Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we discuss what life is really like for those unfortunate enough to live under communist or socialist governments. Recording from the suburbs of Wichita, Kansas, this is Erik Seligman, your host, along with co-host Manuel Castaneda in Oregon.
Since China has been in the news a lot lately, we thought it would be good to cover another Chinese story. Today we’ll be looking at Anhua Gao’s memoir “To The Edge of the Sky”. Gao was born at about the same time Mao’s Communist regime took over China, in 1949, and thus lived through all the major phases, crises, and upheavals of that regime until she finally managed to emigrate to the UK in the early 1990s. She grew up along with Communist China, and experienced many of that government’s worst human rights abuses firsthand.
Gao’s parents both fought in Mao Zedong’s revolutionary army, earning positions as senior government officials after their victory, and thus lived very well during the early days of Communist China. She had a happy early childhood, and was close with her sister Andong and brother Wei-Guo, though her oldest sister Pei-gen, who had been traumatized while living through the war, was always somewhat distant. Already during her childhood it was clear that the new “classless” society was developing its own social classes, as Gao points out:
Pei-gen attended a weekday boarding-school, which had been founded exclusively for children of officials from the East China Army Unit. She came home on Saturday afternoons and went back on Sunday evenings. … There were similar schools in all the major cities of China, which ensured a good education for the children of every important Communist. The Party was building a new structure of privilege similar to that of the Kuomintang, thus creating an élite class, exactly what they had fought to eliminate. There have to be people in charge, but when the ordinary people had so little, it was shameful that those in government took so much for themselves. At that time, I think my parents simply took what they were given without thinking about what was happening. They had lived through years of privation, and probably accepted this new, good life as their reward.
Gao, Anhua. To the Edge of the Sky (p. 44). Lume Books. Kindle Edition.
In 1956 Mao announced that he wanted people to speak freely, to let “one hundred flowers blossom”, and criticize the regime in order to improve it. This turned out to be a trick— after giving people the courage to criticize him in public, Mao soon announced that those who had done this were secret “rightists” who were attempting to overthrow the government and had to be punished. One day Gao saw a visitor sitting in her mother’s room and crying. Even though Gao’s parents had high standing, her uncle Zhou Ru-Sheng was one of those labelled a rightist: he had suggested that maybe China shouldn’t be copying the USSR so much. He had been an officer in the army, but lost his career, and was dishonorably discharged and sentenced for punishment. It would be 30 years until Gao could see him again.
In the Anti-rightist Campaign, every work unit, including the army, was given a 5 per cent quota. … Once a person was branded a rightist, he or she was dismissed from their place of work and sent to the poorest rural area to ‘receive reform through hard labour’. The work was unpaid and thousands of kilometers away from any big city. …. My uncle Zhou Ru-sheng was one of the unlucky 5 per cent. Though his senior officer felt sorry for him, he had to fulfill the quota…
All the exiles had to wear black caps to denote their status as class enemies. My uncle remained single because no girl would dare to marry a rightist. He had nothing to offer: no status, no money, no prospects. Most of the married exiles lost their spouses by divorce and lost touch with their children because they were not allowed to correspond. Many killed themselves to escape their unhappiness.
But the anti-rightist campaign was just a small inconvenience compared to the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s set of programs which destroyed farm productivity and resulted in the starvation of millions. The “Leap” consisted of several initiatives Mao created based on personal reading and observation, and forced on the entire nation of China without anyone in the government daring to contradict him. For example, since it was reported that sparrows ate a small part of the annual grain harvest, Mao enlisted the whole nation, even schoolchildren like Gao, to slaughter as many sparrows as they could— but he didn’t realize that these birds also helped to eat pests that would otherwise destroy far more crops than the sparrows ate. Another big initiative in the Leap was the push for industrialization. Many farmers were pulled from their fields to participate, and every citizen had to contribute metal items to help manufacture steel. Gao’s mother gave up their family wok, so they had to start eating at a public canteen. As a result of all this, crop yields were horrible for several years, which the government attempted to label the “years of natural calamities” to deflect blame.
