Exiled Chinese historians emerge with evidence of cannibalism and up to 80 million deaths under the communist leader’s regime.
Gong Xiaoxia recalls the blank expression on the man’s face as he was beaten to death by a Chinese mob.
He died without a name, becoming another statistic among millions.
“I remember him so vividly, he really had no expression on his face,” Gong said. “After about 10 or 20 minutes, God knows how long, someone took out a knife and hit him right into the heart.”
He was then strung on a pole and left dangling and rotting for two months.
“I think the most terrible thing, when I recall that period, the most terrible thing that struck me was our indifference,” said Gong, today a 38-year-old graduate student at Harvard researching her own history.
That terrible period was China’s 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. The blinding indifference was in the name of Chairman Mao Tse-tung and the Communist Party.
Gong is among a new wave of scholars and intellectuals, both Western and Chinese, who believe modern Chinese history needs rewriting.
While the focus of many books and articles today is on China’s successful economic reforms, dramatic new figures for the number of people who died as a result of Mao Tse-tung’s policies are surfacing, along with horrifying proof of cannibalism during the Cultural Revolution.
It is now believed that as many as 60 million to 80 million people may have died because of Mao’s policies-making him responsible for more deaths than Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin combined.
Gong said killer is not a strong enough word to describe Mao. “He was a monster,” she said.
Hitler’s policies led to tens of millions of deaths during World War II and in concentration camps, and Stalin is blamed for tens of millions more.
Chinese government figures say between 15 million and 25 million people died unnatural deaths during Mao’s reign from 1949 until his death in 1976.
But both Chinese and Western scholars know those figures are no longer valid. One document, published in the Shanghai University journal Society last year – and immediately yanked from shelves – said 40 million people died during the great famine of 1959-1961.
Some China experts say it is time to move on and put the past to rest.
But so much new information is coming out about China’s recent past that this handful of scholars, some of whom recently fled China, feel it must be recorded so that future generations will learn from it. Like the relentless scholars of the Holocaust, they hope to prevent history from repeating itself.
“I think that the upheavals in the middle of the century, the famine and the Cultural Revolution, are still very much locked into the soul of China,” said Perry Link, a professor at Princeton. “Modern China’s not going to find its way into the 21st Century unless the Chinese people can feel that they really got to the bottom of how such things happened.”
Andrew Walder, a Harvard sociologist working with Gong to examine hundreds of recently obtained Chinese documents on atrocities during the Cultural Revolution, acknowledged that some colleagues feel Mao’s failures are old news.
“Most China scholars are not really interested in delving back into those issues,” Walder said. “I think, with regard to violence with the Cultural Revolution, that’s what we’ve done, we’ve had a sense of complacency.”
The Tian An Men Square pro-democracy movement of 1989 played a role in making much of this new information available to the West. The crackdown forced some Communist Party members and leading intellectuals to flee the country – taking with them secret documents and new resolve to uncover the truth about how many died during Mao’s rule, and to tell just how they died.
One of the best-known is Chen Yizi, a Communist Party member who was an architect of the economic reforms of the 1980s and founder of several government think tanks.
During the pro-democracy movement in the spring of 1989, Chen urged the government to negotiate with the demonstrators. After the tanks rolled and untold numbers of people died – estimates range from about 500 to several thousands – Chen became one of the seven most-wanted-dead or alive-dissidents in China.
Chen, now 54, fled to the United States and founded the Center for Modern China, based in Princeton, N.J.
Using smuggled government documents, Chinese population statistics and interviews with police and villagers in four Chinese provinces, Chen calculated that as many as 43 million people died during the famine that followed Mao’s absurd industrial campaign, the Great Leap Forward of 1958-60.
“The truth will be much higher than this figure – believe it,” Chen said during a recent interview at his Princeton apartment. “The biggest problem for the Communist Party is they never learned how to treat human beings like human beings.”
Chen believes that, from the Communist takeover in 1949 through the landlord and intellectual purges of the 1950s, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the prison system, at least 80 million met unnatural deaths.
“Of course, there’s no doubt about it,” Chen said. “Americans just can’t understand that such a thing could happen. Only when I went to the countryside did I myself realize the truth.”
One of the provinces Chen visited was Anhui, about 500 miles south of Beijing. One official document shows that, in one county alone, 60,245 people died, or about 7.7% of the population.
