Gong Xiaoxia recalls the blank expression on the man’s face as he was beaten to death by a Chinese mob.
He died without a name, becoming another statistic among millions.
“I remember him so vividly, he really had no expression on his face,” Gong said. “After about 10 or 20 minutes, God knows how long, someone took out a knife and hit him right into the heart.”
He was then strung on a pole and left dangling and rotting for two months.
“I think the most terrible thing, when I recall that period, the most terrible thing that struck me was our indifference,” said Gong, today a 38-year-old graduate student at Harvard researching her own history.
That terrible period was China’s 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. The blinding indifference was in the name of Chairman Mao Tse-tung and the Communist Party.
Gong is among a new wave of scholars and intellectuals, both Western and Chinese, who believe modern Chinese history needs rewriting.
While the focus of many books and articles today is on China’s successful economic reforms, dramatic new figures for the number of people who died as a result of Mao Tse-tung’s policies are surfacing, along with horrifying proof of cannibalism during the Cultural Revolution.
It is now believed that as many as 60 million to 80 million people may have died because of Mao’s policies–making him responsible for more deaths than Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin combined.
Gong said killer is not a strong enough word to describe Mao. “He was a monster,” she said.
Hitler’s policies led to tens of millions of deaths during World War II and in concentration camps, and Stalin is blamed for tens of millions more.
Chinese government figures say between 15 million and 25 million people died unnatural deaths during Mao’s reign from 1949 until his death in 1976.
But both Chinese and Western scholars know those figures are no longer valid. One document, published in the Shanghai University journal Society last year–and immediately yanked from shelves–said 40 million people died during the great famine of 1959-1961.
Some China experts say it is time to move on and put the past to rest.
But so much new information is coming out about China’s recent past that this handful of scholars, some of whom recently fled China, feel it must be recorded so that future generations will learn from it. Like the relentless scholars of the Holocaust, they hope to prevent history from repeating itself.
“I think that the upheavals in the middle of the century, the famine and the Cultural Revolution, are still very much locked into the soul of China,” said Perry Link, a professor at Princeton. “Modern China’s not going to find its way into the 21st Century unless the Chinese people can feel that they really got to the bottom of how such things happened.”
Andrew Walder, a Harvard sociologist working with Gong to examine hundreds of recently obtained Chinese documents on atrocities during the Cultural Revolution, acknowledged that some colleagues feel Mao’s failures are old news.
“Most China scholars are not really interested in delving back into those issues,” Walder said. “I think, with regard to violence with the Cultural Revolution, that’s what we’ve done, we’ve had a sense of complacency.”
The Tian An Men Square pro-democracy movement of 1989 played a role in making much of this new information available to the West. The crackdown forced some Communist Party members and leading intellectuals to flee the country–taking with them secret documents and new resolve to uncover the truth about how many died during Mao’s rule, and to tell just how they died.
One of the best-known is Chen Yizi, a Communist Party member who was an architect of the economic reforms of the 1980s and founder of several government think tanks.
During the pro-democracy movement in the spring of 1989, Chen urged the government to negotiate with the demonstrators. After the tanks rolled and untold numbers of people died–estimates range from about 500 to several thousands–Chen became one of the seven most-wanted–dead or alive–dissidents in China.
Chen, now 54, fled to the United States and founded the Center for Modern China, based in Princeton, N.J.
Using smuggled government documents, Chinese population statistics and interviews with police and villagers in four Chinese provinces, Chen calculated that as many as 43 million people died during the famine that followed Mao’s absurd industrial campaign, the Great Leap Forward of 1958-60.
“The truth will be much higher than this figure–believe it,” Chen said during a recent interview at his Princeton apartment. “The biggest problem for the Communist Party is they never learned how to treat human beings like human beings.”
Chen believes that, from the Communist takeover in 1949 through the landlord and intellectual purges of the 1950s, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the prison system, at least 80 million met unnatural deaths.