Jan 1, 1979

China: The Annihilation of Human Rights

“The feudal rule which continued for more than 2,000 years has left its ideology deeply rooted.”

Ch’in Shih-huang was the first emperor of China, founding the unified empire in the third century B.C. In 213 B.C. he ordered all books presenting the views of his opponents burnt and more than 400 confucian scholars buried alive. That the “great helmsman,” Mao Tse-tung, could in his collected works not only compare himself openly with such a butcher, but boast at having surpassed him a hundredfold, is enough to leave one flabbergasted. But, then, Mao never shrank from admitting his crimes; he left that coverup to his apologists throughout the world.

Why has it taken so long to expose the gross violations of human rights—the massacres, torture and imprisonment—that have occured since the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949? Why have western journalists, intellectuals and academics remained silent until quite recently, when the evidence had become so overwhelming that they could no longer ignore it? A similar phenomenon occured during the 1930s in Soviet Russia. Fellow travelling, a sort of arm chair communism, blinded intellectuals to the horrors of mock trials, forced collectivization, shooting of dissidents and black marketeers, corruption, mass arrests, imprisonment, and deportation to Siberia. It seemed that if repression occured under a “right wing” government (Franco’s Spain, Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy) fellow travellers would march to the barricades in defence of liberty—as many did in Spain. They were remarkably reluctant to fight the same evils when committed by their beloved “left wing” governments, testifying to their faith in the divinity of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”.

Some left wing intellectuals, however, were acutely aware of the terrors of the Stalinist regime. Boris Souvarine wrote an illuminating biography of Stalin in 1935, because there was enough information by then for them to piece together a rough outline of what was actually going on behind the “iron curtain”. People like Robert Conquest (The Great Terror) and Aleksander Solzhenitsyn (The First Circle and Gulag Archipelago) have in recent years only added moving and bloody detail and have not radically altered the story as it leaked out during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. A similar situation has occurred with China. Left wing intellectuals, until recently, have turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the stories of repression, murder, famine, imprisonment, and the wholesale denial of liberty to the Chinese people.

The left has contented itself with the glorious “successes” of socialist agriculture and industrialization, accepting the need for some violence in order to remove the last vestiges of the “old order” and pave the way for the millenium. Basic human rights have been regarded as expendable, at least until socialism is firmly established, so Maoist fellow travellers have not lost any sleep over the “re-education” of Chinese dissidents. One becomes truly speechless when confronted by their naked apologia for the “Chinese experiment”, an apologia that flies in the face of economic law and concern for human dignity, liberty and independence. A shining example of such apologia by two New Left historians reveals the left’s unconcern for uncomfortable details:

Nowhere is the contemporary Chinese government given just credit for feeding and providing social and educational services for its people, or with eliminating the social evils endemic to their lives throughout the last century: opium traffic, prostitution, gambling, famine, plague, floods, etc. Even without massive foreign aid the Chinese government has been among the most successful in the Third World to deal effectively with the problem of growth.

[Leigh and Richard Kagan, “Oh Say Can You See? American Cultural Blinders on China,” in America’s Asia: Dissenting Essays on Asian-American Relations, edited by Edward Friedman and Mark Selden.]

