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The Death Camp of Communist China

July 23, 2007

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A hysteria of sorts has been generated by reports that some of China's products lack quality control. Some cat food has been tainted. A few cell phone batteries have blown up. Cough syrup contained stuff that makes you sick. And so on. In response, the Chinese government actually executed its regulatory head of food and product safety, Zheng Xiaoyu.

How very strange this last point is! In the West, we long ago gave up the idea that these people are actually supposed to carry out their jobs and should be personally responsible for their failure to do so.

What is most striking about these criticisms is how historically insular they appear in light of the modern history of China. This is a subject that is deeply painful, horrifying in its detail, highly instructive in helping us understand politics — and also puts into perspective these reports of recent troubles in China. It's a scandal, in fact, that few Westerners are even aware, or, if they are aware, they are not conscious, of the bloody reality that prevailed in China between the years 1949 and 1976, the years of communist rule by Mao Zedong.

How many died as a result of persecutions and the policies of Mao? Perhaps you care to guess? Many people over the years have attempted to guess. But they have always underestimated. As more data rolled in during the 1980s and 1990s, and specialists have devoted themselves to investigations and estimates, the figures have become ever more reliable. And yet they remain imprecise. What kind of error term are we talking about? It could be as low as 40 million. It could be as high as 100 million or more. In the Great Leap Forward from 1959 to 1961 alone, figures range between 20 million to 75 million. In the period before, 20 million. In the period after, tens of millions more.

As scholars in the area of mass death point out, most of us can't imagine 100 dead or 1000. Above that, we are just talking about statistics: they have no conceptual meaning for us, and it becomes a numbers game that distracts us from the horror itself. And there is only so much ghastly information that our brains can absorb, only so much blood we can imagine. And yet there is more to why China's communist experiment remains a hidden fact: it makes a decisive case against government power, one even more compelling than the cases of Russia or Germany in the 20th century.

The horror was foreshadowed in a bloody civil war following the Second World War. After some nine million people died, the communists emerged victorious in 1949, with Mao as the ruler. The land of Lao-Tzu (rhyme, rhythm, peace), Taoism (compassion, moderation, humility), and Confucianism (piety, social harmony, individual development) was seized by the strangest import to China ever: Marxism from Germany via Russia. It was an ideology that denied all logic, experience, economic law, property rights, and limits on the power of the state on grounds that these notions were merely bourgeois prejudices, and what we needed to transformed society was a cadre with all power to transform all things.

It's bizarre to think about it, really: posters of Marx and Lenin in China, of all places, and rule by an ideology of robbery, dictatorship, and death that did not come to an end until 1976. So spectacular has the transformation been in the last 25 years that one would hardly know that any of this ever happened, except that the Communist Party is still running the place while having tossed out the communist part.

The experiment began in the most bloody way possible following the second world war, when all Western eyes were focused on matters at home and, to the extent there was any foreign focus, it was on Russia. The "good guys" had won the war in China, or so we were led to believe in times when communism was the fashion.

The communization of China took place in the usual three stages: purge, plan, and scapegoat. First there was the purge to bring about communism. There were guerillas to kill and land to nationalize. The churches had to be destroyed. The counterrevolutionaries had to be put down. The violence began in the country and spread later to the cities. All peasants were first divided into four classes that were considered politically acceptable: poor, semi poor, average, and rich. Everyone else was considered a landowner and targeted for elimination. If no landowners could be found, the "rich" were often included in this group. The demonized class was ferreted out in a country-wide series of "bitterness meetings" in which people turned in their neighbors for owning property and being politically disloyal. Those who were so deemed were immediately executed along with those who sympathized with them.

The rule was that there had to be at least one person killed per village. The numbers killed is estimated to be between one and five million. In addition, another four to six million landowners were slaughtered for the crime of being capital owners. If anyone was suspected of hiding wealth, he or she was tortured with hot irons to confess. The families of the killed were then tortured and the graves of their ancestors looted and pillaged. What happened to the land? It was divided into tiny plots and distributed among the remaining peasants.

