[Reader-list] China Human Rights

S. Jabbar sonia.jabbar at gmail.com
Wed Apr 2 09:52:47 IST 2008

This is an old article but I found it useful especially in these times when
some of our worthy leaders can¹t tell their imperialisms from their

Simon Leys is the pen name of sinologist and author Pierre Ryckmans.  Born
in 1935 he lived in China and wrote extensively on its art, culture and
history.  He critiqued Mao and the cultural revolution in ŒChinese Shadows,¹
published in 1978. 

Simon Leys
(This essay was originally published in 1978.)

    How much of this is known in the free countries of the West? The
information is to be found in the daily papers. We are informed about
everything. We know nothing.

    -SAUL BELLOW, To Jerusalem and Back

On the question of human rights in China, an odd coalition has formed among
"Old China hands" (left over from the colonial-imperialist era, starry-eyed
Maoist adolescents, bright, ambitious technocrats, timid sinologists ever
wary of being denied their visas for China, and even some overseas Chinese
who like to partake from afar in the People's Republic's prestige without
having to share any of their compatriots' sacri-fices or sufferings). The
basic position of this strange lobby can be summarized in two propositions:
(1) Whether or not there is a human-rights problem in China remains
uncertain-"we simply do not know"; and (2) even if such a problem should
exist, it is none of our concern.

I shall attempt here to reply to the increasingly vocal and influential
proponents of this theory; more simply, I shall try to remind my readers of
certain commonplace and commonsense evidence that this line of thought seeks
to conjure away. I do not apologize for being utterly banal; there are
circumstances in which banality becomes the last refuge of decency and

The starting point of any reflection on contemporary China- - especially
with regard to the human-rights question - should be the obvious yet
unpopular observation that the Peking regime is a totalitarian system. My
contention is that totalitarianism has a quite specific meaning and that,
inasmuch as it is totalitarian, Maoism presents features that are foreign to
Chinese political traditions (however despotic some of these traditions
might have been), while it appears remarkably similar to otherwise foreign
models, such as Stalinism and Nazism. Yet "totalitarianism" has become a
taboo concept among fashionable political scientists, and especially among
contemporary China scholars; they generally endeavor to describe and analyze
the system of the People's Republic without ever using the world
"totalitarian"-no mean feat. It is akin to describing the North Pole without
ever using the word "ice," or the Sahara without using the word sand.

A convenient and generally acceptable definition of totalitarianism is
provided by Leszek Kolakowski in his essay "Marxist Roots of Stalinism":

I take the word "totalitarian" in a commonly used sense, meaning a political
system where all social ties have been entirely replaced by state-imposed
organization and where, consequently, all groups and all individuals are
supposed to act only for goals which both are the goals of the state and
were defined as such by the state. In other words, an ideal totalitarian
system would consist in the utter destruction of civil society, whereas the
state and its organizational instruments are the only forms of social life;
all kinds of human activity-economical, intellectual, political,
cultural-are allowed and ordered (the distinction between what is allowed
and what is ordered tending to disappear) only to the extent of being at the
service of state goals (again, as defined by the state). Every individual
(including the rulers themselves) is considered the property of the state.

Kolakowski adds that this ideal conception has never been fully realized,
and that perhaps an absolutely perfect totalitarian system would not be
feasible; however, he sees Soviet and Chinese societies as very close to the
ideal, and so was Nazi Germany: "There are forms of life which stubbornly
resist the impact of the system, familial, emotional and sexual
relationships among them; they were subjected strongly to all sorts of state
pressure, but apparently never with full success (at least in the Soviet
state; perhaps more was achieved in China)."

Lack of space prevents me from invoking a sufficient number of examples to
show how well the above definition fits the Maoist reality. I shall provide
only one illustration, selected from among hundreds and thousands, because
this particular illustration is both typical and fully documented by one
unimpeachable witness - I mean the noted writer Chen Jo-hsi, who is now free
to express herself among us, and who reported it in a public lecture on the
Chinese legal system, which she gave in 1978 at the University of Maryland.
In 1971, when Chen was living in Nanking, she was forced with thousands of
other people to attend and par-ticipate in a public accusation meeting. The
accused person's crime was the defacing of a portrait of Mao Zedong; the
accused had been denounced by his own daughter, a twelve-year-old child. On
the basis of the child's testimony, he was convicted and sentenced to death;
as was usually the case in these mass--accusation meetings, there was no
right of appeal, and the sentence was carried out immediately, by firing
squad. The child was officially extolled as a hero; she disclaimed any
relationship with the dead man and proclaimed publicly her resolution to
become from then on "with her whole heart and her whole will, the good
daughter of the Party."