Reality, unfortunately, is somewhat different. Instead of there being a socialist paradise in China, the following facts should be noted: (1) there is a “new class” inhabiting Peking, which has privileges denied to all other Chinese; (2) extensive rationing of food and consumer goods takes place there, and ration cards are now an alternative currency, even for prosititution; (3) Chinese agriculture is amazingly inefficient, and, as in Russia, 25 percent of non-cereal production comes from family plots which comprise only 5 percent of all cultivated lands; (4) health services and education are not free, and there are, moreover, special hospitals for cadre and party officials; (5) a whole class of unemployed live on the fringes of Chinese society—beggars, dissidents, thieves, black marketeers, and prostitutes live in an underworld in the big cities, constantly harassed by the police; (6) travel requires authorization by the prefecture “Revolutionary Committee”; there are two classes of travel, one for cadre and officials and one for ordinary Chinese; and all train tickets and hotel bookings can be bought only by showing the proper authorization; (7) local neighborhood committees or “units” control lodging, food, leaves of absence from work, divorce, marriage, and even the number of children permitted to each couple; (8) homosexuals are severely punished—often executed—as is anyone who engages in sexual behavior outside of the puritanical norms set down by the party; (9) catastrophic crop failures have occurred because of the idiotic “Great Leap Forward.” L. La Dany estimates that 50 million people died during the famine years of 1960-62. Cannibalism, sale of children, begging, peasant abandonment of fields too poor to work, were the result of the massive economic dislocation caused by government policy. Needless to say, however, the party elite was well fed during the famine, and the shops in Peking were better stocked than anywhere else in China. [For these facts and more, see the articles in the special China issue, November 1978, of Quadrant, the Australian magazine, edited for this special issue by Simon Leys. See especially M. and I. London’s “The Other China,” and C. andJ. Broyelle’s “Everyday Life in the People’s Republic.”]

The problem for the libertarian in dealing with China is to combine an uncompromising defense of the liberty of the Chinese people with a defense of the revoution which has been left tragically incomplete by the communists. The revolution was gloriously libertarian insofar as it enabled individuals or groups of peasants to regain land that they had justly owned by the mixing of their labor with the soil that they worked. The revolution was sabotaged by the unjust confiscation of land and property from richer peasants, shop owners, merchants and industrialists, many of whom had justly acquired it on the market. The result of this betrayal of the revolution was the creation of a new class of parasitic rulers (far more brutal and powerful than the Kuomintang) composed of communist party bureaucrats, cadre, the military, and industrial managers. Libertarians must therefore be independent of conventional viewpoints in their analysis of Chinese history, since their defense of revolution and liberty, together with their rejection of imperialism and government intervention cuts across traditional left/ right interpretations.

The truth emerges

Three important books have appeared in the last 5 years which expose the crimes of both the Chinese communist government and the western intellectuals who have defended it. They are Prisoner of Mao (1973) by Bao Ruo-wang and Rudolph Chelminski, Chinese Shadows (1974) by the indefatigable Simon Leys, and Amnesty International’s Report on Political Imprisonment in the People’s Republic of China (1978). All three are important because each exposes a different aspect of the Chinese state.

Chinese Shadows was written after Leys’s trip to China in 1972. It attempts to expose the simplistic and apologetic accounts of China written by Western journalists and academics since the “opening up” of that country after Nixon’s visit in 1972. Leys was stunned by the systematic destruction of art and architecture that occurred during the Cultural Revolution (1966-69). As an art historian he was particularly interested to inspect well known archeological sites and museums; and one shares his shock at the deliberate, outright destruction of “feudal” or “bourgeois” art by the Chinese officials. It is almost amusing to learn from him that in the “classless society” there are 30 hierarchical classes within the Chinese bureaucracy alone, “each with specific privileges and prerogatives.” China has definitely advanced since the sixth century B.C.; then there were only 10 such classes. And the politicization of cultural life has rendered literature, music, art and education in China barren—which is doubly tragic given the high regard of the Chinese people for their wonderfully rich cultural heritage.

Leys manages to capture the tragicomic nature of this destruction in anecdote after anecdote. He speaks of his visit to a museum “dedicated to the visit Mao paid to the university in 1958. One is happily surprised to see there, under glass, a dirty old undershirt; this startling specimen of underclothing owes its immortality to a remark made by the Chairman, who saw it on the back of a student in a university workshop and said, ‘Bravo, there is one who looks like a worker!’” There is the barrenness of music: Beethoven and Schubert are banned as “counterrevolutionaries,” while Chinese music fits a party line:

Only one symphonic creation is performed and broadcast (without surcease): the “Yellow River”, a concerto for piano and orchestra, which is in fact only a remake of a work written during the war years. In 1972, while on a trip in the provinces, I heard the dean of our group compliment the pianist who had interpreted this mediocre, Rachmaninoff pastiche and ask him what other pieces lie had in his repertory. The pianist made this disarminglysoher reply: “None.”Hart-2

