What Mao thought, I thought. It was not that I had contrary opinions that I had to suppress or keep to myself. The possibility of differing with the Chairman never crossed my mind. Li felt he was being forced to attack colleagues.
I had to lie. It was the only way to save my job and be promoted.
I wanted, above all, to survive…. I know I would behave that way again. I felt I had no other choice…. If I were to return today and be asked to support the atrocities committed by the Chinese army on June 4, , I would do so. Even today, the Communist party continues to demand that people attack the innocent. It requires people to pledge public support for policies with which they do not agree.
There is much truth here—Deng Xiaoping warned his own children to testify against him once he realized that he was about to be purged by Mao in But it must be said that a significant number of Chinese did not, and do not, behave this way. Li came from a long line of rich Chinese doctors, although he received his own medical education under Western doctors at a hospital in western China. He was flattered to be asked to care for the highest Party leaders, and although uneasy he was even more flattered to be asked to look after Mao.
The sky had opened up and the earth had embraced me. I was no longer a nobody…. I was ecstatic!
Li was very eager to show himself to be a patriotic Chinese. He was ashamed of his father, a high official under Chiang Kai-shek and a faithless husband. Because of this family history Dr. Li had undergone careful screening before he was allowed to join the Party in Ren Bishi, one of the top five officials in the Party, died in , and soon after Dr.
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Li describes a dangerous psychopath. So far as I could tell, despite his initial friendliness at first meetings, Mao was devoid of human feeling, incapable of love, friendship, or warmth. Li was sitting next to Mao at the Shanghai circus when a child acrobat fell and was badly hurt. Nor, to my knowledge, did he ever inquire about the fate of the young performer.
Of course, Mao could be actively cruel, and on a large scale. At first, when Mao told Dr. Li supported him. They had saved China. Later, Dr. Li heard Mao estimate that there were 30 million bad elements, counter-revolutionaries, rich peasants, and Rightists in China who would now be the objects of attack. What difference does it make? He was so terrified that he warned his wife not to weep while she was having a miscarriage. In each case his victory was complete. Locked into their historical memories they are plagued by guilty knowledge. Each shift in the party produced its own legacy of such widows whose husbands were pulled down, humiliated, subjected to trials, committed suicide or died of beatings, or were atrophied by long prison sentences.
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What is particularly fascinating about this cruelty is the extent to which it was necessary to lie about it, either by denying that it happened at all, covering up the causes, or in some way explaining that it was both exaggerated and necessary as with the Tiananmen repression. One of the biggest had to do with the efficacy of the notorious backyard furnaces which were irrationally constructed because Mao was determined that China must catch up with Britain in steel production within fifteen years.
According to another false claim, stupendous increases in the production of grain would result only if new and, as it turned out, crazy agricultural methods were employed. Li recalls the mood of the time. The salvation of the Chinese peasantry was at hand.
Millions of Chinese were swept into melting household implements into nuggets which were arbitrarily called steel. Are foreigners really so stupid? But the damage was done. China, as the doctor observes, had become possessed with a mass hysteria provoked by Mao, to which the Chairman himself succumbed. Everywhere Mao went on his imperial train he could see flames from the furnaces brightening the night sky. Male farmers left the fields, in which the harvest had been unusually good to tend the furnaces.
Later, to disguise the disaster, it was claimed that the weather, in fact excellent, had been unusually bad. Although the women and elderly men left in the fields could not bring in the harvest, the figures on agricultural production given to Mao were obviously false but Mao—supposedly a repository of peasant wisdom—believed them.
One of his secretaries, Tian Jiaying, who would commit suicide during the Cultural Revolution, said to Dr. People are telling lies, boasting. They have lost their sense of shame. China had become a gigantic Potemkin Village. The rice was planted so closely together that electric fans had to be set up around the fields to circulate air in order to prevent the plants from rotting…. And what was coming out of the backyard steel furnaces was useless…. The finished steel I had seen…was fake, delivered there from a huge, modern factory. Li admits he did not believe Lin Ke, and one of the guards warned Lin that such talk was dangerous.
Although the harvest was potentially the greatest in history, by winter the displacement of peasant labor had caused serious food shortages. Crops lay in the fields and rotted because the women and children could not harvest them.
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And because the claims of high production had to be substantiated, many districts were giving all of their harvest to the state, much of which was then exported to the Soviet Union to pay off debts. It was on this occasion that his guard commander remarked that the feast being served was a scandal with people starving just outside the walls.
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In the book Chinese Village, Socialist State , there are details of what happened in Raoyang county where, only miles south of Peking, temples and town and school walls were dismantled so their bricks could be used to construct kilns in which house gates and pillaged coffins from the rich were burned for fuel.
Farmers were drawn from the fields to make useless lumps of metal.
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In Raoyang the harvest was excellent, but the crops rotted. Among other reasons the sickles had been melted down and the wheat had to be yanked out of the soil by people with bleeding hands. And yet villagers, as elsewhere in China, were compelled to send twice as much grain to the state as the previous year. People starved to death [in Raoyang]…trapped and killed by a system promoting rapid progress toward communism….
The cruel treatment of individuals and their families who were branded as class enemies for pointing to hunger and disaster forced people and officials to swallow their cries. The countryside fell silent. He was afraid that the creative energies of the masses, unleashed by the Leap, would somehow be dampened. If he knew the country was careening toward disaster, he gave no hint. I did not really know either…I remained oblivious to the world outside.
This strikes a rare false note in the book. In a recent article Richard Pipes of Harvard, writing about the ultimate failure of Soviet communism, makes two observations of particular relevance to the Chinese experience and to Mao in particular. He also owned its people. He was the greatest leader, the greatest emperor, of them all….
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