Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we review and discuss the firsthand testimony of those who lived through the horrors of Communism over the past century. This is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda, recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.
With China increasingly in the news again, today we’re focusing on another memoir of life in the People’s Republic of China, “Life and Death in Shanghai” by Nien Cheng. It tells of her experiences during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, when Chairman Mao reasserted his control over the government by setting loose mobs of so-called revolutionaries to attack everyone he thought might be a threat to his power. Estimates range that between 1 and 8 million Chinese were killed directly during this period, including Cheng’s daughter. Many times more were driven into poverty, confined to forced labor camps, or imprisoned in barely survivable conditions. As we’ll see, what I find most memorable about this memoir is the way Cheng consistently exposes the fundamental irrationality of the Chinese Communist system, which can’t even seem to abide by its own declared rules.
Cheng was a senior official at the Shanghai office of the Shell Oil Company, where her husband had also worked until his death in the early 1960s. Having voluntarily stayed in Shanghai rather than fleeing with her co-workers when the Communists took over China, and continuing to work at Shell with direct permission of the government, she was caught by surprise when Mao suddenly decided that all employees of foreign-owned firms were likely spies. She was summoned to a “struggle meeting” where one of her company’s accountants, a man named Tao, was being loudly accused of supporting capitalism, and forced to confess to opposing Mao.
It seemed to me that socialism in China was still very much an experiment and no fixed course of development for the country had yet been decided upon. This, I thought, was why the government’s policy was always changing, like a pendulum swinging from left to right and back again. When things went to the extreme and problems emerged, Peking would take corrective measures. Then these very corrective measures went too far and had to be corrected.
The real difficulty was, of course, that a State-controlled economy stifled productivity, and economic planning from Peking ignored local conditions and killed incentive. When a policy changed from above, the standard of values changed with it. What was right yesterday became wrong today and vice versa.
Cheng, Nien. Life and Death in Shanghai (p. 12). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Due to Shell’s connections with England, the speakers at the meeting implied that Tao was somehow personally associated with China’s humiliation in the Opium War of 1845. After several hours of being yelled at by a roomful of people, Tao was brought forward to confess— supposedly confirming the accusation that Shell’s local office really was placed in order to secretly advance capitalism and oppose China. Cheng was especially frustrated since she knew the office had fully complied with every regulation imposed by the Communist Party.
At times his voice trembled and sometimes he opened his mouth but no words came. When he turned the pages, his hands shook… he must have known that he was not guilty of any real crime. After all, Shell was in China because the People’s Government allowed, even wanted, it to be there. And I knew that the company had been scrupulously correct in observing Chinese government regulations. Tao must have known this too. I thought his chief problem was mental and physical exhaustion. To bring him to his knees and to make sure that he submitted readily, I was sure those who ‘helped’ him must have spent days, if not weeks, constantly questioning him, taking turns to exert pressure on him without allowing him to sleep … Many people I knew, including my own brother, had experienced it during the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957.
It was not too long after that that they began to question Cheng herself. She was repeatedly called in for sessions where she was asked to confirm Tao’s story and make a similar confession, but each time insisted that the local Shell office had fully supported Mao and followed every law. They grew increasingly angry each time she refused to confess. Beginning to get worried, Cheng consulted with a friend of her late husband’s, Mr. Hu, for advice.
‘These men gave me the impression that they wanted a confession from me even if I made it up. Could that be the case?’
‘Oh, yes, yes. They don’t care whether it’s true or not as long as they get a confession. That’s what they are after.’
‘How terrible!’ I exclaimed. ‘Yes, it’s really bad. … But no individual should make a false confession, no matter how great the pressure is.’ Mr Hu said this with great seriousness. He looked at me steadily as if to make sure I got his message and added, ‘That has always been my policy during each political movement…
‘There always comes a time when a man almost reaches the end of his endurance and is tempted to write down something, however untrue, to satisfy his inquisitors and to free himself from intolerable pressure. But one mustn’t do it. Party officials will never be satisfied with the confession. Once one starts confessing, they will demand more and more admissions of guilt, however false, and exert increasing pressure to get what they want. In the end, one will get into a tangle of untruths from which one can no longer extract oneself.’
