In China, anything can come back to bite you

Yesterday’s review of “Reconsidering the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries,” is important reading not only to better understand the terror and hysteria of the Mao years, but to understand the way in which the past effects the psyche of Chinese people today.

Three bits from the article have been cycling through my mind since yesterday: that in some areas nearly 80% of the people accused were later exonerated, 30% of those whose death sentences were not absolutely necessary were executed anyway, and that even in my former home of Longzhou, which is tiny by Chinese standards, at least 40  people were executed. These three pieces show that the campaign was largely used as a source of revenge against otherwise innocent people, and that this campaign reached every corner of every village in China. Campaigns similar to this one were repeated throughout Mao’s rule.

I think in many ways fear of these times still remains. Even my Chinese-American friends, whose parents hadn’t been in China for decades, were cautioned as children not to speak openly with anyone beyond their closest circle of friends. One’s mother even scolded her for greeting a classmate while shopping who was just an acquaintance. “You don’t know what they will say about you to others,” her mother whispered as they left the store.

Later though, I learned that her mother’s father had been a principal prior to the Cultural Revolution. He was locked in one of the classrooms for days after being accused by one of his students of destroying a picture of Chairman Mao. Because of this, her mother was adopted by one of her uncles who was in the army so she could avoid being labeled a class enemy.

Another friend’s mother told me that her mother was a local gov’t official during the Cultural Revolution. Her position entitled her to better food and more meat, but she often gave the majority of it to neighbors to keep them happy. She always had to try to remember who had been given what so that she could appear fair to everyone, and was keenly aware that any perceived favoritism would be grounds for denunciation. My friend’s mother said that she had been upset with her mother for giving so much away, but later realized that it was because of her generosity that they had fared better than other families.

Memories like these are never forgotten and shape a person in ways that they themselves may not fully understand. This leads to anxiety among today’s “counter-revolutionaries” that an economic slowdown could once again spur nationalist sentiments, and a return of red terror.

The “lessons” learned by those who survived this era still shape their actions. Some of China’s rich are citing the fear of nationalism as the very reason for wanting a foreign passport. In academia, you see the effects in professors and students weighing their opinions vs. their future, knowing that what is said today, could be held against them tomorrow. In movies, art, and literature, it appears in the form of self-censorship. And in social interactions, you can still see the ripples of that period when friends hide their real feelings in front of people they would describe as friends.

Because discussing these campaigns is still taboo, there has been no chance for Chinese society to reconcile their present with their past. The elderly people we see on the side of the road may have been the victims, or they might have been the perpetrators of violence who were never held responsible for their misdeeds. It seems that without addressing China’s troubling history, many won’t be able to stop worrying about whether or not what they’ve said in public will come back to bite them.

22 responses to “In China, anything can come back to bite you”

  1. mrchopstik says:

    Tom, this is very close to my own analysis of China’s past and its trajectory in the future and a main proponent behind my argument that China must address its past (in spite of the numerous arguments made by the government against doing so) if it has any hope of a better future. If you cannot reconcile the past, you cannot hope to have a more prosperous future because you will always be wondering when the past will come back to bite you (to use a financial analogy).

    • Yaxue C. says:

      Problem is, the party wants to hang the shadow of the past over China, over the people, because they see the benefit of people being very afraid of pasting coming back to bite them. If it must, it will take down China, and the world, to stay in power. Have no illusion about this.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        This is a curious comment, Yaxue, considering that much of the CCP’s present legitimacy rests upon economic stability or advancement. Indeed, when has it not rested on at least the claim of progress? Given this, wouldn’t an effort to “take down China” work against the Party’s primary interest which, as you say, is to stay in power?

      • mrchopstik says:

        Lorin, you are partially correct. Much of the CCP’s legitimacy rests on the belief of economic progress – but it has not always been that way and it is not the only thing upon which its legitimacy has or does rest. It did not rise to power on the basis of economic progress – it rose on the belief that it would create a better society that was more equal and that it was a Chinese leadership, not foreign. Today, the hype of nationalism continues strongly as the government knows that few people see it as a bearer of economic good tidings (the current economic trend in China is worrying) or that it is a fair and just government; therefore, nationalism and a CHINESE leadership have come to the fore. There is a reason the government constantly harps upon the century of shame and glosses over much of the rest of Chinese history – it reinforces the worry that foreigners will come back and dominate China again.

