialise. “China’s tragedy, I said to myself, is that it will never allow people to speak the truth. For speaking the truth, I have lost my freedom and my future. For speaking the truth, Shukang has paid with his life. And countless more will die for speaking the truth”. The communist system cannot permit honesty as this would mean allowing a multitude of voices to offer differing routes forward in a democratic country. By definition, it must repress opposition and dissent to propagate itself. This is what made Kissinger’s 1972 remark of the Chinese communists being a “holy group of monks” when he met Mao so egregious.
This tolerant, almost playful Western attitude towards Mao still persists to this day. John McDonnell, Corbyn’s number two in charge, brought Mao’s infamous little red book into the House of Commons during a George Osbourne speech. That Chinese communism is still deemed in any way acceptable by Western leftists is beyond the pale. McDonnell and Corbyn’s colleague Diane Abbott also talked up the benefits of Maoism. I am not sure Hongci would share the leadership of the current UK Labour Party’s positive assessment of Mao.
Let us leave the last word to people who lived in the system, “You (Hongci’s friend Yan Hong) said that by the time we were old, China would definitely be a just and fair communist society. Now we are old, but where is the just and fair communist society? Her silence held all the broken dreams of our generation”.