There is also the destruction of language, such as a radical reform of writing—the substitution for Chinese characters of a phonetic transcription of them in Roman letters—a decision, as Leys tells us,”of enormous importance for eight hundred million people … decided without any public debate, on the sole basis of a Mao saying.” There is the evisceration of outlets for Chinese writing: a new Chinese literary monthly defined, in its first issue, the kind of literature which alone would be welcome in its pages:

Our publication welcomes all novels, essays, articles, works of art which present in a healthy way a revolutionary content. They must exalt with deep and warm proletarian feelings the great Chairman Mao; exalt the great, glorious and infallible Chinese Communist party; exalt the great victory of the proletarian revolutionary line of Chairman Mao.

Then there is the desecration of temples and architecture: “The Temple of the White Dagoba (Pai-t’a ssu),an eleventh-century Buddhist temple rebuilt in the fifteenth century, was a warehouse and refuse dump with a padlocked entrance, and all one could see over the wall was ruin and desolation.” There is the systematic separation of the Chinese from their own cultural traditions in every way:

In Nanking Street, the To-yun hsuan shop (which specialized in paintings and artistic reproductions) sold only propaganda posters and portraits of Chairman Mao in the part of the store accessible to the public. However, for foreigners, a back room was unlocked: there, one could see paintings in the traditional style and reproductions of old paintings. These prophylactic measures to isolate the Chinese from their own culture are applied throughout China.

Finally, there is the tedious stomping on ordinary enthusiasm:

In the old days Chinese opera houses had a kind of joyful slovenliness, a popular, warm, living atmosphere. The dangerously expert audience booed and applauded with absolutely no inhibition. The Maoist authorities, who fear nothing so much as spontaneous mass happenings (which might always degenerate into uncontrollable avalanches), putthe houses in order and started reeducating the audience: the audience was no longer allowed to roar its enthusiastic “Hao!” after each virtuoso piece, but was directed to clap only as the curtain fell, in Western academic fashion. It took some years to reform age-old public habits; when the connoisseurs—and in places like Peking everybody was a connoisseur—showed signs of being overcome by their former intoxication, and when in the pressure cooker of a really good audience the “Haos” started rocketing about as they had in the good old days, small red-light panels marked “Silence” would start to blink furiously at the four corners of the auditorium.

And such pettiness is everywhere.

Prisoner of Mao is the story of Bao Ruo-wang, a FrancoChinese who was incarcerated in the Chinese labor camp system because of various undefined “crimes against the state”. (Bao did work for the U.S. military but it is unclear whether he was involved in criminal activities). Bao is unique in that he is one of the very few Westerners (perhaps the only one) who has returned from the Chinese Gulag. He was released when the French government, which had studiously ignored him until then, recognized China in 1964. Prisoner of Mao is the story of his seven years in the labor camps.

The Amnesty International Report is written in terse and unemotional prose; yet it is the most moving account of the three. The Amnesty researchers have carefully documented their case from official Chinese sources. (“Official documents alone present sufficient evidcence that the treatment of political offenders results from a consistent policy of denying to individuals the right to deviate from standards of behavior defined by official policy.”) And they have crosschecked this with oral testimony. (“The accounts of various people who do not know each other and who come from different places in China often present the same picture of a particular event and penal practice, and can sometimes be further corroborated by official documents or statements.”) After thoroughly describing the different kinds of prisons and reform programs, the laws and legal procedures, the treatment and condition of prisoners, the Report gives five case histories which have particularly concerned Amnesty International:


Lin Xiling: a fourth year law student who was imprisoned after the “One Hundred Flowers Movement”, for protesting the suppression of counterrevolutionaries, the existence of privilege and the lack of democracy.

Wand Mingdao: a Protestant minister imprisoned since 1957 because of his religious beliefs, especially his defense of the church’s independence from the state.

Chamba Logsang: a Tibetan monk arrested in 1959 on charges of exploiting the masses in the name of religion.