Hu pointed out that every previous political movement had ended at some point. Those who were in prison and had not yet confessed could usually be released after the movement subsided. But if you had confessed, the Party could use you to save face and show that some of those arrested were “real” criminals— there was no way to prove your confession had been under duress once it was recorded. And you could then spend decades serving your sentence in prison or at labor camps, even after the reason for your arrest was long forgotten. So the best strategy would be to ignore promises of leniency in exchange for a confession, and hold fast to your innocence, regardless of the short-term cost. Cheng took this advice to heart.
As the pace of the Cultural Revolution began to accelerate, mobs of “Red Guards” began roaming the streets to punish anyone seen as supporting capitalism or foreign influence. Often these were groups of teenagers who seemed to enjoy the senseless destruction and freedom to loot from rich homes and shops, rather than having any coherent idea of what philosophy they were supposedly defending. Anyone who appeared to be wealthy could be randomly beaten in the street and stripped of their possessions. The Guards even did absurd things like deactivating traffic lights, since using the color red to mean “Stop” did not seem respectful to Communism. It was only a matter of time until Cheng’s house was targeted directly. As expected, her attempt to rationally argue with the attacking mob was unsuccessful:
There were between thirty and forty senior high school students, aged between fifteen and twenty, led by two men and one woman much older. … As they crowded into the hall, one of them knocked over a pot of jasmine… The tiny white blooms scattered on the floor were trampled by their impatient feet. The leading Red Guard, a gangling youth with angry eyes, stepped forward and said to me, ‘We are the Red Guards. We have come to take revolutionary action against you!’
Though I knew I was doing something futile and pointless, I held up the copy of the Constitution and said calmly, ‘It’s against the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China to enter a private house without a search warrant.’ The young man snatched the document out of my hand and threw it on the floor. With his eyes blazing, he said, ‘The Constitution is abolished. It was a document written by the Revisionists within the Communist Party. We recognize only the teachings of our Great Leader Chairman Mao.’
The mob spread throughout the house, destroying everything they could, and gathering up and inventorying the valuables. After they had been doing this for a while, they took her to her bedroom and demanded she describe all her jewelry, so they could make sure they had confiscated everything. She realized that if she omitted any item and they found it, she could be accused of hiding it for capitalist purposes, so she did her best to describe them all. But she noticed that a young Guard girl in the room seemed terrified as she did this— she realized the girl was probably very poor, and had likely pocketed one of the mentioned items to help her family. Seeing the fury of the guards, and fearing the mob would turn on the girl, she had pity on her and came up with an idea.
When I finished describing the missing jewellery, I said, looking at the girl in front of me, ‘All of you have made such a mess with all these papers and books on the floor. Perhaps the missing watch, rings and bracelets have dropped among the debris.’ The girl’s pale face reddened. In an instant, she disappeared under the desk. The other Red Guards followed suit. The teacher remained in his seat, contemplating me with a puzzled frown. It seemed to me he saw through my game but did not understand my motive for covering up for the thief. Confucius said, ‘A compassionate heart is possessed by every human being.’ This was no longer true in China, where in a society pledged to materialism, men’s behaviour was increasingly motivated by self-interest. The teacher probably thought I had hoped to gain favour from the Red Guards.
The girl successfully “found” the items she had pocketed among the debris on the floor, and the situation was defused for the moment. But Cheng’s troubles had just begun— several more destructive mobs attacked over the next few days, and she was then placed under house arrest. Responding to a speech by Chairman Mao, they even tried to tear apart her mattresses and floorboards, searching for secret caches of gold and weapons stored for a capitalist counterrevolution. They also continued to repeatedly question her, but she refused to concede any of their points or confess.
‘You are going to hear a lot about us. We are the Revolutionaries who represent the working class which is the ruling class in China,’ he said with a lift of his chin.
‘Isn’t the working class in China represented by the Chinese Communist Party?’ I asked.