This episode was neither exceptional nor accidental; it was a deliberate,
well-planned occurrence, carefully staged in front of a large audience, in
one of China's in major cities. Similar "happenings" recur periodically and
accompany most "mass campaigns." They have a pedagogic purpose in that they
fit into a coherent policy pattern and exemplify the state's attempt to
become the unique, all-encompassing organizer of all social and human
relations. It should be remarked that whatever feeling of scandal a
Westerner may experience when confronted with such an incident, it is still
nothing compared with the revulsion, horror, and fear that it provokes among
the Chinese themselves. The episode not only runs against human decency in
general, but more specifically it runs against Chinese culture - a culture
which, for more than 2,500 years, extolled filial piety as a cardinal

A second useful definition of totalitarianism is George Orwell's (in his
postface to Homage to Catalonia). According to his description, the
totalitarian system is one in which there is no such thing as "objective
truth" or "objective science." There is only, for instance, "German science"
as opposed to "Jewish science," or "proletarian truth" as opposed to
"bourgeois lies": "The implied objective of this line of thought is a
nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not
only the future, but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event
'It never happened' - well, it never happened. If he says that two and two
are five, well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more
than bombs."

How does this definition square with Peking reality? Let us glance at Maoist
theory. In one of its key documents (the so-called May 16 Circular) we read

The slogan "all men are equal before the truth" is a bourgeois slogan that
absolutely denies the fact that truth has class-character. The class enemy
uses this slogan to protect the bourgeoisie, to oppose himself to the
proletariat, to Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought. In the struggle
between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, between Marxist truth and the
lies of the bourgeois class and of all oppressive classes, if the east wind
does not prevail over the west wind, the west wind will prevail over the
east wind, and therefore no equality can exist between them.

In their latest book, Le Bonheur des pierres (Paris: Le Seuil, 1978), C. and
J. Broyelle produce an interesting quotation from Mein Kampf and show that
by merely substituting in Hitler's text the words "bourgeois" and
"antihumanism" for the words "Jews" and "antisemitism" one obtains orthodox,
standard "Mao Zedong Thought."

"Two and two are five." We find countless variants of this type of
proposition in the Chinese press: the downfall of the "Cultural Revolution"
leaders and the rehabilitation of the "Cultural Revolution's" opponents are
currently described as the supreme victory of the "Cultural Revolution";
Deng Xiaoping was in turn a criminal, then a hero, then again a criminal,
and then again a hero; Lin Biao was a traitor; Madame Mao was a Kuomintang
agent, and so on. Of course, none of this is new; we heard it all more than
forty years ago at the Moscow trials, and we also remember how, in Stalinist
parlance, Trotsky used to be Hitler's agent. Victor Serge, who experienced
it all firsthand, analyzed it well: the very enormity of the lie is
precisely designed to numb, paralyze, and crush all rationality and critical
functioning of the mind.

"The leader controls the past." In both Chinese Shadows and Broken Images I
have described the constant rewriting of history that takes place in China
(as it does in the Soviet Union) and in particular, the predicament of the
wretched curators of the History Museums, who in recent years have been
successively confronted with, for instance, the disgrace, rehabilitation,
re-disgrace, and re-rehabilitation of Deng Xiaoping. These political
turnabouts can be quite bewildering for the lower cadres, whose instructions
do not always keep up with the latest shakeup of the ruling clique. As one
hapless guide put it to a foreign visitor who was pressing him with tricky
questions: "Excuse me, sir, but at this stage it is difficult to answer; the
leadership has not yet had the time to decide what history was."

There is nothing furtive or clandestine about history rewriting; it is done
in broad daylight, and sometimes, at its most humble level, the public
itself is invited to collaborate. Thus, at one stage of Deng's political
vicissitudes, journals that had already been printed before his latest
successful somersault were sent to subscribers together with little slips of
paper expatiating on his virtues, slips that were to be pasted by the
readers themselves over various special passages that described him as a

The most spectacular example of this practice will be remembered by many.
The day after Mao's funeral, all Chinese newspapers carried photos of the
top leadership standing in a long line in front of the crowd at the memorial
ceremony. When it was the monthlies' turn to carry the same photos, the
"Gang of Four" had meanwhile been purged. The photos, already known to the
Chinese public, were issued again, but this time the disgraced leaders had
all disappeared from the pictures, leaving awkward gaps, like missing front
teeth in an open mouth - the general effect being underlined rather than
alleviated by the censor's heavy handling of the airbrush, and by his clumsy
retouching of the background. To crown the cynicism of such blatant
manipulation, a little later, New China News Agency issued a report
denouncing Madame Mao for the way in which, in her time, she had allegedly
falsified various official photographs for political purposes!

