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.

I agree with Dai Qing’s estimate:

At that time, my own opinion was that the government was simply too inefficient and cumbersome to respond to the students…. If there were leaders with such capabilities, they were repressed at the top levels because of a fundamental difference of opinion. Either way, the distinct impression one came away with was that in ignoring the good youth of our nation the government presented itself as cold and heartless—which caused more people to become even more angry.

This view has been confirmed by many sources, including the Tiananmen Papers,10 the government’s own condemnation of Zhao Ziyang, and the vast qingcha, or ferreting out, of Tiananmen participants which lasted through 1990.

But Dai Qing promptly undercuts her own insight when in the next sentence she suggests that “those who were involved in the ‘planned conspiracy’ were storing up their energy waiting for the prime opportunity.” She makes the unfounded and disgraceful charge that student leaders like Wang Dan, who were imprisoned for about seven years after Tiananmen, were manipulated by the real masterminds, whom she does not name. Does she still think “that if troops had been brought in at this moment [April 1989] the situation would have been resolved very quickly”?

* * *

Here Dai Qing simply ignores that what happened in the spring of 1989 was a nationwide movement of which Tiananmen was the most significant part, but only a part; if she does know this, does she think that protests were provoked throughout China by—unnamed—conspirators? Indeed, does Dai Qing still believe what she says she told a Hong Kong radio station in May 1989: “I support the announcement of martial law”—which occurred on May 20—“and propose that the martial law troops carry out the order immediately, something that I have reiterated time and again.” What did she think would happen when the army entered the square? Those who compiled Dai Qing’s essays take no interest in these matters, and particularly in Dai Qing’s contradictory statements, a serious editorial failure. The editors play into the hands of those Chinese, some of whom now live safely in the US, who were in Tiananmen and now condemn the demonstrators for not leaving Tiananmen earlier or, even more severely, for “destabilizing China,” the very charge the Party makes to this day. Meanwhile the regime arrests those who use the Internet to call for a reversal of the official verdict on Tiananmen.

How much more valuable this book would have been if the compilers had been willing to ask Dai Qing, during her visits to the US, about how her opinions changed and what she thinks in retrospect. During her one brief visit to the square on the night of May 14, she and a small group of well-known Beijing intellectuals tried to persuade students to leave. She says she told the students, on the basis of a meeting earlier that day with some relatively high-ranking officials, that “the Premier [Li Peng] and the Party General Secretary have agreed to see you.” The students turned Dai Qing down flat.11

Disheartened, she returned home where she stayed for several days. Without naming them, she disparages other scholars, “who were spending much of their time playing at the ‘Democratic Movement.’” She admits that most Beijing citizens “strongly supported the students.” But she opposed the large-scale changes she said the demonstrators demanded, including a shift toward democracy, because what was needed, in her view, was small incremental reforms. She feared—rightly, as it happens—that “the situation could get totally out of hand and a disaster would befall everyone.” More robust democrats like Wang Dan and Wei Jingsheng have dismissed such incrementalism, sometimes described in China as “neo-authoritarianism,” as a trap that would maintain the dictators in power.

Tiananmen Follies is nevertheless an important book not only for its comments on the Tiananmen events but for what it tells us about how the Chinese authorities treated a distinguished prisoner. On June 4, 1989, when the army moved into Tiananmen, Dai Qing, who once would have died for Mao and was a “child of the Party,” resigned from it. Arrested on July 14, she was taken to Qincheng, Beijing’s prison for elite political prisoners. Her account of her arrest, imprisonment, and confession are the truly valuable parts of her book. After her arrest, Dai Qing told friends, her hair turned white.

Dai Qing conveys with telling detail—but not at all “wittily” as the book jacket puts it—the deliberate, and increasingly terrifying, way the Chinese security services close in on a victim, in Dai’s case with elaborate false courtesy, and how quickly, even in a five-star prison like Qincheng, fear becomes overwhelming. It is incorrect to say, as one translator’s note states, that she makes “no full-fledged confession or expression of remorse.” In fact, as the book’s jacket and the text make clear, Dai Qing did confess and expressed remorse.


The book begins in mid-July 1989, more than a month after the Tiananmen crackdown and Dai Qing’s resignation from the Party. The government had already published a list of twenty-one “most wanted” student and other leaders, and there were plenty of rumors, “some far-fetched, others quite scary,” of arrests of this or that person. Dai Qing heard that a Beijing newspaper would publish her name in a list of people facing imminent arrest. She and others immediately asked themselves the questions that had become familiar when they learned such lists were about to be published: What title precedes your name; for instance, are you called “comrade”? (Zhao Ziyang was called “comrade” in his brief official death notice, which meant that he had not been cast into political outer darkness.) On what page is the list published in the newspaper, how big is the type font, and where does your name appear on the list?

Dai Qing hears that her name will be the fifth or sixth on a list of twelve scholars and writers. “It is by such ranking that your fate is determined.” She starts thinking about prison:

I was a mere grain of sand on their large chessboard…. I was unable to control my fate. My only wish was that I would be allowed to remain intact, and not be crushed to smithereens.

