Title

In A Cruel Country

In her disturbing memoir of three and half years in Beijing, Bette Bao Lord, the author of the novel Spring Moon and wife of Winston Lord, the American ambassador until just before the Beijing killings, retells a traditional story which is wholly appropriate to Party rule in China:

Once a sage passed by a cemetery where a white-haired woman was wailing. “What tragedy has befallen you?” the sage asked.

“In these parts,” she replied, “there lives a man-eating tiger. Two months ago, it devoured my eldest. A month ago, my second son. This week, my youngest.”

“Why did you not flee from these ills?”

“Because more ferocious than man-eating tigers is corrupt government.”

Liu Binyan, aptly described on the cover of his memoir, A Higher Kind of Loyalty, as China’s foremost journalist, tells many terrible stories, too, of which this is one of the worst: in 1970, in northeast China, one hundred political prisoners are cutting grass. One of them unwittingly approaches the boundary beyond which prisoners are forbidden to stray. A guard calls to him to cross the line; the guard shoots him, and, after a night of lying in agony alone in the open, the prisoner dies.

“It sounded like a game,” Liu writes. “Killing a man for nothing.”

Only a Chinese person, who understands Chinese ways, could guess the motive: to put up a show of revolutionary vigilance—an important political quality, which was very useful for getting into the Party, for getting a promotion or at the very least a citation of honor. It was sure to be reported, and your name would undoubtedly be noticed by leaders.

* * *

In both books China emerges as a country still suffering from a long illness. Bette Bao Lord, who left China for the US in 1946, when she was eight, and did not return for almost thirty years, found “all Chinese were in pain, and taking their pulse, reading their temperature, charting every change and finding the cure took all the effort they could muster.” Liu, a Party member since 1944, when he was nineteen, realized that

all the so-called struggles between the left and the right in Party history had to be reassessed…. It was not a struggle between different sets of political beliefs, but between those who were more humane and more devoted to public interests on the one hand, and political opportunists seeking personal or group interests on the other.

If a foreigner used the same evidence to describe most Chinese as unwell and Party politics as nothing but a battle between good and evil, he or she would be attacked as culture-bound, if not racist. The charge would be redoubled if the foreigner offered further evidence, as do these two books, of the sadism of the party and the indifference and hostility of most people to its victims, at least until the last two or three years when, according to Liu, many Chinese found the courage to side with, even to publicly support, the persecuted.

* * *

There is a further lesson in Liu’s memoir and in Tell the World: China specialists cannot be too careful in writing about Chinese matters, especially when they trust the materials to hand. I thought that newspaper accounts of major scandals, particularly if they made Party officials look corrupt, could be accepted as accurate, if incomplete. In 1985 I reported on a gigantic car-smuggling scandal on Hainan Island, which was just becoming a new province with a reform-minded administration, and on a counterfeit-drug scheme across the water in Fujian province. In both cases the provincial Party secretaries were removed, although the Hainan one, Lei Yu, resurfaced as vice-mayor of Canton, a sign, foreign reporters suggested, that if you are a big enough crook in China you will not fall far even when caught.

Liu maintains in A Higher Kind of Loyalty, as does Ruan Ming, once a senior Party ideologue, in Tell the World, that in both cases the aim of the investigations and of the wide Chinese newspaper coverage was to remove two important reformers from their posts. The car smuggling, Liu says—and as Lei Yu maintained at the time—was to finance modernizing projects for which government funds were inadequate. Although I have been to Hainan and believe big sums were pocketed by some car-smuggling officials, if not by Party Secretary Lei Yu, when the next inner-Party scandal is admitted I will be more suspicious.

Bette Bao Lord was certainly careful during her three and a half years as an ambassador’s wife. It now appears that while becoming known as a popular hostess in Beijing she was discreetly collecting horror stories about mistreatment of people by the regime, sometimes in conversation with friends and with her relatives, of whom she has many in and around Shanghai, and sometimes from cassettes which arrived anonymously at the embassy gates.