The incident of the missing figures in the official photographs, though
widely circulated, did not provoke any comments in the West (with the
exception of C. and J. Broyelle's remarkable book, from which I am borrowing
freely here). After all, aren't Chinese always supposed to behave in
inscrutable and strange ways? What was not realized was the fact that
however odd the incident may have appeared in our eves, the Chinese
themselves felt it was even more grotesque and humiliating. The explanation
for this bizarre episode did not lie in the Chinese mentality, but in
totalitarian psychology.

The most masterly analysis of totalitarian psychology is cer-tainly the one
provided by Bruno Bettelheim in his book The Informed Heart , which was
rightly hailed as "a handbook for survival in our age." The great
psychiatrist observed the phenomenon firsthand in Buchenwald, where he was
interned by the Nazis. The concentration camp is not marginal to the
totalitarian world; on the contrary, it is its purest and most perfect
projection, since there the various factors of resistance to the system -
-the familial, emotional, and sexual relationships mentioned by Kolakowski -
have all been removed, leaving the subject totally exposed to the
totalitarian design.

Bettelheim noted that prisoners were subjected to a "ban on daring to notice
anything. But to look and observe for oneself what went on in the camp -
while absolutely necessary for survival - was even more dangerous than being
noticed. Often this passive compliance - not to see or not to know - was not
enough; in order to survive one had to actively pretend not to observe, not
to know what the SS required one not to know."

Bettelheim gives various examples of SS behavior that presented this
apparent contradiction - "you have not seen what you have seen, because we
decided so" (which could apply precisely to the blatantly falsified photo of
the Chinese leaders) - and he adds this psychological commentary:

To know only what those in authority allow one to know is, more or less, all
the infant can do. To be able to make one's own observations and to draw
pertinent conclusions from them is where independent existence begins. To
forbid oneself to make observations, and take only the observations of
others in their stead, is relegating to nonuse one's own powers of
reasoning, and the even more basic power of perception. Not observing where
it counts most, not knowing where one wants so much to know, all this is
most destructive to the functioning of one's personality. . . . But if one
gives up observing, reacting, and taking action, one gives up living one's
own life. And this is exactly what the SS wanted to happen.

Bettelheim describes striking instances of this personality disintegration -
which again are of particular relevance for the Chinese situation. Western
apologists for the Peking regime have argued that since the Chinese
themselves, and particularly those who recently left China, did not show
willingness to express dissent or criticism (a questionable assertion-I
shall come back to this point later), we had better not try to speak for
them and should simply infer from their silence that there is probably
nothing to be said. According to Bettelheim, the camp inmates came
progressively to see the world through SS eyes; they even es-poused SS

At one time, for instance, American and English newspapers were full of
stories about cruelties committed in the camps. In discussing this event old
prisoners insisted that foreign newspapers had no business bothering with
internal German institutions and expressed their hatred of the journalists
who tried to help them. When in 1938 I asked more than one hundred old
political prisoners if they thought the story of the camp should be reported
in foreign newspapers, many hesitated to agree that it was desirable. When
asked if they would join a foreign power in a war to defeat National
Socialism, only two made the unqualified statement that everyone escaping
Germany ought to fight the Nazis to the best of his ability.

Jean Pasqualini -whose book Prisoner of Mao is the most fundamental document
on the Maoist "Gulag" and, as such, is most studiously ignored by the lobby
that maintains that there is no human-rights problem in the People's
Republic - notes a similar phenomenon. He confesses that after a few years
in the labor camps, he came. if not exactly to love the system that was
methodically destroying his personality, at least to feel gratitude for the
patience and care with which the authorities were trying to reeducate
worthless vermin like himself. Along the same lines, Orwell showed
premonitory genius in the last sentence of Nineteen Eighty-four: when
Winston Smith realizes that he loves Big Brother, that he has loved Big
Brother all along. . . .

