Chairman Mao's Red Terror


Life and Death in Shanghai, by Nien Cheng, New York: Grove Press, 547 pages, $19.95

Each of the great holocausts of our time has produced its own literature. Eli Weisel is only the best known of dozens of writers who have documented the Nazi extermination campaign, while the Soviet Union's excesses have been the subject of numerous exposés, of which Alexander Solzhenitsyn's chilling account of the Gulag and Robert Conquest's recounting of the Stalinist Terror are merely the best known. The post-fall pogrom of South Vietnamese officials and intellectuals has been described by Doan Van Thoi, and even the genocide in remote Cambodia has been brought to the attention of the world by The Killing Fields.

Slower in coming has been an adequate description of one of the most brutal and far-reaching holocausts of them all—Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution. For 10 long years China was in the grip of radical leftists, who ruthlessly persecuted millions of "enemies of the people." Many of these died, and the survivors have been silent. Now one of these "enemies" has come forward to tell her story.

Life and Death in Shanghai is Nien Cheng's autobiographical account of her cruel mistreatment and imprisonment during the Cultural Revolution. It is the moving and ultimately triumphant story of how one woman, through her courage and integrity, thwarted the efforts of a totalitarian state to bend her to its will. Cheng's refusal to confess to the false charge of "spying" had weighty consequences. Deng Xiaoping himself may owe his preeminent position in China today to the resilience and wit of this Chinese heroine.

It is ironic in view of Nien Cheng's later suffering that she and her husband consciously chose to stay on in China following the Communist revolution. Like many intellectuals who were tired of civil war and economic dislocation, Cheng welcomed the Communist Party's establishment of a stable government and believed its promises of a fair and democratic rule: "The communists advocated social justice and I was idealistic," she writes.

Cheng's husband, who had served in the foreign ministry of the ousted Nationalist government, became manager of the Chinese subsidiary of Shell International Petroleum Co. When he died in 1957, a British manager was appointed. Finding the extraordinarily complex Chinese bureaucracy difficult to deal with, he invited Cheng, who had been educated in England, to serve as his executive assistant.

With the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, Cheng's foreign education and overseas connections brought down upon her the wrath of the young Red Guards. Her house was vandalized, her possessions destroyed or confiscated, and she herself was placed under guard and confined to a single room.

But this was merely the beginning. Shell had been forced to close down its office, and Cheng was accused of "spying for the imperialists." She was arrested and sent to Shanghai's No. 1 Prison, built by the Nationalists before the revolution to hold Communist prisoners. Now things were different, she was told by a prison official: "The Dictatorship of the Proletariat uses the same instruments of repression against its own enemies."

The techniques of this new dictatorship were, however, uniquely its own. They included constant interrogations, often held in the middle of the night to deprive Cheng of sleep and make her more pliable; solitary confinement, during which even the guards were not allowed to talk to her; and one terrifying period during which she was kept not only alone but in total darkness.

Cheng only gradually became aware of the critical importance attaching to the confession that the Maoist radicals hoped to wring out of her. The radicals had carried out a purge of party officials during the opening stages of the Cultural Revolution, removing many of their enemies from high positions. But one man, Premier Chou En-lai, stood in the way of their total domination of the government. Chou could not be attacked directly, because he still enjoyed the Chairman's confidence. It was necessary first to discredit him.

The radicals knew that the State Council, headed by Premier Chou, had given Shell permission to continue operations in China after 1949. They also knew that Chou had personally approved a travel visa to Great Britain for Cheng and her husband in 1956, an unusual move given that they were not members of the Communist Party. If Cheng could be forced to admit to spying, they reasoned, this could be used against Chou.

Cheng, however, proved an unwilling pawn in the power struggle. "It seemed to me that making a false confession when I was innocent was a foolish thing to do," she says. "The more logical and intelligent course was to face persecution no matter what I might have to endure."

What she had to endure, ultimately, was torture. Her hands were bound behind her back with a set of heavy manacles, which were kept on 24 hours a day. She was forced to eat like an animal off the table, and she could relieve herself only with great difficulty. Worse yet, the manacles were so tight that they cut into the flesh of her wrists and restricted the flow of blood. Within a few days her hands swelled up to twice their normal size, and infection set in. By the time the manacles were removed two weeks later she was delirious and near death. Yet she had not confessed.

Years passed and the radicals' fortunes declined. After six and a half years, Cheng was released from prison. She was in poor health, her hands were partially crippled from her bout with the manacles, and she suffered from an advanced case of gum disease which cost her all of her teeth.

Cheng had found the strength to survive her torture and imprisonment in part from the conviction that she would one day be reunited with her daughter, Meiping. But upon being released she found out Meiping had died in the opening stages of the Cultural Revolution. The government had never notified her.

The death had been officially declared a suicide, caused by her daughter's failure to assume "a correct attitude toward the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution." Cheng was not satisfied with this explanation. So she set out to discover what really happened. Within a few months she knew the truth: Meiping had been kidnapped by the radicals and, when she refused to confess that her mother was a "spy for the imperialists," had been pushed out of a ninth-story window.

Cheng was finally "rehabilitated" in 1978, and the government admitted that her prosecution and imprisonment was a mistake. Several years later, she was allowed to leave China. She now resides in Washington, D.C., and is soon to become an American citizen. "The United States is the right place for me," she believes. "Here are Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, persecuted dissidents from repressive regimes, boat people from Vietnam, and political refugees from tyranny."

Throughout her book, Cheng modestly downplays her importance in the scheme of things. Yet if she had confessed to spying, the consequences for China might well have been of tremendous and tragic moment. Armed with her confession, the radicals would have bloodied Premier Chou. With Chou out of the way or weakened, the second rank of moderates, among them Deng Xiaoping, would have been exposed to radical wrath. Not only would the leading radicals, those arrested and publicly pilloried as the Gang of Four, have avoided this fate, they would have maintained or improved their positions on the Politburo. In the best case the economic reforms of the past 10 years would have come much more slowly and haphazardly. In the worst cast the Cultural Revolution, with its insatiable need for victims, would be continuing in China today.

In her great courage and personal fortitude, Cheng resembles a character out of an Ayn Rand novel. But while Rand's characters seem to come by their inner strength instinctively, or by a simple act of will, Cheng is able to face adversity because of her religious faith, her love for her family, especially her daughter, and her love for her country. Such are the prosaic but essential building blocks out of which she constructs her tenacious resistance to the radical conspiracy that seeks to overthrow all reason and moderation.

It is ironic that the moderate Chinese Communists who were the beneficiaries of Cheng's convictions are scarcely less hostile than the radicals to religious faith, societal mores, and family allegiances. Deng Xiaoping undoubtedly sees such bourgeois sentiments as interfering with the people's affection for the Communist Party. Yet he and his programs were saved by such sentiments, which have a more central role in the formation of character than many collectivists or individualists like to believe.

Steven W. Mosher is the author of Broken Earth: The Rural Chinese and Journey to the Forbidden China and is director of the Asian Studies Center at the Claremont Institute in Montclair, California.