‘Shut up! We don’t have to justify ourselves to you. You are an arrogant class enemy! You have no right to discuss who represents the working class in China.
As they continued to harangue her, Cheng’s cat Fluffy bit one of them and ran away. This was followed by a flurry of accusations that she had trained a wild animal to attack Communists, though fortunately the cat was agile enough to escape their wrath. After many additional rounds of questioning, Cheng was taken to a struggle meeting like the one she had attended for Tao, and a roomful of people shouted demands for her to confess. But she still refused. As a result, she was taken to Detention House #1, a local prison, and locked up in solitary confinement. She didn’t know it yet, but she would remain confined in that cell for six years.
The cell obviously had not been cleaned for years, and she was choking on the dust. She was only allowed the bare minimum clothing needed, and the only book she was permitted was Chairman Mao’s quotations. At first the guards would not even loan her a broom to clean the cell with, but she cleverly found an appropriate Mao quotation: “To be hygienic is glorious; to be unhygienic is a shame.” With this, she convinced the guards to reluctantly let her do some cleaning. The guard leader was a bit surprised later to see the clean cell.
‘What have you done to the cell?’
‘I cleaned it according to Chairman Mao’s teaching on hygiene,’ I answered.
‘If you heed the teaching of our Great Leader Chairman Mao, why are you locked in a prison cell?’ she yelled. ‘Did the Chairman tell you to commit a crime?’
‘I’ve never committed a crime. There has been a mistake. It can be cleared up by investigation and examination of the facts,’ I said.
‘You have a glib tongue, that I can see. You’re trying to bring your capitalist way of life into this place, aren’t you?’
Depressed by her new situation, Cheng momentarily started to doubt herself.
Could it be possible that what I had considered innocent behaviour had really been interpreted by others as criminal deeds against the State? … I said to the guard, ‘In that case, I’ll study the law books to see if I have indeed committed a crime inadvertently. Will you please lend me your law books?’ ‘
‘What law books? You talk just like the capitalist intellectuals that are being denounced in this Cultural Revolution. You think in terms of law books, rules and regulations. We are the proletariat, we do not have anything like that.’ He seemed highly indignant as if my assumption that they had law books was an insult.
‘If you do not have law books, what do you go by? How do you decide whether a man has committed a crime or not?’
‘We go by the teachings of our Great Leader Chairman Mao. His words are our criteria. If he says a certain type of person is guilty and you belong to that type, then you are guilty. It’s much simpler than depending on a law book,’ he said. … I wondered how the guard would have felt if not I but he had been the victim.
After this, Cheng determined that she would continue to hold her ground, and demand that rational proof of a crime be presented, or she be cleared and released. At every interrogation, she challenged the guards in logical debate, though this merely continued to anger them further.
She even started to enjoy the mental sparring with the guards, her one break from the unending boredom and deprivation in her cell. But she suffered several physical consequences: aside from direct beatings, the malnourishment and filth were not very conducive to an aging woman’s health, and she suffered numerous bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia, as well as uterine hemorrhages. She had to be taken semi-conscious to a substandard prison hospital numerous times, at one point spending six days in a coma, but miraculously continued to survive. At one point she was placed in heavy cuffs for a week, permanently damaging the nerves in her hands. The guards grew increasingly frustrated with her attempts to get them to rationally review her case.
‘Am I not to expect justice from the People’s Government?’
‘Justice! What is justice? It’s a mere word. It’s an abstract word with no universal meaning. To different classes of people, justice means different things. … In any case, who are you to demand justice? When you sat in a room of your well-heated house and there were other people shivering in the snow, did you think of justice?’
‘You are confusing social justice with legal justice. I can tell you that it was precisely because my late husband and I hoped that the People’s Government would improve conditions in China so that there would never be anybody suffering cold and hunger that we remained in China in 1949 rather than follow the Kuomintang to Taiwan,’ I told him.
‘In any case… The capitalist countries use such attractive words as “justice” and “liberty” to fool the common people and to prevent their revolutionary awakening. To assume a proper attitude you must get all that rubbish out of your head. Otherwise you will get nowhere.’