Seemingly, I have wandered away from my topic: instead of dealing with human
rights, I have talked about the nature of totalitarianism, the falsification
of the past, and the alteration of reality. In fact, all these observations
are of direct relevance to our topic. We can summarize them by saying that
totalitarianism is the apotheosis of subjectivism. In Nineteen Eighty-four,
the starting point of Winston Smith's revolt lies in this sudden awareness:
"The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was
their final, most essential command." (Once more, see the falsified photos
of the Chinese leadership on Tian'anmen!) "His heart sank as he thought of
the enormous power arrayed against him. . . . And yet he was in the right!
The obvious, the silly, and the true had got to be defended. Truisms are
true, hold on to that! The solid world exists, its laws do not change.
Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall toward the earth's
center. . . . If that is granted, all else follows."

Objectivism - the belief that there is an objective truth whose existence is
independent of arbitrary dogma and ideology - is thus the cornerstone of
intellectual freedom and human dignity, and as such, it is the main
stumbling block for totalitarianism.

Objectivism, as opposed to totalitarianism, can take essen-tially two forms:
legality or morality. For historicocultural reasons, Western civilization
seems to have put more emphasis on legality, while Chinese civilization was
more inclined toward morality. Yet to oppose the two concepts, as some
admirers of Maoism have attempted to do, betrays a complete misreading of
both notions. In traditional China, "morality" (which meant essentially
Confucianism) was the main bulwark against incipi-ent totalitarianism. This
question was best expounded by the Chinese historian Yu Ying-shih in a
masterful essay ("Anti-intellectualism in Chinese Traditional Politics,"
Ming Pao Monthly, February and March 1976) which could be schematically
summarized as follows: Confucianism described the world in terms of a
dualism; on the one hand there is the concrete, changing realm of actual
politics, on the other hand there is the realm of abstract, permanent
principles. The duty of the scholar--politician is to serve the ruler
insofar as the ruler's behavior and policies harmonize with the unchanging
moral principles, which provide a stable reference by which to judge them.
In case of a clash between the two realms, the Confucian scholar must, in
the strong and unambiguous words of Xun Zi, "follow the principles and
disobey the Prince."

For this reason Maoist legality and Maoist morality are equally
inconceivable; both are self-contradictions (the same applies to Stalinist
or Nazi legality or morality; the terms are mutually exclusive). Mao himself
readily and cynically acknowledged this situation; for his subordinates,
however (as for Stalin's), in practice this created an increasingly
dangerous and frightening predicament to the point where a number of old and
prestigious Communist leaders could be bullied, persecuted and even tortured
to death during the "Cultural Revolution." Those who survived the turmoil,
having come so close to being devoured by the very beast they themselves had
raised, suddenly discovered the urgent need to establish some sort of
legality. Their appeals, which filled the pages of the People's Daily two
years after Mao's death, were pathetic, because they ran against the nature
of the regime. Establishment of legality would mean the end of the system;
with legal boundaries, Party authority would cease to be infallible and
absolute, and a genuine rule of law would mark the end of its ideological
rule. From a Communist point of view, such a situation would obviously be

It is in this context of quintessential - indeed, institutional --
illegality that the human-rights question must be considered. In other
words, for such a system, the very concept of human rights is necessarily
meaningless. Thus, in this respect, the historical record of the regime
could be characterized as a continuous and ruthless war waged by the
Communist government against the Chinese people. Let us briefly enumerate
here a few episodes selected at random, merely as illustrations.

- Liquidation of counterrevolutionaries, land reform, "Three Antis" and
"Five Antis" campaigns (1949-52). Five million executions (conservative
estimate, advanced by one of the most cautious and respected specialists of
contemporary Chinese his-tory, Jacques Guillermaz, in Le Parti Communiste
chinois au pouvoir [Paris: Payot, 1972], 33, n. 1).

- "Anti-rightist campaign" (1957). According to the figures issued by the
Minister for Public Security, during the period from June to October alone,
"100,000 counterrevolutionaries and bad elements were unmasked and dealt
with"; 1,700,000 subjected to police investigation; several million sent to
the countryside for "reeducation."

