First Person

Democracy Wall, Beijing, 1979

In October 1979 I found myself, through no feat of my own, living the high life in a provincial city in the People’s Republic of China.

I was twenty-two years old and had just completed an honours degree in Politics at the University of Adelaide, the title of my thesis being “Micro-Computer Technology and Contemporary Capitalism”. It almost goes without saying that the conclusion to my dissertation anticipated the imminent demise of Late Capitalism. It absolutely goes without saying that I was a Marxist.

For almost three weeks I rattled around in a grand and mostly empty Soviet-era hotel. I had access to a state-owned limousine that came with a driver. While almost everybody else in the city made do with bicycles or took “the Number 11 bus” (a Chinese euphemism for walking), my Australian hosts and I watched the world swish by from the back of a chauffeur-driven automobile. It was intoxicating. To observe through the anonymity of a parted curtain the blue-coated proletariat going about their daily business delighted this young socialist. Enhancing the romance of it all was the fact that I had never done a single day of manual work in my life. Mao Zedong’s hands, I would later learn, were also soft.  

Every day a specially prepared lunch awaited us in a private dining room on the grounds of the local university, and most evenings we enjoyed a banquet in the hotel restaurant. Some nights there were other Western diners but this was the exception rather than the rule. In 1979 the Bamboo Curtain was still in place. Most of the Americans or Europeans who turned up in our ornate eatery were retirees. At the time the tourist industry in the PRC had a North Korean feel, meaning constant supervision, endless visits to factories, and not a single golf course on the peasant-packed horizon. One night we overheard an old stick-in-the-mud at the next table complaining: “Anyway, who are these boog-wah-see the Chinese keep talking about?” The PRC in 1979 was not a lot of fun for those with an aversion to lectures on the perfidy of the Gang of Four.  

I, on the other hand, as an aficionado of Chinese politics, could not get enough of the stuff, particularly anything to do with the Cultural Revolution. One of my university lecturers had been Neale Hunter, a man who made his reputation as an internationally renowned China expert after publishing his Shanghai Journal in 1969. Hunter had been in Shanghai during 1965–67, and was one of only forty foreigners to witness the earliest stages of the Cultural Revolution. While he acknowledged unsettling episodes such as “the parading of people in high hats, the raiding of private houses, the vengeance engendered by violence”, he nevertheless concluded that the tumultuous events of 1966 and 1967 were “necessary” in order to thwart “the revisionists” in the Party. The “energy” of the Red Guards and the way “they went about their task” were “signs of vitality and flexibility in the Chinese body politic”. Thus had the Cultural Revolution—“a self-imposed ordeal by fire”—created a better China, one that would be “stronger and more sure of its future”.

In every Neale Hunter lecture and tutorial only one subject was on the agenda. Whether we were discussing the Long March (1934–35), the Yan’an Rectification Campaign (1942–44), the Land Reform Movement (1950–51), the Hundred Flowers Campaign (1956–57), the Great Leap Forward (1958–60) or the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), our theme remained the same—the beneficent genius of Mao Zedong. At the start of one tutorial I spotted a new Mao poster and wondered out loud why the Great Helmsman, who lived only for the benefit of others, looked portly when the people in his People’s Republic seemed so thin. Dr Hunter, usually an amiable and solicitous fellow, stared me down. I never made that mistake again.

My stay in China was more fun than I could have ever imagined, but when the carefree life came to an unexpected end I had only myself to blame. During the first two weeks I had taken every opportunity to repeat Neale Hunter’s view of the Cultural Revolution at the university where my hosts were employed as foreign experts. There was a certain thrill in enthusing about Mao Zedong’s accomplishments to folks dressed in Mao suits, many of them scientists learning English as their replacement second language for Russian. Though they always responded with the politest of smiles, after a time I realised that most were happy to practise their English on any subject under the sun except Mao Zedong. Nevertheless, they began bringing into university their Cult of Mao badges dating from the Cultural Revolution, some silver coloured, others gold, almost all flashy and ostentatious. In every case, embarrassingly, the badge presented to me was not to hold or admire but to keep.