On July 13, “a single cop” comes to her apartment; he gives no identification, although it is plain what he is. He asks if she will be home the next day. “In so many words my guest was telling me, ‘Tomorrow we plan to take action and we want to know where you will be.’” The next morning an elderly woman from the neighbor-hood surveillance committee—usually called “the granny police”—arrives to inquire about Dai Qing’s plans for childbirth. Of course she wants to make sure Dai Qing is at home and Dai cannot resist saying, “Perhaps you’ve forgotten how long it’s been since I passed the age of childbirth.”

That evening she is arrested in front of her husband and daughter. Still confident that she would not be convicted because she “had set foot in Tiananmen” only once, well before the declaration of martial law, Dai Qing writes that she “had no idea that I was being delivered to Qincheng, the most infamous penitentiary for political prisoners in China.” She recalls that very high-level enemies of the state have been locked up in Qincheng during various regimes. Some, she remembers, were former security and military bigwigs who committed suicide there.

* * *

After one day in prison, Dai Qing begins to give up her hope that China’s post-Mao reformists might treat her properly. “What,” she asked herself, “if they now need to create an atmosphere of terror that would involve framing people?” She seems to be referring to the common practice during the post-Mao years of accusing prisoners of things they hadn’t done, always citing some law. The famous saying, which she herself quotes, “Verdict First, Trial Later,” bears this out. She is allowed to receive a limited number of approved books and to exercise in an open space (where she never sees another prisoner) and she can listen to the radio. But she is forbidden to change the station, on which she hears lectures on how to raise snails and Western music conducted by Herbert von Karajan.

She estimates that there are about thirty prisoners in Qincheng while she is there. She writes that she admires the guards for their patience, incorruptibility, and discipline, and their “impervious[ness] to lust.” They display degrees of “civilization and humanity.” One of them tells her, “Don’t worry, we’re all family here.” A “strikingly handsome” young guard chats with her about ice-skating and playing the guitar and permits her to look at a scar on his ear.

In her reconstructed account, she imagines that the decent behavior of the guards toward the important prisoners in Qincheng reflects the “general approach” of Mao and Zhou Enlai. This sounds either like wistful fantasy or an attempt to show she is patriotic; no one familiar with her previous writings can read it without skepticism.12 She says she knows there have been “dark and poisonous” interrogators in the Party’s past, but she now believes they no longer exist, a misconception when we consider what was happening to most prisoners throughout China in the aftermath of the attack on Tiananmen. She describes her own interrogators as trained in legal ethics, and she regrets that “no one outside will know about the high quality work of investigators like those in charge of my case…they never once tried to coerce or cajole evidence out of me, even when I displayed a ‘bad attitude.’” In the light of her full-scale confession and repentance, this statement rings hollow. Dai Qing expresses sympathy for the “burdens of security” her interrogators shoulder: trapped between the bad past and the reformist present, they know that many are watching them. One mark of progress, she writes, would be if China stopped insisting it had no political prisoners.

Soon she begins to fear the worst, a heavy sentence, and she wonders if she will be executed. This is especially unfair, she writes, because she is opposed to overthrowing the present system. She favors “enlightened despotism,” and fears that a revolutionary change now would be worse than the “present political order.” As for the institution that will bring about change, “I have always believed that it is only the army leadership who have the capacity to transform the traditional leadership in China into a more open system.” This is a startling belief, for which she provides no further explanation or evidence. Again the editors and translators fail to inquire when she formed this view and whether she still holds it. But the Party is progressing, she emphasizes; she wishes the Tiananmen students had been willing to accept the concession that the leaders would no longer import luxury cars.

In her account Dai Qing shows almost complete ignorance of what the demonstrators throughout China were actually demanding, although she is well aware of the implacable system in which she grew up. She describes its shabby record, starting with the 1942 Rectification Campaign in which thousands were executed, and moves through increasingly destructive “movements” and “campaigns.” She concludes that “several generations lost their capacity to think independently, and their basic human rights.” It is hardly surprising, then, that she supposes none of her lawyer friends will speak up for her, and that in any event her trial will be a “mere formality.” She fears a sentence of more than fifteen years—Wei Jingsheng’s sentence—rather than the two the law appears to warrant.

By the end of 1989, as interrogations continue and she sees no way out of prison, she considers suicide. Kang Sheng’s methods, learned from the NKVD and introduced at Yanan, have worked. All that is necessary now is a confession.

In January she is told she will leave solitary confinement and be placed under “supervised residence,” which means she can live in several places in Beijing under almost ordinary conditions, although not at home. She is first moved to the Qincheng staff dormitory with a retired guard to keep watch on her. It was while there that she wrote this memoir, which, she says, is uncensored, although she never says whether officials read it. She is released from prison on May 9, 1990, accused only of “the ‘error’ of ‘supporting and participating’ in…’political turmoil.’”