- "Cultural Revolution" (1966-69). No total figures are available as yet. By
Peking's own admission, the losses were heavy. In the last interview he
granted to Edgar Snow, Mao Zedong said that foreign journalists, even in
their most sensational reporting, had grossly underestimated the actual
amount of violence and bloodshed. A full and methodical count still remains
to be established from the various figures that are already available at the
local level (90,000 victims in Sichuan province alone, 40,000 in Guangdong).
The trial of the "Gang of Four" was an opportunity for further official
disclosures on the enormous scope of these atrocities.

- The anti-Lin Biao and anti-Confucius campaigns (1973-75), and then the
campaign for the denunciation of the "Gang of Four" (1976-78), were both
accompanied by waves of arrests and executions. Finally, in 1979, the
Democracy Walls were outlawed and the Democracy movement was suppressed.
Arbitrary arrests and heavy sentences based on trumped-up charges eliminated
vast numbers of courageous and idealistic young people and finally destroyed
all hopes for genuine political reform within the Chinese Communist system.

Political and intellectual dissent in Communist China has produced an
endless list of martyrs. The first victims fell well before the
establishment of the People's Republic, as early as the Yan'an period. Later
on, the repressions that successively followed the "Hundred Flowers" and the
"Cultural Revolution" decimated the intellectual and political elite of the
entire country.

Besides these illustrious victims, however, we should not forget the immense
crowd of humble, anonymous people who were subjected to mass arrests - as
happened in the aftermath of the huge anti-Maoist demonstration in
Tian'anmen Square (April 5, 1976), or who are suffering individual
persecution all over China. They are imprisoned, condemned to hard labor, or
even executed merely for having expressed unorthodox opinions; no one takes
notice of them, they never make the headlines in our newspapers. It is only
by chance encounter that sometimes, here and there, a more than usually
attentive visitor comes across their names and records their fate, from
ordinary public notices posted in the streets. Moreover, besides these
political dissen-ters, countless religious believers are also branded as
criminals and sent to labor camps simply because they choose to remain loyal
to their church and to their faith.

The Chinese "Gulag" is a gigantic topic that has been well described by
firsthand witnesses - Jean Pasqualini (Bao Ruo-wang) and Rudolf Chelminski,
Prisoner of Mao (New York: Cow-ard McCann & Geoghegan, 1973), and Lai Ying,
The Thirty-sixth Way (New York: Doubleday, 1969). The reading of these
accounts is a basic duty for everyone who professes the slightest concern
for China. I have commented elsewhere (in Broken Images) on the central
relevance of the labor camps for any meaningful analysis of the nature of
the Maoist regime. Suffice it to say here that whoever wishes to dispose of
the human-rights issue in China without first tackling this particular
subject is either irresponsible or a fraud.

Zhou Enlai observed quite accurately (in 1959) that "the present of the
Soviet Union is the future of China." There will be, in the future, Chinese
Solzhenitsyns to provide us with the fully documented picture of what Maoism
in action actually meant for millions of individuals. Yet it should be
remarked that the most amazing thing about Solzhenitsyn's impact is that the
West reacted to it as if it were news. Actually, Solzhenitsyn's unique
contribution lies in the volume and precision of his catalogue of atrocities
- but basically he revealed nothing new. On the essential points,
information about Soviet reality has been available for more than forty
years, through the firsthand testimonies of un-impeachable witnesses such as
Boris Souvarine, Victor Serge, Anton Ciliga, and others. Practically no one
heard of it at the time because no one wanted to hear; it was inconvenient
and inopportune. In the foreword to the 1977 edition of his classic essay on
Stalin, originally published in 1935, Souvarine recalls the incredible
difficulties he had in finding a publisher for it in the West. Everywhere
the intellectual elite endeavoured to suppress the book: "It is going to
needlessly harm our relations with Moscow." Only Malraux, adventurer and
phony hero of the leftist intelligentsia, had the guts and cynicism to state
his position clearly in a private conversation: "Souvarine, I believe that
you and your friends are right. However, at this stage, do not count on me
to support you. I shall be on your side only when you will be on top (Je
serai avec vous quand vous serez les plus forts)!" How many times have we
heard variants of that same phrase!

