Celebrating 60 years of (censored) history in China
It is difficult to imagine what Mao Zedong must have been thinking in 1955 as the supreme leader of the triumphant Communist Party (CCP). Was he hoping to surpass in greatness all the emperors who had preceded him in Chinese history, like the First Emperor or Genghis Khan? What we do know is that Mao's aspiration was nothing less than the immediate transformation of Chinese society to his vision of Communism. The impact of this aspiration soon reached every quiet corner of the nation. The new government required each village to label its populace according to a theory of social classes prescribed by a European thinker, Karl Marx. In Xiangxi, Xiao's grandfather was classified as a "small lot operator," saved by friends from being labelled a "wealthy peasant" despite his self-made success in the cloth-dying business. The latter label would have deemed him an exploiter of the masses and destined him for destruction in the new world order. Misfortune was only postponed, however.
The next step by the CCP was the reorganization of all farming communities into collectives. In 1958, all their family property - including land, livestock, tools, even cooking pots, bowls and chopsticks - was confiscated. All farmers were forced to eat in public canteens. As food quickly ran out and the countryside saw an historic starvation unmatched in China's history, the public canteens policy collapsed; but not soon enough to prevent Xiao's family from a terrible tragedy. Xiao's enraged grandfather went on a hunger strike to protest the policy, and died as a result.
Xiao was only three years old, but the tragic death of his grandfather told by his mother left a seed in his consciousness. Growing up in a twentieth-century authoritarian state, with the inescapable limits on information and thought during the Maoist era, the young Xiao Jiansheng was nevertheless sensitive to the sufferings of society.
Witnessing the dire poverty of rural areas, Xiao concluded, "If this situation continues, people will not be able to survive and will have no choice but to rebel. China's future would then be filled with chaos," in an essay titled "On China's Future and Fate" which he submitted to the official Communist Party newspaper People's Daily. It was 1974 and Xiao was 19 years old. After all, genuine pity for the suffering of the poor was a Communist ideal, wasn't it?
What followed this youthful idealism was Xiao's first encounter with the limits of freedom of thought in the reality of the Cultural Revolution. The essay was quickly returned to the local officials and the Party Chief of Feng Huang County contemplated firing Xiao from his post as junior reporter in the Propaganda Office and ordering the Public Security Bureau to arrest him. Only with the intervention of a few sympathizers was the young Xiao able to escape imprisonment.
Punishment for his youthful action lingered, however. Despite excellent grades in college entrance examinations, in 1977 Xiao was rejected by Peking University for failing the political screening. No local college would accept him after that. Losing the opportunity of a higher education must have seemed more painful than jail to Xiao. "I learned about the cruelty of politics the hard way." Ironically, the kind of "class struggle" that caused his grandfather's life had, by then, been abandoned by the central government and most of the cases of "rightists" (the closest thing to a thought criminal) were in the process of being overturned. Perhaps it had not come soon enough to ripple through society to people like Xiao.
Undefeated and without self-pity, Xiao continued to read, write, question and analyze on his own. From the tragedy of his grandfather, Xiao concluded, "When a person's private property is infringed upon, his right to pursue happiness is taken away; the consequences can be dire." He found inspiration in the writings of John Locke, Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper. Anchored in the social ills of the present day, Xiao took off on a journey of historical soul searching. The result of his twenty-year study is an ambitious critique of the history of Chinese civilization. Xiao's book, Chinese History Revisited, seeks answers for why Chinese civilization has failed to transition from despotism to humanism. Never shy about using the value judgment that humanism is superior to despotism, Xiao asks: "If the first emperor's violent coercive unification was historical progress, then why were there no more great philosophers like Confucius, Mencius or Laozi after the unification? People often call for the revitalization of the great Chinese civilization, but what does this 'greatness' of Chinese civilization even mean?"
In 2006, Xiao sent his finished manuscript to numerous publishers in China, but no one dared to publish it. After doing more research on editorial preferences, Xiao tried again, this time targeting a particular editor at the China Social Sciences Press. The editor responded enthusiastically to Xiao's manuscript, with its meticulous research and easy prose. He had the book printed by the end of the year. Just before its launch, however, in a rare last-minute intervention, censors banned the book from distribution.
So what exactly did the censors fear in Xiao's book? Perhaps it was the wholesale acceptance of the value of individual rights, pluralism and democracy; and the author's use of these universal values to re-evaluate different periods of Chinese history. Perhaps they are uncomfortable with his strong condemnation of the First Emperor's violent conquests and repression, in contrast to the common wisdom of Chinese scholars that unification was for the greater good. Perhaps the Empress Dowager Cixi's house arrest of the reform-minded young Emperor Guanxu read too much like Deng Xiaoping's treatment of General Secretary Zhao Ziyang who had opposed his violent Tiananmen solution. While all of these are possible sources of their irritation, the most dangerous element to the censer's professionals was the uncompromising "attitude" of the author. He wrote as though there was no censorship, exhibiting an utter disregard for the "correct version of history" maintained by the Party's propaganda branch.
In 2009, this fascinating manuscript found its way to my publishing house in Hong Kong, where free press is protected by law. Regardless, the mainland State Security Ministry got wind of our plans to release the book and linked it to the task on hand of "upholding stability."They saw the publication as an attempt to "spoil" the sixtieth Anniversary Celebration of the People's Republic. The chief editor of Hunan Daily (where Xiao is a senior editor) was prompted to inquire into the publication. While he too could see no good reason why such a book should be wiped out, extreme pressure was put on Xiao to stop the presses, once again.
Sixty years after the founding of the People's Republic of China, with its precipitous ups and downs in wealth, and abrupt shifts in ideology and social norms, what has remained unchanged is the state's righteousness in demanding individual sacrifices, as though to prove the point of Xiao's book.
Xiao has decided to go ahead with the publication. He says, "The very sad fate of my grandfather, and the spirit of his choice of death over living as less than a human being, continues to give me encouragement."