        And I suspect that Yaxue’s comment is that the government will rip down society and start over again if it will provide them the ability to continue in power – much the same as any authoritarian leadership will do. Though she can obviously speak much better to that than I.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        I think I’ll have to disagree, mrchopstik. The legitimacy of the Party always did rest primarily upon some notion of emancipation and progress, but maybe I don’t understand the distinction you’re making between “economic progress” and “creating a better society that was more equal.” First of all, surely “better” and “more equal” represents economic progress given the state of things pre-revolution. Many would argue that this is the true meaning of progress. Second, the PRC has always been unequivocally dedicated to progress through development. The specifics of what such progress would look like have differed over time in part due to the playing out of the contradictions of the various campaigns (e.g., the Great Leap Forward). As to nationalism cultural or otherwise, it is used as a temporary distraction when deemed necessary and, to the extent that it is actively fomented by the government, is done so very cautiously and with a degree of fear. I don’t see that it’s ever been a long term legitimating strategy in the place of changing economic course. As to the ripping down of society, I really think that we ought not to always look at the maintenance of power as the only thing that motivates the powerful in China. Even if we see the maintenance of power as the deepest reason for this or that policy, surely there are proximate interests and even altruism (i.e., they genuinely believe that they are doing the right thing) at play. Another interesting question is the degree of control has over the social forces it has unleashed in the last three decades. “Taking the country down” would seem to entail control over interests that it may not, objectively, be able to control at this historical moment. That, however, is pure speculation on my part.

      • Chopstik says:

        A [authoritarian] nation is more susceptible to revolution not when it is at its poorest (e.g. North Korea today) but when it is ascendant and its people have things they didn’t possess before and the knowledge that better than what they have exists – and the inability of the state to help provide it quickly enough for them. My point with the “more equal” and “economic progress” was to differentiate between how it came to power and how it now co-opts its citizens. The attempt to unilaterally impose “communism” failed and Deng, recognizing its failure, then moved to create a society that would be “communism with Chinese characteristics” – or, in the Western vernacular, capitalism under authoritarian government. Instead of creating an equal society such as Mao hailed, it has now moved increasingly to an unequal society where the rich get richer (and then try to get out while they can) and the poor continue to suffer. The parallels between China today and under the Nationalists in the 30’s and 40’s are striking – and not publicized in China. But the legitimacy of the government comes from the promise it makes today to say that it will try to provide opportunities for people to enrich themselves economically – even if at the expense of others – so long as those who are enriched do not attempt to challenge or subvert the Party’s authority. That is not, however, the same promise that it came to power with and that was the distinction that I was attempting to make (albeit with little success).

        Further, as regards nationalism, we both agree that this is not a valid long-term strategy and one that has been overtly employed when needed as a distraction. However, the subliminal messaging is overwhelming when it comes to nationalism and the nation as a whole will suffer for it. As I mentioned earlier, the century of shame is a constant theme in China from childhood on and serves as a blunt instrument that can be wielded when necessary to distract people from the Party’s incompetence or corruption and suggest that it is still better than foreigners. And, considering the real fear of an economic bubble on the verge of busting in China (real estate ala the US in 2008), I [would] worry that it will continue to be used to stave off those who view the only other legitimacy the government maintains with its economic policies.

        Finally, human nature says that a person or government with power will not want to lose it – it will wish to maintain its status. Sure, there will be exceptions where powerful people will act with altruistic or well-meaning intentions and actions, but they are just that – exceptions to the rule. To suggest that they would be in the majority would be wishful thinking at best, dangerously naive at worst. And as to whether they have as much control as (or we as outside observers) think they do is a valid point – one to which I think there is no easy answer. Power is amorphous. Or, as I believe Mao pointed out, power comes from the barrel of a gun and we know who has the guns in China.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        I think we’ve reached an impasse in this discussion mainly because the resolution turns out what may or may not happen in the future. I’ll just highlight a couple of points on which we disagree:

        1. “A [authoritarian] nation is more susceptible to revolution not when it is at its poorest (e.g. North Korea today) but when it is ascendant and its people have things they didn’t possess before and the knowledge that better than what they have exists – and the inability of the state to help provide it quickly enough for them.”

        Historically/empirically this statement would be hard to find evidence of. China itself would seem to disprove the rule. My complaint is not with actual facts, though. Rather, I see the pursuit of some iron law of revolution as a fool’s errand. Marx’s failure to accurately predict the future actions of the proletariat should serve as a caution. There are some interesting works in social theory that look at levels of social vs. system integration (contact me by email if you’re interested). With respect to China, we might speculate that in the face of heavy contradictions in “the system,” high levels of social integration keep things relatively stable. Anyway, that’s a discussion for another time and place.

        2. “the subliminal messaging is overwhelming when it comes to nationalism and the nation as a whole will suffer for it.”