The streets began to fill with desperate beggars, telling tales of starvation and even cannibalism in the countryside. Many of Gao’s distant relatives, who she had never heard of before, showed up at their house to beg for help. Her mother gave them meals out of her own meager rations and let them stay a few days, but even this angered her grandmother, who was worried about their immediate family’s survival. Gao’s grandfather started planting a few vegetables in the yard, successfully producing some food for the family, who were surprised that the so-called “years of natural calamities” weren’t affecting their plot. Many others who had some land had similar ideas, and some sold their surplus production— though many who were caught were executed as “saboteurs of the socialist economic order.” Despite all this, government propaganda continued to convince the citizens that they were living better than any other country in the world.
Gao’s childhood ended up being interrupted by more personal concerns, though, as her mother became ill, and died after a long hospital stay. Her father had already died several years earlier. Ironically, the fact that both her parents died would benefit her immensely: since they had been in Mao’s army, she got certificates labelling both her parents “revolutionary martyrs”, a very high status that would not be lost (as status was for many living leaders) in Mao’s purges. She and her siblings wanted to remain in their house and be raised by their grandparents, who had been living with them already and handling most of their day-to-day needs while her parents worked, but China’s new class system made this impossible. They had owned property before the Revolution, an unforgivable sin. The children were even warned to avoid visiting their grandparents, since association with them could hurt their future careers.
I couldn’t understand why there had been no problem for them to live with us when Mother was alive and now they had no right to look after us. My uncle explained that, with Mother in charge of the household, there had been no political difficulty: she had been a senior Party official and could give us guidance. Now, without her influence, it was too dangerous for us to live with our grandparents. We were ‘revolutionary successors’ and could not be allowed to live under the influence of a landlord.
Gao and her siblings were taken in by several uncles. They were sent to good schools, and Gao excelled in her schoolwork as well as making some good friends. But she was swept into another of Mao’s mass movements: sending children from the city to work as slaves in the countryside farms for a period of time, in an effort to increase production. The conditions there were horrible. Gao was lucky that she was relatively young at this time, so only had to go for two weeks: many of the older children were sent for years, having their lives ruined forever. The forced workers had to sleep on the floor with no bedding, worked to exhaustion, and lived in unsanitary conditions that resulted in continual diarrhea. Their main breaks were propaganda sessions, where farmers were supposed to tell them how much worse things were under pre-communist oppression. But one of the farmers made a critical mistake:
She was made to do all kinds of hard labour, but never had good food to eat. She had no shoes and went barefoot all the year round, even in the icy winters, and she was beaten regularly by her cruel landlord. She cried as she remembered those terrible times and her audience, including me, felt sad about her unhappy life as compared to the sweetness of our own. However, it was not long before we noticed something wrong with her report. She dwelt on the terrible hunger of 1960 to 1962, which had occurred under the Communists! She was clearly unaware of her mistake, because she was illiterate and could not distinguish between the Kuomintang and Communist governments. All she knew was the hard life she had endured, and to her the old past and the recent past had blurred into one. As soon as the leaders realized her mistake, they led her away from the meeting. The commune leader explained that she was too old and sad and her mind was muddled… I don’t think many of us were fooled but, as usual, nothing was said.
Her short experience in the countryside motivated Gao to study even harder and try to be a top student, so she would not have to risk getting sent there for a longer term, or even permanently. She would end up being sent again for other short stints of countryside labor while in school, with the conditions being just as horrible, and her body getting covered with insect bites that would take months to heal. This also started her seriously questioning Mao’s teachings for the first time: nothing she saw in the farmlands matched the idyllic picture that the official propaganda had painted. A former schoolmate who was now living permanently on a farm confessed to her that she hated everything about this life and desperately wanted to go back to the city.