Deng Qingshan: a 26 year old peasant worker arrested in 1970 because of a frame up. The official charges were “slandering Chairman Mao” between 1967 and 1969, but the trial proceedings were a farce.

Li Zhentian (Li Cheng-tien): a former Red Guard who was imprisoned for criticizing the government in a wall poster.

Is the Chinese Gulag an aberration, an unfortunate development that is not crucial to the functioning of the Communist state? If one examines the thought of Mao Tsetung, especially volume five of his Selected Works, it becomes obvious that systematic terror is a fundamental part of the socialist revolution. Thus the Chinese Gulag is a necessary component of this revolution. In his essay “In Suppressing the Counterrevolution One Must Hit Steadily, Accurately, Without Mercy,” Mao explains what he means by this. “To hit steadily means to pay attention to the policy. To hit accurately means not to kill the wrong men. ·To hit without mercy means to kill resolutely all reactionaries who must be killed.”

The number of people who would be subjected to this policy of extermination is mind numbing. “It can be estimated that the proportion of those who must be killed among the counterrevolutionaries in Party, Government, Army, in the educational field, in the economic field, in the mass organizations, those who have a blood debt or other causes inviting the anger of the masses or have done grave harm to the State, should be 10 to 20%”. In April 1956 Mao gave a speech “On the Ten Great Relations,” the seventh of which dealt with the counterrevolution. Here he expained that “counterrevolutionaries are worthless; they are vermin, but when they are in your hands, you can make them perform some kind of service for the people.” Later that same year, at the Second Plenum of the Eighth Central Committee, Mao asked himself,Hart-4

Should local bullies, evil despots and counterrevolutionaries be killed or not? They must be killed. Some democratic gentlemen say that killing is wrong. We say killing is good … if we do not kill the “small Chiang Kai Sheks” then the earth will keep on trembling under our feet and we shall be unable to release production force or to liberate the laboring people.

One could continue to quote these barbarous monstrosities from the mouth of Chairman Mao; his Selected Works are full of them. But, lest we be accused of being too harsh on Marxism, one further quotation is necessary. In October 1955, at the Sixth Plenum of the Seventh Central Committee, Mao himself made the connection between Marxism and murder:

In this matter [past purges and the final extinction of capitalism] we have no conscience! Marxism is rough, it has little conscience. It wants to extirpate imperialism, feudalism, capitalism and small producers. In this matter it is good to have little conscience. We have some comrades who are too gentle, not severe, in other words, they are not very Marxist.

It is extremely difficult to estimate the number of people who have been imprisoned, executed, or otherwise victimized in the People’s Republic of China. The original unpublished version of Mao’s speech “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People”, delivered on the 17th of February 1957, gives a figure of 800,000 executions up to 1954. Edgar Snow’s Red Star Today, the Other Side of the River, states that 10 million people, “unrehabilitated class enemies,” were not permitted to vote in the 1954 National People’s Congress elections.

Since the 1949 revolution, the following events have taken a huge toll in lives and in loss of freedom for the Chinese people: (1) 1949-1952: The elimination of counterrevolutionaries, the land reform program, the “Three Antis” and “Five Antis” campaigns, resulting in a total of five million executions; (2) the 1957 Anti-Rightest Campaign: figures given by the Minister for Public Security for June to October of that year alone indicate that 100,000 counterrevolutionaries and bad elements were “unmasked and dealt with,” as the Chinese so charmingly put it; at one point seven million were investigated by the police and several million were sent into the countryside for “reeducation”; (3) 1966-1969: The Cultural Revolution: in Mao’s last interview with Edgar Snow he admitted that Western journalists had. grossly underestimated the extent of violence; Han Suyin admits at least 90,000 victims in Szechuan province and Li I-che gives 40,000 in Kwangtung who died because of Lin Piao’s repression; (4) the Anti Lin Piao Campaign and Anti Confucius Campaign of 19731975, and the campaign for the Denunciation of the Gang of Four (1976-1978): executions have been announced by the Chinese press but no figures are available; these campaigns have exposed the atrocities committed by those being denounced; the Gang of Four especially have been denounced for repression, imprisonment and murder of their political opponents; (5) The T’ien An Men demonstration of April 5, 1976: one hundred thousand demonstrators in Peking were brutally repressed; three thousand were arrested on the spot, 100 killed by Wu Teh’s police, and 40,000 were later arrested in connection with the demonstration.