On the subject of China, how many colleagues came to express private support
and sympathy (these were still the bravest!), apologizing profusely for not
being able to say the same things in public: "You must understand my
position . . . my professional commitments . . . I must keep my channels of
communication open with the Chinese Embassy. I am due to go on a mission to

Finally, I would like to examine successively the various methods that have
been adopted in the West to dodge the issue of human rights in China. The
first line of escape is the one I have just mentioned. It is to say, "We do
not know for sure, we do not have sufficient information on the subject."
Actually, there are enough documents, books, and witnesses to occupy entire
teams of researchers for years to come. Of course, much more material is
bound to surface; however, when the Chinese Solzhenitsyns begin methodically
to expose the Maoist era in all its details, anyone who exclaims in
horrified shock, "My God! had we only known!" will be a hypocrite and a
liar. We already know the main outlines; basically there can be no new
revelations, only the filling in of more details. The essential information
has been available practically since the establishment of the regime, and
everyone even slightly acquainted with Chinese affairs is aware of it. It is
true that, compared with the Soviet Union, there may be a relative scarcity
of documentation; this does not mean (as some people have had the temerity
to assert) that the situation is relatively better in China - it means
exactly the opposite. Under Stalin, what Soviet dissenter ever succeeded in
meeting foreign visitors or in smuggling manuscripts to the West? The Stalin
analogy is acutely relevant here, since China has always kept, and still
keeps, proclaiming its unwavering fidelity to the mem-ory of Stalin and to
the principles of Stalinism. The main accusation that Peking directs against
Moscow is precisely that it has partly betrayed this heritage.

The second line of escape (and possibly the most sickening one) is to say
sadly, "Yes indeed, we know; there have been gross irregularities-even what
you might call atrocities-committed in the past. But this is a thing of the
past: it was all due to the evil influence of the 'Gang of Four.'" This new
tune is now being dutifully sung by the entire choir of the
fellow-travelers, the traveling salesmen of Maoism, the sycophants, and the
propaganda commissars-the very people who, a few years ago, used to tell us
how everything was well and wonderful in China under the enlightened rule of
the same "Gang of Four." Pretending shock and indignation, they now come and
tell us horrible stories-as if we did not know it all, as if they had not
known it all-the very stories we told years ago, but at that time they used
to label them "anti-China slander" and "CIA lies."

The downfall of the "Gang of Four," however momentous, was, after all, a
mere episode in the power struggle within the system - it did not bring a
significant modification of the system. It does not have any bearing upon
the human-rights issue. Violations of human rights, political and
intellectual repression, mass arrests, summary executions, persecutions of
dissenters, and so on, were perpetrated for nearly twenty years before the
"Gang of Four's" accession to power, and now they continue after the
"Gang's" disgrace. Not only have these methods and policies not changed, but
they are being carried out by the same personnel, people who were not
affected by the ups and downs of the ruling clique. The terms in which
criticism of the "Gang" is being expressed, and the methods by which the
"Gang" is being denounced, represent a direct continuation of the language
and methods of the "Gang" itself. At no stage was any politically meaningful
criticism and analysis allowed to develop; the basic questions (From where
did the "Gang" derive its power? What kind of regime is it that provides
opportunities for such charac-ters to reach supreme power? How should the
system be reformed to prevent similar occurrences in the future?) cannot be
raised; whenever clearsighted and courageous people dare to address these
issues (Wang Xizhe, Wei Jingsheng), they are immediately gagged and
disappear into the Chinese "Gulag."

Since Mao's death, the pathetic reformist efforts of the leaders have
actually demonstrated that Maoism is consubstantial with the regime. What
happened to the Maoists in China reminds us of the fate of the cannibals in
a certain tropical republic, as described by Alexandre Vialatte: "There are
no more cannibals in that country since the local authorities ate the last

The third line of escape: "We admit there may be gross infringements of
human rights in China. But the first of all human rights is to survive, to
be free from hunger. The infringement of human rights in China is dictated
by harsh national necessity."

What causal relationship is there between infringement of human rights and
the ability to feed people? The relative and modest ability of the People's
Republic to feed its people represents the bare minimum achievement that one
could expect from any Chinese government that continuously enjoyed for a
quarter of a century similar conditions of peace, unity, and freedom from
civil war, from colonialist exploitation, and from external aggression.
These privileged conditions - for which the Communist government can claim
only limited credit - had been denied to China for more than a hundred
years, and this factor alone should invalidate any attempt to compare the
achievements of the present government with those of preceding ones.
Moreover, to what extent is the People's Republic truly able now to feed its
population? Deng Xiaoping bluntly acknowledged in a speech on March 18,
1978, the backwardness and basic failure of the People's Repu-blic's
economy. After nearly thirty years of Communist rule, "several hundred
million people are still mobilized full time in the exclusive task of
producing food. . . . We still have not really solved the grain problem. . .
our industry is lagging behind by ten or twenty years. . . ."