Then in 1966 Mao’s Cultural Revolution began. As you may recall, this is the period when Mao unleashed teenage and young adult mobs to attack and destroy anyone suspected of not fully supporting his form of Communism, or taking the ‘capitalist road’. The requirement for blind loyalty in Mao was reinforced, with everyone being required to own a copy of the “little red book” of his quotations. Students in Gao’s school began putting up posters criticizing their teachers, and soon it went further.
Within a few days, writing defamatory posters was no longer enough for them. The poster-writers were strutting around the school, ready for mischief, and it pained me to see my own brother among them. It wasn’t long before the students were in control of the school, and the rabble was in charge of the students. Then the first beating occurred.
It came, as these things usually do, from nowhere. A teacher came into school and discovered her students tearing pages out of a book from the school library. She tried to take it from them, failed, and was pushed to the floor. The students laughed, and one girl picked up a torn-out page. ‘Eat!’ she shouted, and pushed the paper into the face of the teacher. ‘Eat this!’ She forced the page into the mouth of the teacher, and made her chew it, urged on by a few slaps across the face. Then one of the boys punched her. Punching became kicking, which progressed to a full-scale severe beating. Only the intervention of several other teachers saved her.
It was expected that the students responsible for the beating would be punished, but they weren’t. So more and more students, wanting to settle old scores, joined the gang, and every day we had to watch as one teacher after another was beaten up by the students….
I dared not read English now, or do any kind of study, because I was a typical example of those students who had taken the ‘white academic road’. However, I wasn’t attacked by other students, like so many of my classmates, because I was protected by the certificates of revolutionary martyrs. They shielded me from danger for many years.
Schooling and industrial production were virtually paralyzed, as different factions of “Red Guards”, also known as “Rebels”, began fighting each other in addition to preying on the public. But one other element that upset Gao was that her oldest sister, Pei-gen, became a senior leader in one of the Guards factions, and her brother Wei-guo seemed to also be adopting her level of fanaticism. When Gao tried to bring her some good food she had cooked at home, her sister scolded her for her bourgeois decadence.
But Gao then faced another danger— Mao again announced that spoiled middle-class kids in the cities needed to spend time in the countryside, and would be once again sent out to do farm labor, this time for an unspecified amount of time. She was terrified to be trapped as a farm slave again, and the one way to be exempted from this command was to join the army. Luckily she had a few contacts who were still military officers, and managed to get accepted as a nurse in training. Army life had its challenges, but was nowhere near as bad as the country farms had been. Grateful for this safety valve, she performed well as a soldier and nurse, and was soon popular and well-respected among her colleagues there. Other than having to study Mao’s little red book and constantly attend propaganda meetings, most of the worst effects of the Cultural Revolution didn’t directly impact the army bases. But her unit was assigned to provide healthcare for some of the students in the countryside, and she observed even worse conditions than she had known:
The young people who came to us all told the same story. The boys were subjected to brutal treatment by the peasant officials, and the girls were raped repeatedly by the production brigade leaders. If they resisted, they were given the worst jobs with the lowest work-points. There was no joy in their lives, only terror, pain and ill-treatment. Sadly we could do nothing to help the majority of them – we did not dare issue false certificates, because there would be more tests when they returned home.
Some, mostly girls, got a false certificate [of disability or illness] by giving their bodies and money to those who had power over them. But all too often the leaders took the money and continued to rape them, with no intention of ever letting them go. Many young people of both sexes committed suicide, often by drowning. Others fell on sharpened sticks or hanged themselves. Of those who returned home, many were in poor health and out of their minds. Some never recovered.
During her time in the army, Gao missed her family, and sent lots of letters to them— including to her oldest sister Pei-gen, despite their strained relationship. Surprisingly, Pei-gen seemed to want to mend fences, and actually wrote back, which she hadn’t done in the past. Gao became more and more comfortable writing to her sister, and open about her feelings, including her frustration at the constant propaganda and the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. But this was a mistake: she should have realized that her sister was still a fanatic follower of Mao, and loved him more than her family. There was probably also a strong element of jealousy, as Gao had written that she was being considered for Communist Party membership, an honor that her sister had not yet achieved. Pei-gen sent letters to Gao’s commanders, pointing out her disloyalty and demanding that she be expelled from the army.