The reason for this generosity eluded me until the day three people at the university, none of them in any position of great influence as far as I understood, took me on a Cultural Revolution “expedition”. This was several days before I left for Beijing on the penultimate leg of my China adventure. After a forty-minute hike we arrived at the far end of a nature park, and here they explained that we were standing at a well-known Cultural Revolution execution site. Each took their turn to recount the bloodbath they witnessed as younger men. There were, in all likelihood, two reasons why they dragged me out into the middle of nowhere to give me the gruesome low-down on the Cultural Revolution. I only grasped one of them, which was that my Neale Hunter line about more Americans losing their lives in anti-Vietnam War protests than Chinese dying as a result of the Cultural Revolution had troubled them.

The other reason for their stunning disclosures—this occurred to me much later—was that they were using me to confess their sins. After all, I happened to be an outsider who in a few more days would never see them again. Mao’s China had never been a matter of merely witnessing acts of violence and degradation. There were no guiltless bystanders in the People’s Republic; to witness terror was to be co-opted by it. In his book Mao: A Life (2000), Philip Short estimates that the 1950–51 Land Reform Campaign resulted in 1.5 million deaths, with as much as 80 per cent of China’s population present at the party-orchestrated public denunciations and the ensuing outdoor executions.

While only a percentage of the population were the direct beneficiaries of these state-sanctioned murders, the ordinary Chinese person was compromised by his presence at such proceedings, since this invariably constituted an implicit (and often explicit) affirmation of the legitimacy of wholesale slaughter. In Mao’s version of totalitarianism the effect of mass accusation meetings on the sovereignty of the individual was no less devastating than anything the Ministry for Public Security dreamed up. No wonder László Ladány (1914–90), the kind of independent-minded China expert never mentioned in Neale Hunter’s classes, likened the Chinese Communist Party to an “underworld mob”.  

In Modern Tyrants (1994), the sociologist Daniel Cheriot estimates that between 1 million and 20 million innocent people died on account of the Cultural Revolution, and that approximately 100 million more were directly persecuted. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story (2004) put the death toll at 3 million. Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhal’s Mao’s Last Revolution (2006) suggests a figure between 750,000 and 1.5 million murdered and the same number again permanently injured, but this pertained to rural China only. The death toll ensuing from the Great Leap Forward might have been of another order, estimates now ranging from 18 million to 45 million, but then the Mao-inspired Great Leap Forward was accompanied by a famine. Whatever fatality rate experts might eventually agree upon for the Cultural Revolution, Neale Hunter’s depiction in Shanghai Journal of this deadly episode as “essentially a non-violent, almost Gandhian strategy for social reform” has a Pythonesque ring to it.       

Today a sceptic might account for the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, commencing with the brutal callousness of the Red Guards, in terms of Mao Zedong’s resolve to reverse the politburo’s general line as enunciated by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping at the 1956 Eighth Party Congress. Mao, according to this narrative, privately raged at Liu and Deng’s public acclamation for collective leadership in preference to a personality cult. The Great Helmsman bided his time until the propitious moment presented itself and he could exact his revenge against these so-called “moderates”. This yearning for vengeance only heightened with the rebuke they handed him behind closed doors in the wake of the Great Leap Forward debacle. In other words, the worshipping of Mao in Tiananmen Square circa 1966–67 was not the means to some great, albeit ill-conceived, vision. The adoration of Mao in Tiananmen Square by the enraptured masses was the actual purpose of the Cultural Revolution. This proposition need not entirely detract from the argument that Mao Zedong unleashed the Cultural Revolution in order to reconfigure an already cowed people in keeping with his (homicidal) utopian sensibilities.  

But I am getting ahead of myself. In October 1979 ruminations of this order lay beyond the understanding of a twenty-two-year-old Marxist with a lingering enthusiasm for Mao Zedong, even if the seeds of doubt kept growing. On the last day in town my hosts and I returned to the university, after our customary siesta in the hotel, to find the comrades talking animatedly about the execution shown on the local television station during our break. In the municipal sports arena two alleged criminals had been executed with pistols at point-blank range. The first felon surrendered to his fate without fuss. The second one swayed his head back and forth in a vain attempt to avoid the inevitable, eventually desisting long enough for the PLA functionary to kill him. None of this corresponded with the serene socialist scenarios depicted over the years in my monthly China Reconstructs magazine.

Beijing provided more surprises. I was met at the central railway station as arranged by a loquacious middle-aged man—let us call him Yang Yu-lin—who escorted me everywhere over the next five days. Yang did not give the impression of being an ordinary government flunkey, although his real line of work remained somewhat obscure. There might be some clue in the fact that his musings often veered towards economics of an esoteric kind. In truth his interests ranged in every direction. The harshest thing you could say about him was that he never shut up, while on the positive side the term “polymath” springs to mind as a fair description. In summary, the breadth of his knowledge and expertise, not to mention his intellectual curiosity, was both exhaustive and exhausting. He was connected to one of the men who showed me the Cultural Revolution execution site, which is how he came to be my “tour guide” in the first place, but his more intriguing connections were in Beijing. These were never clarified.

