John Pomfret is editor-at-large at SupChina and author of “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, From 1776 to the Present.”
In April of last year, to mark National Security Education Day, a series of posters went up in an alleyway near my home in Beijing. The 16 panels, tantalizingly titled “Dangerous Love,” told the story of a comely Chinese civil servant, Little Li, who meets a Western man at a dinner party. The man, David, claims to be a visiting scholar but is actually a foreign spy. He cozies up to Little Li and purloins Chinese state secrets. In one of the final panels, we see Little Li sitting handcuffed before two police officers. The moral: There are spies everywhere, beware!
This year the competition to root out foreign spooks and their Chinese co-conspirators has spread nationwide. Educators in Jiangsu province rolled out a set of elementary school textbooks featuring games such as “find the spy.” Authorities in Beijing offered cash rewards to citizens who reported foreign intelligence operatives and their Chinese lackeys. State media across China warned of an increasingly “severe” national security situation.
It’s unclear whether these campaigns will actually dig up any moles. Nonetheless, these now-yearly endeavors underscore what remains a vital goal of China’s government: to shore up the snitch society that has kept the Communist Party in power since its early days. From the founding of the People’s Republic of China, people have been expected to report on their friends, relatives, teachers, classmates and co-workers because it was they who knew the most private thoughts of their loved ones. In China, the stool pigeon is the true hero of the revolution.
The results of these campaigns are well-known. In the early 1950s, the Communists dispatched millions to labor camps and executed millions more on the basis of evidence culled from those near and dear to them. During the Anti-Rightist Campaign, which started in 1957, 600,000 people were sent to jail, many because they had been denounced by those around them. Another low point was the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, when the lives of millions more were ruined by snitches who outed friends, relatives and neighbors for reading Western books, praising Western countries or, heaven forbid, watching an old Western movie.
One of the best ways to gain an understanding of the type of society the Communists created in China — and its legacy today — is through the memoirs of people who survived these campaigns. Jung Chang’s “Wild Swans” remains a classic. But there are other equally moving books, such as “Prisoner of Mao” by Bao Ruowang, “A Single Tear” by Wu Ningkun and Li Yikai, and “Life and Death in Shanghai” by Nien Cheng, who immigrated to Washington after she was released from the Chinese gulag and lived there until she died in 2009.
Now we can add another masterpiece to this list: “No Wall Too High: One Man’s Daring Escape From Mao’s Darkest Prison,” by Xu Hongci. Xu’s memoir, which was translated and edited from the Chinese by the writer Erling Hoh, tells the story of an idealistic Communist Party member who falls afoul of the revolution when his expectations for a democratic China run headlong into Mao’s totalitarian regime. In 1957, Xu was sentenced to China’s gulag after he and a few classmates publicly criticized the Communist Party for its (at the time) slavish devotion to the Soviet Union, for holding “fake elections” with only one party-approved candidate, and for its harsh persecution of those who had hoped that Mao’s revolution meant freedom, not repression. Xu was denounced by his girlfriend and his schoolmates.
Thus begins the story of Xu’s 16-year life in the gulag. Throughout his odyssey, Xu suffered at the hands of his fellow inmates, who received extra food or a lighter workload in exchange for speaking ill of him. He was slapped into solitary confinement, beaten, made the subject of mass “struggle sessions” and threatened with execution. Xu’s journey in Mao’s gulag finally ended in 1973, when he achieved the impossible: He escaped from prison and from China, fleeing to the relative freedom of the then-People’s Republic of Mongolia. Xu’s translator, Hoh, is not wrong to claim that Xu is the only known escapee from Mao’s prisons.
What distinguishes Xu from many other Chinese memoirists is that while many of them were bystanders caught up in the events, Xu was a true believer who passionately wanted to make a contribution to his country. He joined the underground Communist Party before the 1949 revolution at the age of 15. And in the first years following Mao’s victory he participated in the often-bloody land reform movement and supported the party’s goals.
But, like many well-meaning acolytes of the regime, Xu became the prey of the Communist Party, which turned on its young. To crush Xu, the party relied on those around him — first his friends and girlfriend and later his fellow inmates — to report on his inner thoughts and to implicate him in an endless series of “thought crimes,” which essentially revolved around his undying desire to be free.
What’s amazing is that throughout his 16 years in jail, Xu remained unbowed and convinced of the righteousness of his cause. He tried to escape four times, and he details each attempt and all the other dramatic events of his imprisonment with a painstaking sense of historical responsibility. Despite the constant surveillance and ratting, Xu held few grudges among the wardens and prisoners who persecuted him so; he knew who was to blame. “People become evil at the enticement of others,” he observed. “If there’s hadn’t been a Mao Zedong, I’m sure there wouldn’t be lackeys.”
After China’s opening to the West, Xu was allowed to return to China from Mongolia. With his Mongolian wife, he settled back in his home town, Shanghai. In 2008, a version of Xu’s memoir was first published in Chinese in Hong Kong. That year, Xu died.
In 2012, the writer Erling Hoh found the memoir in a library in Hong Kong. Hoh contacted Xu’s family and obtained Xu’s unedited manuscript. He discovered that the Chinese version had been censored by a Chinese journalist and party member who had toned down Xu’s acerbic criticism of the state. Hoh then re-translated the entire 600 pages of the original manuscript, whittling it down to a compelling read.
China’s latest binge of vigilance against spies and other enemies is a reminder that those who seek to empower the snitch society remain active. To be sure, China has progressed since the dark days of the 1950s and ’60s when its labor camps were stuffed full of “class enemies.” Still, if you have any doubts about the tenacity of the hold that China’s repressive system exerts on its people, ponder for a bit the fate of Lee Bo, the Hong Kong bookseller who published the Chinese edition of Xu’s book. In the spring of 2016, just as China was ramping up its National Security Day campaign, Chinese agents kidnapped Lee from Hong Kong and smuggled him over the border into China. There Lee was held for several weeks incommunicado and ordered to stop publishing books that exposed the troubled history of the Chinese Communist Party.
By Xu Hongci
Translated by Erling Hoh
Sarah Crichton/Farrar Straus Giroux. 314 pp. $27