In proportion to population, food production in the People's Republic has
not yet overtaken the record of the best Kuomintang years of more than forty
years ago! The economic takeoff has not yet been achieved: China is still in
a marginal situation, not yet secure from potential starvation, always
vulnerable to the menace of successive bad harvests or other natural

Further, some of the major catastrophes that have hit the People's Republic 
and crippled its development were entirely Mao-made and occurred only 
because the totalitarian nature of the regime prevented rational debate and 
forbade informed criticism and realistic assessment of the objective 
conditions. Suffice it to mention two well-known examples. The "Great Leap 
Forward," which Mao's private fancy imposed upon the country, resulted in 
widespread famine (an authoritative expert, L. Ladany, ventured the figure 
of fifty million dead from starvation during the years 1959-62). Falsified 
production statistics were issued by the local authorities to protect the 
myth of the Supreme Leader's infallibility; the hiding of the extent of the 
disaster prevented the early tackling of the problem and made the tragedy 
even worse. In the early fifties, one of China's most distinguished 
economists and demographers, Professor Ma Yinchu, expressed the common-sense 
warning that it would be necessary to control population growth, otherwise 
the demographic explosion would cancel the production increase. Mao, 
however, held to the crude and primitive peasant belief that "the more 
Chinese, the better." Ma was purged, all debate on this crucial issue was 
frozen for years, and precious time was wasted before Mao reversed his 
earlier conclusion (before obtaining his rehabilitation, Ma himself had to 
wait twenty years for Mao to die).

Such examples could easily be multiplied. In a totalitarian system, whenever 
common sense clashes with dogma, common sense always loses - at tremendous 
cost to national development and the people's livelihood. The harm caused by 
arbitrary decisions enforced without the moderating counterweight of debate 
and criticism almost certainly exceeds whatever advantage could be gained 
from the monolithic discipline achieved by the system. Totalitarianism, far 
from being a drastic remedy that could be justified in a national emergency, 
appears on the contrary to be an extravagant luxury that no poor country can 
afford with impunity.

The fourth line of escape is articulated in several variations on a basic 
theme: "China is different."

The first variation on this theme: "Human rights are a Western concept, and 
thus have no relevance in the Chinese context." The inherent logic of this 
line of thought, though seldom expressed with such frankness, amounts to 
saying: "Human rights are one of those luxuries that befit us wealthy and 
advanced Westerners; it is preposterous to imagine that mere natives of 
exotic countries could qualify for a similar privilege, or would even be 
interested in it." Or, more simply: "Human rights do not apply to the 
Chinese, because the Chinese are not really human. Since the very 
enunciation of this kind of position excuses one from taking the trouble to 
refute it, I shall merely add here one incidental remark: human rights are 
not a foreign notion in Chinese modern history. Nearly a century ago, the 
leading thinker and political reformer Kang Youwei (1858-1927) made it the 
cornerstone of his political philosophy. In practice, under the first 
Republic, a human-rights movement developed effectively as a protest against 
the "white terror" of the Kuomintang; the famous China League for Civil 
Rights was founded in 1932 and mobilized the intellectual elite of the time, 
with prestigious figures such as Cai Yuanpei, Song Qingling, and Lu Xun. It 
also had its martyrs, such as Yang Quan (assassinated in 1933). However, the 
history of human rights in China is, after all, an academic question. What 
is of burning relevance is the current situation. Foreigners who pretend 
that "the Chinese are not interested in human rights" are obviously blind 
and deaf. The Chinese were forcefully expressing this very demand on the 
De-mocracy Wall, and on this theme popular pressure became so great that 
even the official newspapers finally had to acknowledge its existence.

Second variation: "We must respect China's right to be different." One could 
draw interesting logical extensions of that principle. Had Hitler refrained 
from invading neighboring countries and merely contented himself with 
slaughtering his own Jews at home, some might have said: "Slaughtering Jews 
is probably a German idiosyncrasy; we must refrain from judging it and 
respect Germany's right to be different.