Constitutional protections-for the ruling class

The Chinese people have no protection under their constitution. The new constitution, adopted on March 5th, 1978, remains a document specifically designed to protect the ruling class from subversion from below. It guarantees no rights because it asserts the duty of all citizens to support the party: “Citizens must support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, support the socialist system, safeguard the unification of the motherland and the unity of all nationalities in our country and abide by the constitution and the law”(Article 56).

Article 18 of the n-ew constitution is quite open about suppressing all who dissent and all who oppose the socialist state:

The State safeguards the socialist system, suppresses all treasonable and counterrevolutionary activities, punishes all traitors and counterrevolutionaries, and punishes all new-born bourgeois elements and other bad elements. The State deprives of political rights, as prescribed by law, those landlords, rich peasants and reactionary capitalists who have not yet been reformed, and at the same time provides them the opportunity to earn a living so that they may be reformed through labor and become law abiding citizens supporting themselves by their own labor.

Ironically, the criticism the official Chinese press made of the 1977 Soviet constitution applies equally well to their own: “The text of the Constitution proclaims rights and freedoms of every kind for citizens; but it immediately adds: ‘Citizens cannot use their rights and freedoms if this would infringe the interests of Socialism or of the State; words serving to oppress the many exploited people who resist the new Tsars” (quoted inChina News Analysis March 24, 1978).

The 1978 constitution adds that new-born bourgeois elements will also be the target of systematic repression. This new category of class enemy will permit the Chinese state to “reform”, imprison or execute even larger numbers of peopie. The new class enemy is defined as anyone who resists the socialist revolution, endangers socialist construction, seriously damages socialist common property, embezzles society’s wealth or commits criminal acts.

The court system offers no protection to the individual either, since “laws have to be administered according to the policies of the State, and it is the Communist Party which is the most capable ofdeciding such policies in the interest of all the People” (Communist official Wu Te Feng, “On the Preservation of the Socialist Legal System”, January 1958). The courts are empowered to impose penalties such as “supervised work” or work “under supervIsion of the masses” where offenders remain in society; “rehabilitation through labor” where offenders are sent to special camps; “control” which is similar to “supervision” but is applied to unreformed elements who are guilty of administrative crimes rather than criminal offenses; imprisonment by “reform through labor” in a special labor camp; life imprisonment in a camp; death penalty suspended for two years during which time the offender is imprisoned and must show reform before the entence is suspended completely; and immediate execution.Hart-5

Amnesty International gives some examples of people executed for political offenses. In March 1977 the High People’s Court of Shanghai sentenced 26 criminals to death, two of whom were political offenders. One hampered criticism of the Gang ofFour; the other opposed the policy of sending. youths into the country after graduation from high school. In May 1977, in Shenyang province, a 24 year old man was executed for having formed his own political party, having tuned into an enemy radio station, and having attempted to reach the Soviet border. In September 1977 in Yunnan province, 23 people were executed for distributing counterrevolutionary literature and for forming counterrevolutionary groups. In February 1978 He Chunshu was executed in Canton for printing and distributing a counterrevolutionary leaflet. The court said:

After he became a teacher in 1956, he maintained a reactionary attitude, deeply hated our party and socialist system. In 1963, he started secretly writing a large number of counterrevolutionary articles. After the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution started, the criminal He frantically engaged in counterrevolutionary sabotage activities; he wrote and stencilled a counterrevolutionary leaflet of more than 200,000 words containing counterrevolutionary articles; using the names of 7 counterrevolutionary organizations, he mailed it to soviet revisionists, American imperialists, reactionary Hong Kong newspapers, to some foreign consulates and embassies in China, to institutions and press organizations in our country… . [In it] he viciously attacked our great leader and teacher … the political campaigns launched by our party, he attacked the Proletarian Culture Revolution, the dictatorship of the proletariat; he greatly praised social imperialism, spread his counterrevolutionary ideas, foolishly tried to overthrow the dictatorship of the proletariat and to restore capitalism.