How Mao could be so callous about the millions who pledged their faith in him is still a mystery.
“The story of Mao still just isn’t known,” said Link, a professor of East Asian studies at Princeton. “I think he will rank with Stalin and Hitler when the dust settles.”
New documents are being made available, and a book has been written by Li Zhisui, Mao’s personal physician for 22 years.
The Private Life of Chairman Mao, released last month, paints Mao as an unfeeling man who refused to be treated for sexually transmitted disease despite infecting the many young women who shared his bed.
The memoir describes an imperial court of decadence and ruthless intrigue.
Mao, a classical poet, knew little about economics. But he insisted on trying to lead the country out of the Middle Ages overnight. The masses joined the race to increase steel output with back-yard furnaces, believing the Great Helmsman would lead them out of their long history of poverty and feudalism.
But in doing so, farmers left their fields. And having no skills at steel-making, the metal was poor quality, and most of it was useless.
After the first bad harvest, Mao’s aides began to warn him of famine.
After two more poor harvests, the nation was plunged into starvation, forced to ration, steal and scavenge for roots and rodents.
Mao never admitted that the Great Leap was a failure, although he did step aside while top party pragmatists – including Deng Xiaoping-rescued the country by focusing on agriculture.
Harry Wu remembers the Great Famine. During its worst year, 1960, after he graduated from college, he was arrested for speaking out at a Communist Party Youth League meeting. He spent 19 years in China’s labor-reform camps.
Wu is a resident scholar at Stanford University who published an account of his ordeal in the book Bitter Winds last year. He recalls eating rats and snakes during the famine to supplement his prison rations, and burying countless fellow inmates who starved to death.
Zheng Yi was one of China’s leading contemporary writers before he fled Beijing after helping to organize intellectuals during the Tian An Men uprising. He arrived at Princeton, a center for many Chinese dissidents, in 1992 and finished a book about political cannibalism during the Cultural Revolution.
Red Memorial, to be published in English next year, offers some of the most gruesome accounts ever of the Cultural Revolution, which was unleashed by Mao in a last-ditch campaign to rejuvenate himself after the famine.
The 47-year-old writer who grew up in Beijing was sent to the countryside for the decade of the Cultural Revolution to work on farms and in mining.
He heard tales of cannibalism, but he couldn’t imagine they were true. So he and his wife, anthropologist Bei Ming, set off for Guangxi province to interview villagers and officials in six counties.
“I realized it was the most important thing I could do,” said Zheng, who wears the black-rimmed glasses of a Chinese intellectual. “I read a lot of books about Nazi Germany, and I admired the writers who had told the truth-so I felt the need to do the same thing.”
He secretly photographed police files and some of the accused killers.
Zheng’s voice softened when he spoke of one 86-year-old man, Yi Wansheng of Sixiao village in Zhongshan county, who spoke freely and with pride about murdering and dividing up the organs of one young man.
Deng Jifang had fled his village as a young boy after his brother and father, who belonged to the hated landlord class, were killed by the government in the 1950s.
But in 1968, villagers trying to comply with a Red Guard frenzy for rounding up “class enemies” hunted down Deng, then 20, in a neighboring village. They carried him in a bamboo cage back to Sixiao, where the villagers beat him and poked him with hot iron rods until he passed out.
The villagers then carried him to the river, and while he was still alive, Yi slit his chest and pulled out Deng’s heart and liver.
“Because he was a class enemy, it wasn’t enough to kill him,” Zheng said. “You had to eat him. It was a symbol of loyalty to the party.”
Because of not having full access to government documents, Zheng was never able to give an accurate number of how many people were cannibalized.
He did, however, get full access to the archives of Wuxuan county, where 64 people were eaten in 1968. There, 56 hearts and livers and 13 sets of genitals were eaten. Seven people were disemboweled while still alive.
Cannibalism was practiced in ancient times because some believed human blood held medicinal powers. During the Great Famine, it occurred in matters of life or death. But this type of political cannibalism was unprecedented.
As the death toll continues to rise and tales of terrors unfold, former prisoner Wu reflects an opinion held by many when they consider Mao: “I don’t even care about 80 million, 60 million killed. The simple one fact is he’s a monster, he’s evil, he’s a ghost, he’s nothing but a criminal. The Chinese can never forgive him.”
Los Angeles Times,
November 20, 1994