The translators add a note: in January 1991 Dai Qing told a Hong Kong journal, “You could say about my release that they’ve let me out of a small prison into a massive jail.” This is evidently true, but what happened to her next remains somewhat mysterious. First she was moved to several different locations, apparently so that she could not speak with an American State Department official who wanted to visit her. Then quite suddenly she was allowed to go to Harvard as a Nieman Fellow. She still had, she says, some writings that she had hidden from the guards (although we are never told how); and it is in one of these concealed prison essays that she attacks those who, she says, “provoked” Tiananmen. She doesn’t say that one of them, Wang Dan, would soon turn up at Harvard after a much longer sentence than hers.

* * *

The last essays in Tiananmen Follies consist of Dai Qing’s confession and what might be described as confessional materials. It is here that the translators’ brief note claims “she is no snitch” and that she expresses no remorse. This is clearly false, although there is no evidence that anyone Dai Qing condemned suffered because of her accusations. What has happened is that Dai Qing has, in one of the Party’s oldest triumphal terms, “turned over” or, as Kang Sheng put it, she has “become conscious.” She is willing to say things that would have been unthinkable before she was arrested.

She names names of political activists and accuses them of acts for which she has no evidence. She says that Tiananmen demonstrators hoped people would die in the square to make the situation worse. The translators of this book do not ask her for any evidence or explanation. The only such expectation—not hope—of deaths I know of was expressed by Chai Ling, one of the student leaders, in a filmed interview during Tiananmen, in which, plainly exhausted, she said she expected the army to kill students in the square. This, she said, would inform the world what China was like, but she would flee before this happened because she knew she would be a target. This interview caused Chai Ling’s reputation to suffer. But in spite of what she said, Chai Ling remained in the square throughout the killings of June 3 and 4 and its clearing by the army early in the morning of the fourth. She then fled China.

As for remorse, Dai Qing confesses she regrets almost everything she did from April 1989 on. She says that while the students were sincere in their demands for social justice,

I failed to observe, or, perhaps, observed and did not admit, the many defects of this generation of university students, especially the absence on their part of a rational spirit and their inability to exercise self-restraint when emotionally stirred up.

Referring to her own way of using “surprisingly dazzling words,” she declares that she expressed her opinions “recklessly without much real thought or careful consideration…. It was exactly the kind of erroneous style of thinking that our Chairman Mao once criticized.” In what sounds like a complete victory for Kang Sheng’s idea of being “conscious,” she promises

never again [to] involve myself with political issues nor express opinions on important matters, especially since I am no longer a Party member.

In November 1989, Dai Qing heard from a prison interrogator that “she would be among the very few to be ‘executed.’” I suppose very few readers of The New York Review or its reviewers would refuse to cooperate under such pressure. We, too, might well confess and express remorse. In any event Dai Qing did the opposite of what she declared she would do. She broke the promise in her confession never again to pronounce on important political matters. She has written vigorously—and falsely—about the Tiananmen events.

Her book is an example of that broken promise. But more than that it is a frightening example of how mental torture and the fear of death can do lasting damage. Dai Qing’s treatment in Qincheng by the guards and interrogators she says she admired led, after her release, to the public condemnations of the Tiananmen students for which she is now so well known. She says, “I made a lot of compromises [with the Chinese authorities], and now I have got the right to live here [in the US].”13 This, it must be said, is an unusually privileged position, especially when we think of the refugees from the Tiananmen repression who cannot return to China, as Dai Qing can and does.

Jung Chang, the author of Wild Swans, whose powerful book on Mao has just been published in London,14 recently stated that “the Chinese must be the most traumatized people in the world. Fear is embedded in the national psyche.”15 Only Dai Qing knows for certain what happened to her in Qincheng prison. But the woman once admired as China’s most fearless and effective investigative journalist has changed, and her book, if read carefully, suggests why. She continues to live with the fear that caused her hair to turn white.

  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. Harvard University Press, 1994.
  3. University of Michigan Press, 1996.
  4. "Dai Qing, Environmentalist, Writer, China," BusinessWeek online, June 14, 1999.
  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. Perry Link, Evening Chats in Beijing (Norton, 1992), p. 146.
  7. Link, Evening Chats in Beijing, p. 147.
  8. International Rivers Network, 1991.
  9. Link, Evening Chats in Beijing, p. 209.
  10. Compiled by Zhang Liang, edited by Andrew J. Nathan and Perry Link, with an afterward by Orville Schell (Public Affairs, 2001). See my review, "The Truth About Tiananmen," The New York Review, February 8, 2001.
  11. Link, Evening Chats in Beijing, pp. 144–147. Merle Goldman of Boston University also discusses Dai Qing's pre-1989 writings and sets them in a wider political context in Sowing the Seeds of Democracy in China: Political Reform in the Deng Xiaoping Era (Harvard University Press, 1994), pp. 284ff. For a selection of these writings, including an erotic short story, "A Sexy Lady," see Geremie Barme and Linda Jaivin, New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices (Times Books, 1992).
  12. For a detailed study of how Mao and Zhou treated political prisoners see Michael Schoenhals's "The Central Case Examination Group, 1966–79," China Quarterly, Vol. 145 (1996), pp. 87–111.
  13. "My Books Are Banned. But I Can Speak Outside," BusinessWeek online, June 14, 1999.
  14. To be published in the US by Knopf in October.
  15. BBC Radio 3, "Nightwaves," May 25, 2005.