What is inspiring about this is that in spite of the dangers of protest, men and women in China like He Chunshu are opposing the Communist regime by distributing literature, organizing protest groups, fleeing to Hong Kong, organizing political parties and even forming revolutionary armies. As Amnesty International writes, “another group was accused … of having procured arms and forced people by armed threat to supply it with provisions.” It seems impossible to stifle the craving for liberty, even in such an authoritarian state as China.

Libertarian wall posters

A similar craving animates the amazing wall poster “Concerning Socialist Democracy and the Legal System” by Li I-che. The final draft was completed on November 7, 1974, and was pasted up on a wall over 100 yards long. The authors—Li Cheng-tien, Chen I-yang and Huang Hsi-che—were former Red Guards who opposed privilege, the new class, ritualized and empty politics, prison camps, torture and massacres, and even the decline of the rule of law. They advocated a return to the rule of law, the observance of human and democratic rights and a move toward an economic system in which the workers should keep more of the product of their labor. The new class arose, they argued, because

some leaders have expanded this necessary preferential treatment granted by the party and the people into political and economic special privileges, and then extended them boundlessly to their families and clansmen, relatives and friends … [and] to maintain their vested privileges and obtain more preferential treatment, [they] attack the upright revolutionary comrades who insist on principles, suppress the masses who rise to oppose their special privileges, and illegally deprive these comrades and masses of their political rights and economic interests.

Hart-6The people, they wrote, “demand democracy; they demand a socialist legal system; and they demand the revolutionary rights and the human rights which protect the masses of the people.” The authors predicted “a mass movement to thoroughly destroy the Lin Piao. system [the name they gave to the oppressive Chinese government] [which] will come in the not too remote future [and] will restore and develop all the spirits of the first Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.” Of special interest to libertarians is the poster writers’ belief that “power is the most corruptive agent of men,” and that “state power is the power to suppress:’

The result of this opposition to the communist State was arrest, imprisonment and execution. In the spring of 1975 Li was sentenced to “work under supervision” in a mine. in North Kwangtung. In early 1977 the sentence had been changed to life imprisonment. Simon Leys has recently written that an unconfirmed report states that Li was subsequently executed for his “crimes” (“Human Rights in China”, Quadrant, November 1978).

The limited freedom of expression that exists in China (Article 45: “to speak out freely, air views freely, hold great debates and write big character posters”) is valid only as long as one agrees with the party line. Article 560f the new constitution renders the entire concept of “constitutional rights” meaningless, since, “the citizens must give their support to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party’: But occasionally the ruling elite finds it expedient to relax the controls on expression in order to flush out opponents—just as the Shah of Iran does. In an officially sanctioned book Questions and Answers on the Constitution of the People’; Republic of China, it is explicitly stated that freedom· of speech is necessary “in order to unmask counterrevolutionaries … to expose alien class elements and degenerate elements.”

Imprisonment or execution awaits those who have the courage to oppose the Chinese State, and China is well provisioned to deal with them. Very few details are available, but one Western source believes that there were 297 Chinese places of detention in 1958. These included detention centers, corrective centers for juvenile offenders, corrective labor camps, and prisons in factories and workshops. In the northeast of China, prisoners have been sent out to create farms and factories out of the wilderness. Between 1954 and 1972, 60 to 70 percent of all state farms in that region were penal institutions. In Heilongjiang province a complex of labor camps was created between 1953 and 1955, one of which, Xingkaihu, held 40,000 prisoners. Prisoners were forced to work in the harshest of conditions. The average temperature in this camp between November and March is minus 40 degrees Centigrade, and prisoners only stopped work if the wind was “too strong.” Other camps are in west Heilongjiang province (the Zhalaiteqi camp holding 40,000 prisoners), Inner Mongolia, the Uighur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, Tibet (Lakes Nagtsang and Pongong, Lhokha, Lhasa) and numerous camps around and in Peking.