Luckily, Gao was so well-liked that her commanders contrived an excuse to discharge her due to ill health rather than disloyalty, so she was sent to a city to find a less physically demanding job, rather than exiled to the farm labor camps. She got a job in a factory, and soon began making friends and becoming popular there. But for her first few years, most time was spent on propaganda meetings and struggle sessions rather than work. The Cultural Revolution was still in progress, and she was forced to observe beatings and even deaths of accused counter-revolutionaries at the factory.
Things changed for Gao again when China’s relations with the West began to open up, and knowledge of English became an important resource. She had been a good student in school, before the Cultural Revolution, and had been lucky enough to be assigned to take English classes back then. She retained enough of the language to impress her co-workers, and her factory sent her to some more advanced English classes. In a few years, she was approved to transfer to a more prestigious job, translating English for foreign contacts. But she ran up against another barrier.
I was a worker, not an intellectual. And, according to the peculiar system of different areas of work in China, all workers belonged to the labour-force department and all intellectuals were run by the cadre department. Nobody was allowed to cross between the two. At that time, I was a lowly grade-two worker, and usually it was impossible for a worker to become a cadre, unless he or she had a special skill. Therefore, when Mao said the working class was the leading class, he deliberately misled them to keep them happy: in fact, the workers could never occupy leading positions…
It became clear that the only way was for me to go through the back door. I contacted Liu Lin, who had once been a friend of our family…
Two weeks later a formal notice of my transfer arrived. The Jiangsu Provincial Personnel Bureau had accepted me at Liu’s suggestion because some worker Rebels were now employed in government offices… Apparently it was a ‘new socialist emerging thing’, or so it said in the transfer notice. In other words they had found a way round the rules.
Things continued to go well for Gao’s career, with her English becoming increasingly important after Mao’s death. Deng Xiaoping encouraged new business relationships with the West, and Gao was soon in a position where she was negotiating contracts with foreign businesspeople. Then in 1985, she was suddenly arrested by the State Security Bureau, or SSB, as a foreign spy. They burst into her house, destroying everything they could in their search for evidence, even smashing her TV and typewriter. They were furious when they couldn’t find any actual evidence of espionage, and ludicrously asserted that her English-language copy of “A Tale of Two Cities” must be a secret foreign codebook, demanding that she show them how to decode the hidden messages. They then hauled her off to jail, and put her in a dirty, unfurnished, bug-filled cell with a few other prisoners, and a hole in the ground to use as a toilet.
It took Gao a while to figure out why she had been arrested, based on questions asked during the interrogations. Meanwhile, she was constantly threatened, beaten, and pressured to confess, with the promise that things would go easy on her if she did. But she was smart not to fall into that trap— fellow prisoners confirmed to her that a confession would just result in a long sentence. Finally she realized that this had all come about because of a contract she recently negotiated, with someone named David Wei in Hong Kong. Her boss had been furious because he had wanted to reserve that contract for a personal friend, but she had told him it was too late, as the contract was signed. To punish her, he reported her as spying for this David Wei. But her boss, and the SSB, had made one critical mistake— while currently residing in Hong Kong, and going by the Anglicized name ‘David’ to make things easier there, Wei was actually a Chinese citizen and full Communist Party member.
When the SSB realized that their ‘espionage’ accusation involved an actual Communist Party member, they realized their mistake. But to save face, they kept Gao in jail for months, pressuring her in regular interrogation meetings to confess to something. Due to the complications of the case, Gao was spared from the torture suffered by other prisoners, though she could sometimes hear their screams.
