After 22 years, Li finally speaks out

``Survival in China ... depends on constantly betraying one's conscience,'' Li zhisui writes in ``The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao's Personal Physician.''

For 22 years, Li's access to Mao was rare even among members of the chairman's privileged, inner circle. Yet that access came at a high cost. Once assigned to the sensitive job of Mao's doctor in 1954, Li was trapped into slavishly serving a man whom he slowly grew to detest. Repeatedly, Li attempted to leave Mao's service, only to be summoned back - a demand he could not refuse.

To ensure Mao's protection amid constant purges, Li had to obey Mao's every whim, sacrificing his family life, his dream of a career as a surgeon, and many of his personal convictions.

After leaving China in 1988 to join his two sons in the United States, Li finally gained the freedom to release his frustrations and speak out about Mao's dictatorship and the claustrophobic world of his inner court.

``For years, I was an obedient tool of Mao and the party,'' Li says bitterly during an interview at his suburban Chicago home.

``In my era, that was the only way to survive,'' he says. ``In the innermost circle of the Communist Party, you could never trust anyone unless you were of some political value to them.''

Chinese authorities, who learned indirectly as early as 1989 that Li was writing a book on his former patient, began pressuring him to return to China by threatening to confiscate his house in Beijing.

``I refused. I didn't want to be trapped again,'' says Li, who is now applying for US citizenship. His house was confiscated in 1992.

Since the publication of ``The Private Life of Chairman Mao'' last month, China's leadership has attacked the book as having ``no value whatsoever'' and accused Li of harboring ulterior political motives. On alert to possible Chinese retaliation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has advised Li to inform its agents immediately of any suspicious events. Li asks reporters not to disclose where he lives.

Nevertheless, Li, who spends much of his time babysitting his four-year-old grandson, says his biggest worries are over.

``Now my book is out. They have no way to destroy it, so what should I fear?''

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