Every morning Yang would knock on my hotel room door and off we would go to visit two or three famous locations, including the Summer Palace, the Hall of the People, the Great Wall, the Ming Tombs, and the Imperial City. One afternoon, in order to purchase my ticket for the long train trip from Beijing to Guangzhou, we visited a hard-faced female bureaucrat who had set up shop in a hotel room. At one point during the drawn-out negotiations she threw up her hands and declared that no seat remained for the Western tourist. Yang hissed something at her as if he were a snake prodded by a stick. A ticket suddenly became available, along with a bonus gold pass to Mao’s Mausoleum. On the day Yang and I paid our respects to the Great Teacher we flashed our passes at the guards and cut to the front of an extraordinarily long queue.        

What Yang really wanted me to visit was the district of Xidan. Here, for more than ten months, brave souls had been taping homemade communiqués and character posters on a long brick wall. I am ashamed to say that for all my so-called engagement with Chinese politics over the years the existence of the Democracy Wall Movement throughout 1979 had barely pricked my interest. Yang insisted we go. Not until I was standing there in Chang’an Street did the name Wei Jingsheng first enter my consciousness. Supreme Leader Deng Xiaoping might had spoken about the Four Modernisations required by China—industry, agriculture, science and technology, and defence—but it was the young dissident Wei Jingsheng, born in 1950, who electrified the Democracy Wall Movement in December 1978 when he erected a poster demanding the Fifth Modernisation—democracy. On the day I made my acquaintance with the Wall, Wei had been under arrest for months. A short while later he would be sentenced to fifteen years in jail.

The happening on Chang’an Street was still drawing a crowd in October, even if the subject matter on the day of my visit concerned itself less with questioning the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party than pleading with authorities to find family members who had disappeared during the Cultural Revolution. Their missives tended to be along these lines: “With respect, what has happened to my husband? I have not seen him since he was taken away ten years ago. Is he safe? Is he still alive? Might he be returned to his family?” Sometime in December 1979, not long after I returned to Australia, the regime ordered these plaintive appeals removed, and with that the hope that Deng Xiaoping might sanction a Chinese path to democracy. 

Yang Yu-lin’s politics could best be described as eclectic. He seemed to despise everything about Mao Zedong, and regaled me with salacious stories about the predatory nature of the Great Helmsman’s love life. They were all very amusing but I could never quite take them seriously; fourteen years later the publication of Zhisui Li’s book The Private Life of Chairman Mao corroborated this tale of promiscuity and sexual exploitation. Yang (to my amazement) nominated 1950 as the year things in the People’s Republic began to sour, and yet he remained a socialist. Like such men as Hu Yaobang (1915–89) and Zhao Ziyang (1919–2005), Yang believed that “liberal communism” could be more than an oxymoron, a whimsical notion that Deng Xiaoping did his best to quash once and for all with the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.          

I have no idea what fate befell Yang or the three men who showed me the local Cultural Revolution execution site. Wei Jingsheng remained incarcerated for fourteen years, by which time his robust health and youthful appearance were pretty much spent. He ended up being deported to the USA in 1997. Happily, he has made another life for himself. No doubt his book The Courage to Stand Alone: Letters from Prison and other Writings (1997), will be inspiring humanity long after The Collected Works of Mao Zedong, let alone The Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, have become a bitter joke.

Neale Hunter’s sojourn in China made his academic career in Australia, but when I tried to tell politics friends about my first-hand experiences nobody gave them the slightest credence. I suddenly knew how Eliot’s Magi felt returning home to a world full of “alien people clutching their gods”. I remember that my belated discovery in 1980 of The Emperor’s New Clothes (1971) and Chinese Shadows (1976) by Simon Leys—another contrarian scholar who never appeared on our undergraduate reading lists—provided solace. A number of years had to elapse before plain-spoken criticism of Mao Zedong became acceptable in polite company, and even then only if tempered with the qualification that much good also occurred under his auspices. Some eyewitness accounts are more equal than others.  

Daryl McCann is a frequent contributor to Quadrant.

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