‘They wanted confessions because most of the cases had no evidence to support the charges. Most were imaginary accusations, so only a confession could be used as proof of guilt. They did this all the time, and every confession proved that their methods of arrest were correct. Many of the prisoners confessed on the threat of being harmed, and often confessed to much more than their original charges.
Many of these people were ignorant peasants and they did not understand what was going on. They believed the interrogators when they promised freedom on confession. ‘In fact, it was stupid to confess to anything that was not true. The more crimes they confessed to, the more guilty they appeared. “Confession earns lenient treatment” was just a trick to get prisoners to provide their own evidence to meet the charges made against them. But to resist was to be branded an “anti-Party person” which was a great crime and severe punishment naturally followed. In other words, once someone was in here, they had no chance of ever getting out with a clean name. They were guilty, guilty, guilty! Never innocent. Because the Party is always right…
‘The gaolers here have invented a new punishment called a Tiger Jacket…It is a very heavy thing made of iron, and it looks like the chest part of ancient armour. But it is very small and tight. The gaolers first bound the arms of the woman behind her back. Then the Tiger Jacket was put on to her. They squeezed her upper body into it so that she couldn’t move any part of her torso from the neck down to her hips. It was so tight, she could hardly breathe. The minimum time for having the Tiger Jacket on was forty-eight hours. If the prisoner complained, the time was prolonged.
On the other hand, Gao still had some friends in the party, and the judge of the case actually recognized the injustice here and tried to convince the SSB to just drop it. As it dragged on, the case essentially became a power struggle between the court and the SSB. Eventually they reached a compromise: Gao would be released from jail, but be given a conviction with a suspended sentence. This would be in her record for the rest of her life, preventing any hope of advancement or better jobs, but she would be allowed to go back to her current job. She was angry at this: since she was completely innocent, why should her record be corrupted? But she realized that escaping at all from the clutches of the SSB was a minor miracle— usually there was no hope at all once someone had been arrested like this. Later the judge tried to explain the situation:
‘You know, of course, our Party will always find a scapegoat to take the blame for any mistake. The SSB do the same just to save their own faces. They contacted me saying that the image of the Party must never be tarnished, therefore Gao Anhua must be sacrificed.’ He stopped to drink. ‘I regret to say I have knowingly judged innocent people to be guilty in the past, simply because it was demanded of me by the Party. But your case was so blatantly unfair, that I hesitated. I needed time to think. In my heart I knew it was wrong to convict you.
When the SSB tried to bully me into giving a guilty verdict, that made up my mind. I resented their threatening attitude and decided not to do as they demanded. I have seen enough futures destroyed for no good reason. Sometimes I have been involved in making such things happen. And every time I felt very bad afterwards, unable to eat and sleep for days on end. Evil is evil, no matter how justified it can be made to appear. So it was not only you who was on trial … I put myself on trial too.’
Readjusting to life after release was hard. Despite the sentence officially allowing her to return to her job, her factory no longer wanted her and kept making excuses to prevent her from returning or collecting her salary. She was broke, and her young daughter had been taken away. Luckily, the judge took a personal interest in her, giving her some starting money and helping her through the bureaucratic mazes needed to restart her life. Ironically, the SSB now attempted to pressure her into helping them make a case against the judge, for revealing secrets of the judicial process in his conversations with her, but she was too smart to fall for any of those tricks. With lots of help from the judge and other friends, Gao managed to get her daughter back, return to work, and start living a normal life again.
The autobiography continues after this, eventually reaching a happy ending where Gao marries an Englishman who she met through a personal ad, and through this was able to finally leave China.
<closing conversation with Manuel>
Be sure to check out Anhua Gao’s memoir, “To the Edge of the Sky”, if you want to learn more about Gao’s story. You can find the book’s Amazon link in the show notes at storiesofcommunism.com .
By the way, don’t forget that former podcast guest Nelson Rodriguez Chartrand’s new memoir of life under Cuban communism, “The Revolution of Promises”, is now available. Find it on Amazon or use the link at storiesofcommunism.com to order!
And this has been your Story of Communism for today.