About nine years ago, when I was doing work related to the Beijing Olympics, I learned a lesson I should have been smart enough to know in advance. I should have known that Chinese people don’t like it when a foreigner criticizes their government in general and Mao in particular. I was talking to a colleague over lunch when something led us to the topic of Mao, and I expressed a belief I’ve written about countless times on this blog: that Mao was a mass murderer who led China to the brink of destruction and who brought the Chinese people nothing but pain and misery. The young lady, who was one of my dearest friends in China, was college educated and spent years studying in Canada. I made the mistake of assuming that someone so urbane and well schooled would know just how bad Mao was for China. “You don’t understand,” she said. “Mao did so much good for China.” She went on to defend him, tears in her eyes, and I did not argue back. I just nodded and said, “I understand.” I had been thoughtless; I should have remembered that I, too, have gotten defensive when Chinese friends criticized my own government.
I have read countless articles, essays, blog posts and books about what Mao has meant for China. I believe more than ever that he did incalculable harm, that he sent the country into a near-death spiral, that he had the blood of millions on his hands and that the Chinese people deserve to know the truth about the horrors of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. I know better than to lecture my Chinese friends about this, but I have no problem writing how I feel on my own blog.
Mao has been on my mind for the past several days thanks to a recent book review by Ian Johnson, arguably the most level-headed and knowledgeable of all China hands, on a side of the Cultural Revolution I was largely unaware of, namely the massacre of hundreds of thousands of innocent Chinese people in the country’s far-flung rural areas. These killings were not isolated incidents; they were systematic and widespread. Johnson’s article deals in particular with the massacre of some 9,000 Chinese citizens in Dao County in south Hunan province. People who had the bad luck of being the child of a traffic policeman, for example, were labeled “black elements” and rounded up as Mao tightened the notches of propaganda warning that these “enemies” were plotting a counterrevolution. In response, local authorities decided it was best to act pre-emptively and exterminate the enemies. (Johnson writes that records show between 400,000 and 1.5 million men, women and children were murdered in such incidents throughout rural China.)
Johnson describes one of the many massacres carried out in Dao County, in which the “black elements” were marched to a killing field:
A self-proclaimed “Supreme People’s Court of the Poor and Lower-Middle Peasants” was formed out of the mob and immediately issued a death sentence to the entire group. The adults were clubbed in the head with a hoe and kicked into a limestone pit. Mrs. Zhou’s children wailed, running from adult to adult, promising to be good. Instead, the adults tossed them into the pit too.
Some fell down twenty feet to a ledge. Mrs. Zhou and one of her children landed alive on a pile of corpses on a higher ledge. When the gang heard their cries and sobs they tossed big rocks at the ledge until it collapsed, sending them down onto the others. Miraculously, all the family members survived. But as the days passed each of them died, until Mrs. Zhou was the last person in the pit with thirty-one corpses around her.
For many of these “undesirables,” the killings were the culmination of years of living as second-class citizens: “The state had stripped them of their property. It had assigned them bad jobs with low pay or rocky plots of land to farm. And it had inundated China with a barrage of propaganda intended to convince many that black elements were dangerous, violent criminals who were barely human.” Blame for the hysteria that led to these acts of genocide can be traced directly to Zhongnanhai. I wonder, would there have been a Cultural Revolution without Mao? Would there have been a Holocaust without Hitler? The answer to both of these questions, I believe, is no.
The book Johnson reviews is The Killing Wind: A Chinese County’s Descent into Madness During the Cultural Revolution, which was originally published in Hong Kong and has just been translated into English. The review makes for engrossing reading, and portrays the Cultural Revolution as even more appalling and frightening than I had imagined, if such is possible. Accompanying the review is an interview Johnson conducted with the book’s author, Tan Hecheng. When Hu Yaobang was in power Tan and other officials were assigned to research the Dao County massacre, but by the time he was finished with his interviews and research the political winds in China had shifted and the government had no interest in shining a spotlight on itself. For anyone with even a passing interest in the Cultural Revolution, both the review and the interview are indispensable.
I regret the tears shed by my colleague, caused by my unintentionally hurtful comments. But my visceral loathing of Mao remains unchanged, and after reading Johnson’s articles it only becomes worse. Mao’s rein was nothing less than one long, brutal crime against humanity, and I wish more of today’s young Chinese understood that. As America steps closer to authoritarianism with Trump’s inauguration tomorrow, it is time for all of us to learn from the past.