Then the campaign moved to the cities. The political motivations here were at the forefront, but there were also behavioral controls. Anyone who was suspected of involvement in prostitution, gambling, tax evasion, lying, fraud, opium dealing, or telling state secrets was executed as a "bandit." Official estimates put the number of dead at two million with another two million going to prison to die. Resident committees of political loyalists watched every move. A nighttime visit to another person was immediately reported and the parties involved jailed or killed. The cells in the prisons themselves grew ever smaller, with one person living in a space of about 14 inches. Some prisoners were worked to death, and anyone involved in a revolt was herded with collaborators and they were all burned.

There was industry in the cities, but those who owned and managed them were subjected to ever tighter restrictions: forced transparency, constant scrutiny, crippling taxes, and pressure to offer up their businesses for collectivization. There were many suicides among the small- and medium-sized business owners who saw the writing on the wall. Joining the party provided only temporary respite, since 1955 began the campaign against hidden counterrevolutionaries in the party itself. A principle here was that one in ten party members was a secret traitor.

As the rivers of blood rose ever higher, Mao brought about the Hundred Flowers Campaign in two months of 1957, the legacy of which is the phrase we often hear: "Let a hundred flowers bloom." People were encouraged to speak freely and give their point of view, an opportunity that was very tempting for intellectuals. The liberalization was short lived. In fact, it was a trick. All those who spoke out against what was happening to China were rounded up and imprisoned, perhaps between 400,000 and 700,000 people, including 10 percent of the well-educated classes. Others were branded as right wingers and subjected to interrogation, reeducation, kicked out of their homes, and shunned.

But this was nothing compared with phase two, which was one of history's great central planning catastrophes. Following collectivization of land, Mao decided to go further to dictate to the peasants what they would grow, how they would grow it, and where they would ship it, or whether they would grow anything at all as versus plunge into industry. This would become the Great Leap Forward that would generate history's most deadly famine. Peasants were grouped into groups of thousands and forced to share all things. All groups were to be economically self-sufficient. Production goals were raised ever higher.

People were moved by the hundreds of thousands from where production was high to where it was low, as a means of boosting production. They were moved too from agriculture to industry. There was a massive campaign to collect tools and transform them into industrial skill. As a means of showing hope for the future, collectives were encouraged to have huge banquets and eat everything, especially meat. This was a way of showing one's belief that the next year's harvest would be even more bountiful.

Mao had this idea that he knew how to grow grain. He proclaimed that "seeds are happiest when growing together" and so seeds were sown at five to ten times their usual density. Plants died, the soil dried out, and the salt rose to the surface. To keep birds from eating grain, sparrows were wiped out, which vastly increased the number of parasites. Erosion and flooding became endemic. Tea plantations were turned to rice fields, on grounds that tea was decadent and capitalistic. Hydraulic equipment built to service the new collective farms didn't work and lacked any replacement parts. This led Mao to put new emphasis on industry, which was forced to appear in the same areas as agriculture, leading to ever more chaos. Workers were drafted from one sector to another, and mandatory cuts in some sectors was balanced by mandatory high quotas in another.

In 1957, the disaster was everywhere. Workers were growing too weak even to harvest their meager crops, so they died watching the rice rot. Industry churned and churned but produced nothing of any use. The government responded by telling people that fat and proteins were unnecessary. But the famine couldn't be denied. The black-market price of rice rose 20 to 30 times. Because trade had been forbidden between collectives (self-sufficiency, you know), millions were left to starve. By 1960, the death rate soared from 15 percent to 68 percent, and the birth rate plummeted. Anyone caught hoarding grain was shot. Peasants found with the smallest amount were imprisoned. Fires were banned. Funerals were prohibited as wasteful.

Villagers who tried to flee the countryside to the city were shot at the gates. Deaths from hunger reached 50 percent in some villages. Survivors boiled grass and bark to make soup and wandered the roads looking for food. Sometimes they banded together and raided houses looking for ground maize. Women were unable to conceive because of malnutrition. People in work camps were used for food experiments that led to sickness and death.

How bad did it get? In 1968 an 18-year-old member of the Red Guard, Wei Jingsheng, took refuge with a family in a village of Anhui, and here he lived to write about what he saw:

"We walked along beside the village… Before my eyes, among the weeds, rose up one of the scenes I had been told about, one of the banquets at which the families had swapped children in order to eat them. I could see the worried faces of the families as they chewed the flesh of other people's children. The children who were chasing butterflies in a nearby field seemed to be the reincarnation of the children devoured by their parents. I felt sorry for the children but not as sorry as I felt for their parents. What had made them swallow that human flesh, amidst the tears and grief of others — flesh that they would never have imagined tasting, even in their worst nightmares?"