The treatment of prisoners varies from prison to prison and appears to be quite arbitrary, depending more on the whim of the individual prison officials than on any established legal procedure. For example, a prisoner may be punished

at any time for minor “misconduct”: reduction of food rations for a short period; temporary loss of the right to receive visits, parcels or correspondence; loss of small privileges (pocket money, shopping); being forbidden temporarily to read newspapers or books or participate in cultural activities; subjection to either criticism meetings followed by oral or written self-criticism or in more serious cases, to a “struggle” meeting” (Amnesty Report).

Chains and fetters are still commonly used to restrain prisoners. One prisoner claims that he was forced to wear heavy fetters for five years between 1951 and 1956. Bao Ruo-wang describes a prisoner whose

feet were in fetters, an iron hara foot long, ringed at both ends to pass around the ankles. Bolts held the rings fast; two chains rose from the middle of the bar to the wrists, which themselves were joined by another chain. In all, the outfit weighed 32 pounds. The prisoner was obligedto carry the vertical chain from his feet looped several times, since it was long enough to drag on the floor and that was forbidden (Prisoner oj Mao).

Prisoners who refuse to “reform” themselves are subjected to a “struggle session”. Bao describes this as a “peculiarly Chinese invention, combining intimidation, humiliation and sheer exhaustion. Briefly described, it is an intellectual gang beating of one man by many, sometimes even thousands, in which the victim has no defense, even the truth.” The rules which govern a prisoner’s life are printed on a little card and attached to the wall of each cell. They were designed to prevent any strong relationships developing between prisoners. As long as prisoners distrust each other they cannot organize against the prison authorities. A communist cadre admitted to Bao that “the one thing communists feared most was, human sentiment between individuals. It was the one thing they could never entirely control, and it could make for dangerously conflicting loyalties.”

One of the most intriguing aspects of Prisoner of Mao is the way in which the prisoners, like the Negro slaves in the South, adapt their behavior to suit the authorities. While retaining their personalities virtually intact behind a submissive front, they sabotage the “socialist revolution” by gold-bricking and ridiculing authority. Yet, eventually the system proves too strong and the prisoners’ resolve, their individuality, begins to weaken under the constant watching, starvation and moral pressure of their fellow prisoners. They begin to love their oppressors, to feel “gratitude” to the state for its generosity in trying to reform them, worthless as they know they are. Bao describes one prisoner who was released after many years but who begged to be readmitted because his family refused to have him back. His record of “crimes against the state” made it impossible for him to get any employment or even to live with his family in his native town. The state had destroyed his life outside of the prison system.

To what extent the recent liberalization of Chinese life will affect the Chinese Gulag is yet to be determined. It is my belief that a fundamental change in the totalitarian nature of the Chinese state will have to occur before the Gulag is dismantled and the dissidents are released. In an economy stifled by controls and having to support millions of parasites—party cadres, bureaucrats and the military—slave labor is very valuable and the prison system provides a cheap source of docile labor. It is still dangerous for the Chinese ruling class to risk exposing itself to extensive criticism, so the Gulag will remain until such time as the elite thinks itself safe or until the Chinese people rise up and overthrow their masters in another, perhaps this time libertarian, revolution. Before they will be able to do this, the Chinese (and for that matter the entire human race) will have to overcome their habitual obedience to authority. In thewords of Li I-che:

The feudal rule which continued for more than 2,000 years has left its ideology deeply rooted. A destructive blow has not been dealt to it in either the period of old democracy nor in the period of new democracy. The bad habits of autocracy and despotism are deeply imbued in the minds of the masses, even in those ofthe Communists in general (Concerning Socialist Legality).

David Hart, of the history department of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, wrote this essay during a recent extended vacation in the United States.