With only one book allowed in her cell, she also became adept at using Mao quotes to bolster her arguments. When the guards got angry at her for pointing out that all her activity at Shell had been government approved, she quoted “Lay out the facts; speak with reason.” When they tried to stop her from stating further exonerating circumstances, she added the quote “Without investigation, you have no right to speak”. When they insisted that being in prison must mean she had committed a crime, she used the quote “Where there is counter-revolution, we shall certainly suppress it; when we make a mistake, we shall certainly correct it.”
When the government suddenly decided that one of Mao’s key lieutenants, Liu Shao-Chi, was a capitalist sympathizer and removed him from power, Cheng could not resist rubbing the obvious hypocrisy in the guards’ faces.
‘For sixteen years, in the newspapers, in daily broadcasts and in books published by the government printing press,… Liu Shao-chi… was always presented to the Chinese people as a revolutionary hero who had made a tremendous contribution to many aspects of the work of the Communist Party… I found in Chairman Mao’s books several complimentary references to Liu Shao-chi. It’s so difficult to turn round now and think of him as totally bad. Perhaps he had just made a mistake. If that is the case, I hope Chairman Mao will forgive him. After all, they were close comrades for many years.’
‘You are dreaming! Chairman Mao will never forgive him!’ the young worker said.
‘Well, the outside world must be laughing at us now. How could such an important man who was Chairman of the Chinese People’s Republic suddenly be discovered to have been a traitor all these decades?
… ‘Shut up! Shut up! You are a mad woman!’ the interrogator shouted, seemingly terrified by my candid remark. He quickly added, ‘Liu Shao-chi was guilty and you are too!’
Ironically, after this Cheng found that some of the guards were sneaking extra food to her. Apparently many of them had vocally been members of Liu’s faction, and were grateful to hear someone speaking in his defense, something they themselves were too terrified to do. Her defense of Liu became another criminal charge in her record, though this actually became a positive for her many years later after Mao’s faction fell out of favor.
After she had been imprisoned for six years, the political winds began to change. Due to U.S. President Nixon’s diplomatic opening to China, Mao decided that foreign connections, at least with American allies, were no longer as damning as they had been, and Cheng was released. She nearly refused to go, insisting on a full exoneration— but the thought of seeing her daughter convinced her to accept the release. Sadly, she discovered that her daughter had been murdered by Red Guards back in 1967.
She spent the next few years recovering in a small private apartment. Luckily, another effect of the diplomatic change was that foreign bank accounts were accessible again, so Cheng could live off her savings despite the continued poverty caused by the continuing Cultural Revolution. She also began teaching English lessons to make some extra money. Unfortunately she began to realize that many of the old friends and new acquaintances who visited her were government informants, likely hoping to trap her into incriminating herself somehow, so she had to be very careful. There were factions in the government that were hoping to save face by finally catching Cheng in an anti-communist act, showing they had been correct to imprison her. Always a clever conversationalist, she remained a step ahead of the informers though: for example, she caught one fake “friend” of her daughter by bringing out some old photos to look at together, and intentionally misidentifying some people.
After Mao’s death in 1976, many former prisoners, including Cheng, were officially pronounced innocent and rehabilitated. This was not much consolation, given the loss of her daughter, and Cheng vowed to leave the country as soon as possible. She was constantly tormented by a sense of guilt for having believed in Communism back in 1949, and staying with her daughter in the country that would murder her, rather than fleeing with her co-workers to Hong Kong. In 1980, she managed to get a travel permit to visit her sister in the U.S., and after that never returned to China. She wrote her memoir and spent many years giving lectures about Communist China, finally passing away at the age of 94 in 2009.
<Closing conversation with Manuel>
Before we conclude, we’d like to dedicate this episode to the memory of Vladimir Bukovsky, the heroic Soviet dissident and human rights activist whose memoir we discussed in the last episode. He just recently passed away in England at the age of 76.
And this has been your story of Communism for today.