The author of this passage was jailed as a traitor but his status protected him from death and he was finally released in 1997.

How many people died in the famine of 1959–61? The low range is 20 million. The high range is 43 million. Finally in 1961, the government gave in and permitted food imports, but it was too little and too late. Some peasants were again allowed to grow crops on their own land. A few private workshops were opened. Some markets were permitted. Finally, the famine began to abate and production grew.

But then the third phase came: scapegoating. What had caused the calamity? The official reason was anything but communism, anything but Mao. And so the politically motivated roundup began again, and here we get the very heart of the Culture Revolution. Thousands of camps and detention centers were opened. People sent there died there. In prison, the slightest excuse was used to dispense with people — all to the good, since the prisoners were a drain on the system, so far as those in charge were concerned. The largest penal system ever built was organized in a military fashion, with some camps holding as many as 50,000 people.

There was some sense in which everyone was in prison. Arrests were sweeping and indiscriminate. Everyone had to carry around a copy of Mao's Little Red Book. To question the reason for arrest was itself evidence of disloyalty, since the state was infallible. Once arrested, the safest path was instant and frequent confession. Guards were forbidden from using overt violence, so interrogations would go on for hundreds of hours, and often the prisoner would die during this process. Those named in the confession were then hunted down and rounded up. Once you got through this process, you were sent to a labor camp, where you were graded according to how many hours you could work with little food. You were fed no meat nor given any sugar or oil. Labor prisoners were further controlled by the rationing of the little food they had.

The final phase of this incredible litany of criminality lasted from 1966 to 1976, during which the number killed fell dramatically to "only" one to three million. The government, now tired and in the first stages of demoralization, began to lose control, first within the labor camps and then in the countryside. And it was this weakening that led to the final, and in some ways the most vicious, of the communist periods in China's history.

The first stages of rebellion occurred in the only way permissible: people began to criticize the government for being too soft and too uncommitted to the communist goal. Ironically, this began to appear precisely as moderation became more overt in Russia. Neo-revolutionaries in the Red Guard began to criticize the Chinese communists as "Khrushchev-like reformers." As one writer put it, the guard "rose up against its own government in order to defend it."

During this period, the personality cult of Mao reached it height, with the Little Red Book achieving a mythic status. The Red Guards roamed the country in an attempt to purge the Four Old-Fashioned Things: ideas, culture, customs, and habits. The remaining temples were barricaded. Traditional opera was banned, with all costumes and sets in the Beijing Opera burned. Monks were expelled. The calendar was changed. All Christianity was banned. There were to be no pets such as cats and birds. Humiliation was the order of the day.

Thus was the Red Terror: in the capital city, there were 1,700 deaths and 84,000 people were run out. In other cities such as Shanghai, the figures were worse. A massive party purge began, with hundreds of thousands arrested and many murdered. Artists, writers, teachers, scientists, technicians: all were targets. Pogroms were visited on community after community, with Mao approving at every step as a means of eliminating every possible political rival. But underneath, the government was splintering and cracking, even as it became ever more brutal and totalitarian in its outlook.

Finally in 1976, Mao died. Within a few months, his closest advisers were all imprisoned. And the reform began slowly at first and then at breakneck speed. Civil liberties were restored (comparatively) and the rehabilitations began. Torturers were prosecuted. Economic controls were gradually relaxed. The economy, by virtue of human and private economic initiative, was transformed.

Having read the above, you are now in a tiny elite of people who know anything about the greatest death camp in the history of the world that China became between 1949 and 1976, an experiment in total control unlike anything else in history. Many more people today know more about China's exploding cell-phone batteries than they do about the hundred million dead and the untold amount of suffering that occurred under communism.

When you hear about shoddy products coming from China or wheat poorly processed, imagine millions in famine, with parents swapping children to eat in order to stay alive. And what do China's critics today recommend? More control by the government. Don't tell me that we've learned anything from history. We don't even know enough about history to learn from it.


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