At the age of seven a friend of Ms. Lord’s who had longed to shoot landlords, rich peasants, and counterrevolutionaries, suddenly found the world turned upside down when, during the late Fifties, her father was accused of being a Rightist; she was too ashamed to accept his gifts of candy and fruit. Soon, together with many thousands of others during Mao’s reign, her father killed himself, and a farewell letter to his child was delivered with the command that after it was read it must be handed to the police. Her mother was ordered to report to work immediately to “declare her political stand,” so the little girl went alone to the crematorium to collect her father’s ashes. There she was told, “People like your father must be cremated in bunches. They do not have the right to be cremated one by one.” She was told also that “Your father’s ears were torn off”—he had refused to be an informer.

A man condemned as a class enemy lost his hair overnight after sending away his wife and baby—forever—to save them from being associated with him; another, while serving a five-year sentence as a political prisoner, was ordered to grow his hair long and wear a dress because he played women’s parts in prison theater performances. Freed at last after five years, he married, but his wife was forced to leave him, and in his despair, with his mind increasingly “wandering,” he took to wearing her clothes; he entered a woman’s toilet by mistake, was accused of rape, and put back in prison. Several times in his story he expresses his gratitude to the Party for its “mercy.”

These stories raise deeply troubling questions in Ms. Lord’s mind about the ease with which Chinese appear to accept and even welcome acts of official cruelty to others. Liu Binyan, for his part, remembers his early fascination with death, and recalls being taken to the scene of a mass murder by his mother where he watched the parades of the condemned before they were executed—still the custom today.

There was very little entertainment in the life of the Chinese people when I grew up—no music, little theater. Instead, it was as if the brutal realities of our daily lives were transformed into stage tragedy, as if we were watching from a distance, seeing a strange and frightening drama, compelling in its particularities and its passion.

A peasant tells Ms. Lord how, as a boy of thirteen during the Cultural Revolution, “even when I saw a man beaten to death, I thought it was normal…. Weren’t the classes at war? In all wars, people die.”

* * *

Ms. Lord realized that virtually everyone she knew of a certain age had been a Red Guard:

How could the witty, caring, intelligent people I knew have ever thought it glorious to humiliate their elders by parading them through the streets wearing tall dunce caps and shameful placards;…to hurt fellow Chinese without consideration of sex or age; to maim and kill?

She concludes it was “ignorance, not savagery. They had been programmed from birth to believe that the Chairman, alone and always, knew what was best for China and the Chinese.”

But what troubled Ms. Lord more deeply—and what has often troubled me—is that almost none of her friends admitted to having practiced any violence themselves. One of those who did joined in beating his favorite teacher because suddenly he “understood” that the man had been kind only because he wanted to turn his student into a “counterrevolutionary.” Eight years later, with the teacher long dead, the ex-Red Guard visited his victim’s widow, who told him that her husband had often said “how very proud he was to have had me as his star pupil.”

I hope the old lady was being poisonously polite, in a very Chinese way, to her husband’s tormentor, but I’m not sure. Neither is Ms. Lord. She says something that, coming from anyone else, would be a cliché, but she follows its implications: “Chinese go through life wearing masks.” These are dictated by tradition; “each citizen has a trunkful,” and each, therefore, wonders: “What lies behind the smile? What lurks behind the compliment?” And the leaders, or course, surrounded by mask wearers, wear them as well. But such constant deception, Ms. Lord concludes, “inevitably leads to paranoia, and to that I also succumbed.”

But she used this paranoia sensitively, accepting little that she was told at face value, but remaining open to those who felt brave enough to tell her the truth about a society where virtually everyone is in pain. No one I know of has recorded this terrible truth better than Ms. Lord.

* * *

Liu Binyan, too, knows much about suffering. For decades he was China’s tribune of the people, the leading investigative journalist for the People’s Daily. His articles on corruption and injustice guaranteed that one of the world’s most boring newspapers would sell out. Crowds waited outside the newspaper’s offices to press appeals into Liu’s hand, strangers knocked on his door at night hoping that he could right some decades-old wrong. He has been expelled twice from the Party, in 1957 and again in 1987, and he spent twenty-one years accused of being a Rightist or a counterrevolutionary, during which he was arrested, forced to do hard labor, and separated from his family. Since 1987 he has lived in the US, first at Harvard and now at Princeton, but he is regularly reviled in China, most recently by Wang Renzhi, director of the Party Propaganda Department, as one of those plotting class struggle to destroy socialism and revive the capitalism that will return the Chinese people to poverty.

