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What the Chinese must not forget

Mao may be gone but a legacy of repression lives on.

By Lori Valigra / July 10, 2008



Lin Zhao, 36, was an imprisoned poetess who cut her flesh and wrote hundreds of pages in her own blood before being executed in 1968 for repeatedly criticizing the Communist Party. But the same passionate and charismatic Lin Zhao also was a fervent follower of Mao Zedong in the early days of the party.

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Sent to the countryside during the land-reform movement that resulted in the violent deaths of more than 2 million landlords and their families by 1952, Lin Zhao once placed a landlord in a vat of freezing water overnight, later telling her comrades that his screams made her feel “cruel happiness.”

A decade later, she had turned against the party. During a prison visit two years before her death, she handed a close friend a tiny sailboat folded out of a cellophane candy wrapper and asked him to “tell people in the future about all this suffering.”

Such is the enigma lying just beneath the surface for the millions of Chinese who suffered before and during the Cultural Revolution (which lasted from about 1966 to 1976). By government estimates, about 36 million people were killed and as many permanently injured at that time.

In Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China, journalist Philip P. Pan gets almost unprecedented access to Lin Zhao’s friends and other ordinary Chinese people still struggling to understand their past even as they forge ahead into a future of rapid transition.

Pan’s book is a dark, sober, but highly important look at the struggle against repression in China. Today, more than half of the Chinese population was born after the Cultural Revolution ended, so they have come of age with only a vague understanding of the scale of the violence endured by their parents and grandparents. Pan’s interviews help to document some of their stories.

But he also talks to Chinese involved in contemporary struggles against their government. His interviewees are often simple people, but their stories are complex. They include an elderly surgeon who exposes the government’s coverup of the SARS epidemic, a teaching instructor and former Red Guard member who is trying to identify the bodies in what may be China’s only cemetery dedicated to victims of the Cultural Revolution, and a blind man jailed for his fight against forced abortions under China’s one-child policy.

Pan, who is fluent in Chinese, was bureau chief for The Washington Post in Beijing. His stories depict people who are not docile about individual rights, although many have been crushed by government resistance.
Often, Pan’s subjects were initially hesitant to talk to him. Some eventually let details of the past gush out. Others remained unwilling to look back and instead seek happiness in the future. The party has succeeded in part, Pan asserts, because Chinese people have been willing to forget.

What Pan found in his years of travel across China was a country whose Communist leaders retained their political grip and power amid its economic revolution. And while he says the country’s past 25 years have been the best in its 5,000-year history, the Chinese people still have not escaped the shadow of Mao, who died in 1976. A momentous struggle is under way for the soul of the world’s most populous nation, Pan asserts. His book, he says, is an effort to describe the battle for China’s future through the eyes of the handful of men and women he interviewed.

“Out of Mao’s Shadow” ends somewhat wistfully, with Pan recounting his final conversation with Chen Guangcheng, the blind man who took on the government’s one-child policy. Pan tells Chen that he studied Chinese in Beijing in the early 1990s and that he naively thought at that time that the Communist Party’s fall from power was imminent. He was even reluctant to leave the country when his studies were completed, he says. because he didn’t want to miss that historic moment. Today, however, Pan tells Chen, he has come to believe that the party could continue to hold on for quite a while. “I hope [the government’s fall] happens in our lifetime,” Chen responds. “He said it almost cheerfully, without a hint of sadness,” Pan writes.

Shortly afterward, Chen was arrested.

Lori Valigra, a journalist based in Cambridge, Mass., worked and traveled extensively in Asia for five years.

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