Third variation: "China has always been subjected to despotic regimes, so 
there is no particular reason for us to become indignant at this one." Such 
reasoning is faulty twice over: first, because Chinese traditional 
government was far less despotic than Maoism; and second, because, had it 
been equally as despotic as Maoism or even more so, this would still not 
provide a justification. The second point does not need to be argued (since 
when can past atrocities justify present ones?); let us briefly consider the 
first. The great ages of Chinese civilization, such as the Tang and the 
Northern Song, present a political sophistication and enlightenment that had 
no equivalent in the world until modern times. Other periods were markedly 
more despotic, and some (Qin, Ming) even tried to achieve a kind of 
totalitarianism. However, they were always severely hampered by technical 
obstacles (genuine totalitarianism had to wait for twentieth-century 
technology to become really feasible). Ming politics were ruthless and 
terrifying, but they were such only for the relatively small fraction of the 
population that was politically active, or in direct contact with government 
organs. In the mid-sixteenth century Chinese officialdom consisted of some 
ten to fifteen thousand civil servants for a total population of about one 
hundred and fifty million. This tiny group of cadres was exclusively 
concentrated in the cities, while most of the population was living in the 
villages. Distance and slow communications preserved the autonomy of most 
countryside communities. Basically, taxation represented the only 
administrative interference in the life of the peasants, and simply by 
paying their taxes, the people were actually buying their freedom from most 
other governmental interventions. The great majority of Chinese could spend 
an entire lifetime without ever having come into contact with one single 
representative of imperial authority. The last dynasty, which ruled China 
for nearly three centuries, the Qing government, however authoritarian, was 
far less lawless than the Maoist regime; it had a penal code that determined 
which officials were entitled to carry out arrests, which crimes entailed 
the death penalty, and so on, whereas Maoist China has been living for 
thirty years in a legal vacuum, which, as we have read in the official 
press, eventually enabled countless local tyrants to govern following their 
caprice, and establish their own private jails where they could randomly 
torture and execute their own personal enemies.

Fourth variation: "Respect for the individual is a Western characteristic"; 
in China (I quote from an eminent American bureaucrat) there is "an utterly 
natural acceptance of the age-old Confucian tradition of subordinating 
individual liberty to collective obligation." In other words, the Chinese 
dissidents who are being jailed and executed merely for having expressed 
heterodox opinion, the millions who, having been branded once and for all as 
"class enemies" (the classification is hereditary!), are reduced, they and 
their descendants, to a condition of being social outcasts, or are herded 
into labor camps. These people either, as good traditional Chinese, imbued 
with "the age-old Confucian tradition of subordinating individual liberty to 
collective obligations," are supposed to be perfectly satisfied with their 
fate, or, if they are not (like the 100,000 demonstrators who dared to show 
their anger in Peking on April 5, 1976, and all those who, two years later, 
gathered around the "Democracy Wall"), thereby prove that they are 
un-Chinese, and thus presumably unworthy of our attention!

In all these successive variations, "difference" has been the key concept. 
If Soviet dissidents have, on the whole, received far more sympathy in the 
West, is it because they are Caucasians - while the Chinese are "different"? 
When Maoist sympathizers use such arguments, they actually echo diehard 
racists of the colonial-imperialist era. At that time the "Chinese 
difference" was a leitmotiv among Western entrepreneurs, to justify their 
exploitation of the "natives": Chinese were different, even physiologically; 
they did not feel hunger, cold and pain as Westerners would; you could kick 
them, starve them, it did not matter much; only ignorant sentimentalists and 
innocent bleeding-hearts would worry on behalf of these swarming crowds of 
yellow coolies. Most of the rationalizations that are now being proposed for 
ignoring the human-rights issue in China are rooted in the same mentality.

Of course, there are cultural differences - the statement is a tautology, 
since "difference" is the very essence of culture. But if from there one 
extrapolates differences that restrict the relevance of human rights to 
certain nations only, this would amount to a denial of the universal 
character of human nature; such an attitude in turn opens the door to a line 
of reasoning whose nightmarish yet logical development ends in the very 
barbarity that this century witnessed a few decades ago, during the Nazi 

The above essay, first published in 1978, was essentially based upon 
observation and experience of the Maoist era. To what extent can it still 
provide a valid reflection of today's situation? In the past, I have often 
expressed skepticism regarding the ability of the Communist system to modify 
its essential nature. I dearly wish that its political evolution may 
eventually prove me wrong. In this matter, however, the pessimism generally 
expressed by most Chinese citizens appears to have some justification: what 
can we expect from a regime that is now solemnly reaffirming that all its 
laws and institutions must remain subordinated to the supreme guidance of 
the "Thought of Mao Zedong"? 

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