In 1985 Liu wrote an essay entitled “Another Kind of Loyalty.” Although the Party tried to stop its publication, it was picked up by magazines and newspapers throughout China. In Shanxi province alone one paper printed a million copies. In it Liu distinguished, in effect, two kinds of Chinese loyalty. One of them stresses meekness, modesty, deference, and submissiveness, and it sometimes compounds submissiveness by obeying orders, even wrong ones, and shifting allegiance promptly when the political wind changes.

The second kind of loyalty, Liu says, means independent thinking and acting, not following the herd, standing up for justice, and ignoring personal safety. “For the last twenty years, people who had such qualities were labeled ‘enemies of the people.’ ”

After hunting for thirty-three years Liu found an example of loyalty of the second kind: Chen Shizhong, a slight engineer with thick glasses, who told him about the prisoner who had been shot cutting grass. Chen had already spent four years writing to the highest Party and military leaders and to the local authorities about what he witnessed fifteen years earlier; the victim, Liu points out, was neither Chen’s friend nor his relative. The struggles of thirty years had destroyed most people’s capacity for pity, making his campaign all the more remarkable.

Chen wrote letters of outrage on many subjects to world leaders, including Nikita Khrushchev. Most extraordinary was his letter to Mao, written from prison, where he was serving a sentence for treason. Chen told the chairman that the basic reason for the Party’s grave mistakes was his own cult. “Your reverence will not tolerate the slightest criticism, especially on matters of principle. You go back on your word and wreak havoc.” Chen correctly predicted that before long most of Mao’s senior comrades, including Deng Xiaoping, would be labeled “anti-Party, antirevolutionary revisionists,” and ended by saying “As you finish this letter, your ‘dragon heart’ will rise in fury, and my life will soon be ended. Even so, before my execution, I will say one last word: ‘Jupiter, you are angry, therefore you are wrong!’ ”

Even Liu, who had joined the Party as a patriotic nineteen-year-old, and spent years openly criticizing it, found Chen’s kind of loyalty difficult to practice. From the beginning, Party officials had criticized his “bourgeois sentiments”—because he had learned Russian from his interpreter father he was said to have “the airs of a decadent Russian aristocrat” and “I often had the desire to wear a red shirt.” To defend himself he laid down a personal rule: “Save your love and sympathy for the entire working class, rather than wasting it on individual suffering,…have absolute faith in the Party.” Not surprisingly, Liu found this self-denying ordinance soul-destroying: “In the coming years, I often found myself at war with this rule.”

* * *

Liu has almost nothing good to say about the Party, which expelled him twice and inflicted lasting suffering on millions of other Chinese. His doubts began early. He believed there had been more intellectual freedom under the Kuomintang (he writes this in Tell the World), and even under the Japanese, who permitted Marxist and anti-Japanese publications: the occupiers, he says, unlike the Party, were able to distinguish between acts and ideology.

But he numbed his own doubts. When the Soviet army raped and looted its way through Manchuria after the war, Liu was shocked that soldiers from the mother country of socialism could behave badly; but he invented explanations to explain their behavior to local people. He secretly disapproved when the Party expelled a friend for sleeping with a girl he loved but managed to “keep my distance from ‘bourgeois’ sentiments.” He disapproved too, when, during land reform, he saw small landlords stripped of their possessions: “I felt that if Marx had been there, he would not have approved.” But when a landlord—”just a miserable wretch who owned about an acre of land”—was beaten to a pulp because every village had to provide a quota of victims “to arouse class consciousness,” Liu looked the other way.

As a young Party member, Liu knew that China’s much acclaimed 1954 Constitution was “just a hoax,…just for show, something to be displayed to foreigners,” and that in any event its rights did not apply to class enemies. Even before he became one of the million victims of the repressive campaigns of the 1950s (Liu’s estimate of the number is well above the one usually given in Western publications) he began to doubt the Party’s infallibility, although an old veteran from the Yan’an days so much praised by Edgar Snow for their purity told him that even if the Party ordered him to commit murder he must follow orders. Liu states flatly that, far from being about issues of principle, inner-Party struggles are really between good and bad people. He notes that while Deng often criticized “leftists” for being antireform, they were never purged or even disgraced. Punishment was reserved for Rightists, invariably accused of being treasonous West-loving counterrevolutionaries. That, says Liu, is because the left—and he appears to include Deng in this category—”had always been in the ascendancy in the Party.”

