Xu Hongci had been drawn to politics by the promise of dignity. Growing up in Shanghai during the Second World War, part of a downwardly mobile middle-class family, he resented the Japanese occupation and the Chinese leaders who failed to prevent it. “Japanese soldiers would fish in our pond, swaggering off with the biggest carp without paying a single penny,” Xu recalled, in a memoir he wrote years later. “Our nation’s tragedy awakened my political consciousness at a young age.”
He dreamed of making China strong again, of erasing “injustice and darkness.” At the age of fourteen, he placed his faith in the radical change envisioned by Mao Zedong, joining the Communist Party before it came to power, in 1949. The first time Xu noticed cracks in Mao’s project, he rationalized them as the by-products of bold reform. Xu and his classmates had been ordered to identify “counterrevolutionaries” in their ranks, but they could find none. They fingered an innocent boy who, Xu conceded, “would have to suffice as a target for a round of criticism.”
For a time, autocracy rewards the true believer, and Xu received a coveted place at Shanghai No. 1 Medical College, to study medicine. Violence was spreading, but Xu found ways to justify the lists in the newspaper of men and women executed in the Campaign to Suppress Counter-Revolutionary Activities. He was only a “bystander,” he told himself.
Mao told his people to watch their neighbors, to ferret out threats from within and from without. Xu played his part, until he, too, became suspect. In 1957, Mao repeated his call to “let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend.” Xu voiced his dissatisfaction with the Soviet Union, and he spoke favorably of the Hungarian uprising against Moscow’s control. It was a trap. The president of Xu’s college labelled him a “traitor to the party.” Now the victim, Xu realized that the accusations he had parroted about others “were nothing but lies.”
In April, 1958, Xu was sentenced to laogai (“labor reform”), modelled on the Soviet Gulag. He was one of five hundred and fifty thousand men and women across China who were convicted in the Anti-Rightist Campaign. Xu was sent to the White Grass Ridge camp, in barren southern Anhui Province. He and other convicts were housed in bamboo barracks and forced to scratch at the earth with the goal of “reclaiming wasteland.”
Autocrats promise the unobtainable, and in 1958 Mao vowed to catapult his country past Britain in fifteen years. In Xu’s camp, the workday was extended to nineteen hours. Dysentery ravaged the convicts. Xu’s calves, swollen by edema, grew as large as his thighs. Mao promised to triple the size of the harvest, and he ordered the people to plant rice seedlings three times more densely than usual. The crops died. Famine set in.
During the next decade, Xu escaped from laogai three times. On each occasion, he was recaptured. But his persistence is astonishing, because, as the laogai survivor Harry Wu later put it, “all of China was a prison in those days.” In 1972, Xu escaped once more and succeeded, at last, in reaching Mongolia, where he settled and later married. He wrote down his story, but he was unknown, and when he died, in 2008, it remained unpublished. Erling Hoh, a Swedish-Chinese journalist, happened on an oral history of Xu’s escape and in 2012 discovered the manuscript. In January, “No Wall Too High” will be published in English.
Xu’s story can be read as a testament to man’s unwillingness to succumb, or as the description of a moment when “the naked truth, so long outraged, burst upon the eyes of the world,” as Albert Camus wrote of Hungary’s uprising. But, above all, it should be read as a warning. Tyranny does not begin with violence; it begins with the first gesture of collaboration. Its most enduring crime is drawing decent men and women into its siege of the truth.
Author: Evan Osnos