        I’m not sure what you mean by overwhelming and I don’t think it’s subliminal for the most part, but my Chinese friends mostly find this messaging transparent and comical. Not all, of course, and if it is subliminal, their conscious assessments of it are beside the point.

        3. “Finally, human nature says that a person or government with power will not want to lose it – it will wish to maintain its status.”

        I don’t disagree with the gist of this statement, but I think this is one of the points that I’m continually driving at in my comments, though perhaps not explicitly enough. First, as C. Wright Mills once put it, “the limits of ‘human nature’ are frighteningly broad.” Second, the CCP (and a government) is not a person and cannot be said to think like one. This is not to say that a party of government will not act in its own interests. Accepting for the moment that self-preservation is in fact its dominant interest, this does not mean that the ways in which it actually acts to serve that fundamental interest are always immediately damaging to those that it rules. For some, its actions in the its self-service work very well indeed, as you suggest in your post. All of this by way of saying that serving oneself does not necessarily mean trampling on others, unless, of course, we want to bring in the more general idea of exploitation which applies in all kinds of societies. That may be a can of worms we don’t want to open!

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        mrchopstick, I was trying to respond to you off blog, but can’t seem to find a contact address. I didn’t want to post in your blog comments section, though I could. You can get me at

  2. What happens if China’s huge economy crashes? I understand there are now whole sections of new developments in real estate that builders can not sell.

  3. Lorin Yochim says:

    “The elderly people we see on the side of the road may have been the victims, or they might have been the perpetrators of violence who were never held responsible for their misdeeds.”

    Can you explain what old people you’re referring to here, Tom?

    • Tom says:

      In this case, it would be anyone who was old enough to have seen the cultural revolution, or one of the prior campaigns of violence.

  4. Yaxue C. says:

    “30% of those whose death sentences were not absolutely necessary were executed anyway” sounds like a very conservative number to me. In the story “Subject,” I described how, at about 7 or 8 years old, I read the court announcement in the town’s center. I remember (not just that one particular announcement) there were always one or two names being crossed out in red ink (sign for immediate execution). And one didn’t have to commit grave offenses to be executed. The blitheness with which people are accused and killed is both shocking and worth our thoughts.

    “friends hide their real feelings in front of people they would describe as friends.” If they know how the communists operate, they better hide their feelings in front of their friends too, because, according to memoirs and revelations published in recent years, close friends often turned out to be informants of the party. In today’s universities, student party members play a spying role, reporting to the party on conversations among fellow students and who are “dangerous” people, etc.

    We all know about poisoned food in China; but the party has never for a day stopped poisonning this society.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      On the hiding of feelings and the connection to the GPCR or communist era, it seems to me that Tom is grasping at psycho-social explanations here. I would suggest that this is a disciplinary habit of mind at best. We might ask the question, did such behaviour really begin only in this time? Or am I misreading what is actually a much less significant claim?

  5. Yaxue C. says:

    Do you know that the People’s Republic of China didn’t have criminal law until 1979? I didn’t know until a few years ago when my brother mentioned this to me. How did they decide what was an criminal offense, who should be executed, etc? By directives of the party, or that of officials. How do we even know who were killed legitimately and who were not? I would say, since there wasn’t a law in existence, all the people executed were wrongfully executed.

    Of course, over the past 32 years since China had a criminal law, we have only learned that it is largely fake, no more than a facade, and the only law is still just the “law” of the party.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      These are some good points, Yaxue, but the article Tom points to actually points out the ambiguity with which officials viewed indiscriminate killing that was, nonetheless, prompted by directives from the top. Like I mentioned above, Mao seemed to prefer the pedagogical effect of making revolution over some kind of overarching morality. I often wonder, though, do you see rule of law and one party rule as incompatible? Contradictory?

      • Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

        Lorin, China doesn’t have Rule of Law. It only has Rule by Law. Big difference which was well explained by thenakedlistener in an earler Post. Basically it is old Soviet style law with bits bolted on at later dates, like presumably the criminal law in 1979.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Actually, Meryl, Yaxue and I started this discussion before. I shouldnt have asked her this question again, and I’m glad she hasn’t responded. To be fair, thenakedlistener posted as fact what is really a debate in political/legal theory. Personally I think its as good an explanation/distinction as any. But like I said to Yaxue before, whether or not China has democracy or rule of law of any kind at the moment is a less important question than that of what its prospects for the development of these institutions. It seems the subtext of many of our discussions here imply this question.

  6. Yaxue C. says:

    I always know Lorin will come back to bite me 🙂

  7. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Freudian slip, Yorin!

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