Even before the Anti-Rightist campaign of 1957, which resulted in his expulsion from the Party and thirteen years in the actual and metaphorical wilderness, Liu had experienced the Party’s reckless cruelty. He was falsely accused of having written and signed abusive letters to Premier Chou Enlai and Hu Yaobang (the real reason was that he had written a critical article about cadres who wasted state funds and about the callousness of doctors) and subjected to weeks of interrogation and the cold shoulder from colleagues. Then it was discovered that the letters were forgeries, written by the activist wife of Liu’s editor in chief, for motives Liu still doesn’t understand.

* * *

What is especially disturbing about these terrible events in Liu’s life is how difficult it was for him to recognize the Party’s evil nature, although from the mid-Forties he had experienced it. Even when the Party failed to apologize to him about the forged letters, and he knew that he had been unjustly treated: “Now that the case against me had been thrown out, I felt that the Party was more reliable than ever.”

In 1957, thirteen years after he joined the Party, Liu came under attack as a Rightist so crooked “you can smell it a mile away.” The pressure on Liu, the almost total lack of support from his colleagues, the disgrace for his family—who were also required to denounce him (his wife refused)—was excruciating; but still he blamed the victim: himself. “I did some real hard thinking on my own and began to see the light.” Near the end of the ordeal he confessed to a group of Party members,

“My mind is steeped in bourgeois ideology and individualism. All my words and deeds originate in my mind, and since my mind is completely poisoned, how can anything good come out of it?”…. As I said these words, both the audience and I gave a sigh of relief.

This was not a bogus confession to gain a lighter sentence. Part of Liu’s own explanation we need not accept: “I do not boast of great strength of character.” His memoir shows precisely the opposite. But he could not bear to face the truth about his persecutors, the Party and Mao himself, who had personally given the signal to purge Liu.

I began to convince myself: between Mao and myself, there could only be one wrong, and since he was beyond wrong, it could only be me. Thus I accepted my fate.

Thirty years later, Liu says, he reread some of the Chairman’s words from this period and realized what he had failed to see. It is a striking list: Mao, for example, never admitted that after Liberation in 1949 the Party had made mistakes—including its witch hunts, its anti-intellectualism, its assertions that the Chinese Communists were superior to all others. To this can be added Liu’s own doubts, mentioned above, which began even before he joined the Party. But just as he suppressed his early doubts so he suppressed his later doubts about Mao’s speeches: “Young and naïve at the time [Liu was in his thirties], we never saw through Mao.” His faith continued in 1980 when, back inside the Party, Liu learned that his old enemies were storing up evidence against him. But, he writes,

Still I remained confident that the Party and Deng Xiaoping [who had been Mao’s Party general-secretary during the late 1950s when Liu was condemned as a Rightist, and who even after Mao’s death insisted that the movement had been necessary] would understand that my goals were the same as theirs, that all my talks and publications were in their interest, that we were fighting on the same front.

And yet in the same year Liu noticed that even though men like Deng and his associates had been persecuted by the Gang of Four,

they reserved their hatred only for the particular people who persecuted them, and not for the basic political thinking of the Gang of Four. The latter was in line with their own long-held beliefs, only more extreme.

Only in 1987, Liu says, when he was about to be buried under an avalanche of abuse as a counterrevolutionary and for the second time be purged from the Party, did he begin “to have second thoughts about the matter: ‘Which is better? To be expelled, or to be kept in the Party?’ ”

* * *

At the end of this extraordinary book, which makes a most telling case against the Party from the 1930s until today, Liu wonders, “Why were we still enduring all this? Why couldn’t the Chinese take action as the Korean students had, or as the Burmese students were doing right then?” Had the spirit been crushed out of them by forty years of communism? “We submitted so docilely to its rule from the fifties right through to the seventies.” He sees the beginning of the end of this docility in the nationwide demonstrations of last spring. But even here, Liu writes as if he can hardly bear to face the reality of the Party that treated him as a pariah for more than twenty years and was responsible for millions of deaths, often because of terrible misjudgments about policy and failures to tell the truth about what it was doing. In London last year Liu said that forty million people had starved to death between 1959 and 1961.

I gave up my youth for the Communist Party in its struggle to seize state power. And now a handful of tyrants have betrayed the Party, turning themselves into enemies of the people in the real sense of the word.

The handful of elderly murderers, including Deng, who ordered the Beijing killings, have been running the Party for sixty years. The word “now” shows how hard it still is for Liu to face the truth about the Party. Indeed, as Liu himself points out, the leaders of the Party in Shanxi province—the most important base of the Communist party, he says, before its final victory—”were the first to enjoy the privilege of power immune from any supervision…their habituation to cruelty through war made them absolutely unscrupulous in the struggle for power.”

* * *

Bette Bao Lord gives us an insight into Liu’s tragedy and his partial incomprehension of its nature. She had a Chinese friend, a Party veteran since 1948, who, while he was being persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, feared that if he fell asleep he might say something that could be construed as heresy. But in spite of his ordeal he was still amazed, years later, that “revolutionary comrades” could behave badly. “As I took in the earnest expression on his face,” Ms. Lord recalls, “an old saying popped into my mind: ‘The Sutras are sacred, but the monks recite poorly.”

In Tell the World Liu Binyan, Xu Gang, a poet who witnessed the Tiananmen events and now lives in Paris, and Ruan Ming, once the vice-director of the Central Committee’s Party School and now at Columbia University, describe what happened during the Beijing Spring of 1989 and consider the implications. Their book, which is fascinating although lacking the passion and drama of the memoirs of Liu and Ms. Lord, reveals much about Party life, not least how absurd it often was. Ruan Ming says that in a talk at the Party School Bo Yibo, one of the oldest of what he calls the Gang of the Old, remembered that while he and Mao were swimming together one day, Mao asked him about iron and steel production for the coming year. Bo was just turning around in the water and used a phrase for turning which can also mean “double.” Soon afterward Bo heard Mao announce that China’s iron and steel production was about to double.

This tells us something about how Mao made up his mind that we don’t find in most of the scholarly books on the subject. So does the wall poster in 1988 at Beijing University, quoted in Tell the World, which asked three questions about Premier Li Peng: What did he accomplish as Minister of Water and Power and on the State Education Commission? What qualifies him to become Premier? And if he was qualified. “What other Chinese was not?” Of course the answer is that Li’s qualifications were two: he was Chou Enlai’s adopted son, and he was an acceptable front man for the elderly antireform Party leaders who wanted someone to thwart Zhao Ziyang.

* * *

In Tell the World Liu Binyan explains more clearly than in his memoir why the Gang of the Old have been able to retain power so long. They are, he says, “a species rare in the twentieth century.” They did not first come to power in 1949, but had held power since the Twenties, when in their early soviets they controlled their own army and a local population. “Even Lenin and Stalin did not know the taste of having true power for so long a time.”

Liu touches again on the “habituation to cruelty” which he describes in his memoir to explain why the concept of “humanism”—that there is such a thing as human feeling regardless of class—has been so vigorously resisted by Party ideologues. The supposed philosophical and theoretical reasons for this resistance have been examined by Western scholars. Liu’s explanation is a simple and brutal one: “If people had love of others, how could they kill ‘class enemies?”’ This explains, too, why Liu literally looked the other way years ago when petty landlords were, as he put it in his memoir, beaten to a pulp. The official doctrine justifying brutality, Liu suggests, makes it possible to understand why journalists were permitted to remain in Tiananmen on the night of June 3 and 4: “As long as we can destory the morale of our enemies,” Liu imagines the Gang of the Old thinking, “and publicize it through TV, we can let the ‘elements of rebellion’ that lie in wait and those who side with ‘bourgeois liberalization’ see the severity of the Party’s leadership.”’

Finally Liu asks why, apart from our sympathy for the Chinese, should Westerners worry about the lack of democracy in China? His answer should make George Bush consider whether he wants to go on referring to Deng Xiaoping as his “friend forever,” the message carried to Beijing by Brent Scowcroft on December 10, 1989. Because it is ruled by a tiny cabal concerned only with its own power. Liu warns, China is turning into an international diaster—its population growing out of control, tens of millions unemployed, increasing urban and rural turmoil, and a vast polluted environment.

Such is the People’s Republic of China—still dominated by corrupt, cruel, hypocritical leaders who for sixty years have been supported or endured by their stunned, acquiescent subjects. Until recently these included brave, self-sacrificing critics like Liu Binyan, who in early 1987, forty-three years after he became a member, asked himself, for the first time, “Which is better? To be expelled or to be kept in the Party?”

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Politics