By Waldron, Arthur

Magazine: COMMENTARY, JULY 1997


In the spring of 1986, the dissident Chinese writer Zheng Yi set out in search of his country's heart of darkness. He found it in the province of Guangxi in the remote southwest: there, during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960's, Communist-party officials had led the Chinese masses not only to murder political opponents but also to cook and eat their flesh and organs.

To Zheng, born in 1947 and a survivor of all the horrors of Mao's China, what happened in Guangxi epitomizes an apocalyptic truth. AS he writes at the conclusion of his Scarlet Memorial: Tales of Cannibalism in Modern China(n1):

[T]he ruthlessness and violence of Communism reaches the climax of all violence and ruthlessness, and the cannibalism in Guangxi was the zenith of ruthlessness and violence toward humankind.

…China's rural masses [survived] unspeakable privations caused by natural disasters. Communism, however, was supposed to have put an end to all that. Indeed, it was a visit to famine-ravaged Henan in 1943 that convinced the then-young American political journalist Theodore White that Communism was China's only path out of degradation and despair.

Today, the circle has come around: a new generation of Chinese writers, most of them born just as White and others were hailing the new dawn rising over China, squarely and irrefutably lays the charge of cannibalism at the door of Chinese Communism. Nor has the charge lost its relevance, not entirely metaphorical if no longer quite literal, with the passing of the generation of Mao. As Americans ponder their relations with the "new" China, both the legacy of the near past and the truths of the present deserve to be kept firmly in mind.

Cannibalism as a product of famine and starvation is of course not solely a Chinese phenomenon. During the great Ukrainian famine of 1932-33, itself induced by Stalin's economic policies, foreign diplomats reported seeing human flesh for sale in markets. In the Holocaust, it was not unknown for prisoners with access to dead bodies to consume bits of their flesh. But in China between 1959 and 1961, cannibalism was perhaps more widely practiced than at any other time or place in human history. It was the consequence of probably the greatest famine of all time, which was directly caused by Communist policy and cost somewhere between 30 and 60 million dead.

A far worse disaster even than the better-known Cultural Revolution, this famine was denied at the time both by the Chinese government and by almost the entire Western scholarly community. Even today, it remains largely a non-event except among the specialists who have exhumed the facts about it from demographic records, party documents, interviews, and eyewitness testimony. Other than in fictional guise, it remains a forbidden topic in China itself. For the interested, an excellent source in English is Hangry Ghosts by Jasper Becker,(n2) Beijing correspondent for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.

The great Chinese famine was brought about by Mao's "Great Leap Forward," an attempt to leapfrog history and bring China to world-beating modernity through one vast effort of mobilization. In industry, that meant building millions of backyard furnaces to smelt scrap metal into "steel"; in agriculture, it meant replacing the time-honored practices of Chinese farmers--whose yields were about as high as possible without the benefit of modern technology--with pseudo-scientific methods of "close planting" and "deep plowing" borrowed from the Soviet school of Lysenko, fraudulently elaborated by Chinese "scientists" eager to please the leadership, and then forced, by the police powers of the state, on unwilling peasants.

The results, as one would expect, were catastrophic. Doubling or tripling the number of seedlings on a plot did not double or triple the yield; rather, the overcrowded plants, searching for light, shot up too tall only to collapse and die. Officials, not daring to tell the truth, reported nonexistent record yields on which huge taxes were then levied, leaving the peasants without enough to live on.

China's "record harvests" of 1959 were trumpeted around the world (and inspired similar experiments elsewhere, as in Cambodia). But when winter came, as Becker recounts,

cannibalism became widespread. Generally, the villagers ate the flesh of corpses, particularly those of children. In rare cases, parents ate their own children, elder brothers ate younger brothers, elder sisters ate their younger sisters. In most cases, cannibalism was not punished by the Public Security Bureau because it was not considered as severe a crime as destroying state property.

As horrifying as the actual events is the way they were denied and/or ignored at the time. This was not for lack of knowledge. From neighboring Guangdong, refugees poured into Hong Kong across borders opened at one point by the Chinese authorities. Hong Kong residents attempted to help relatives in China by sending food: in the first six months of 1962 alone, 6.2 million two-pound food parcels were sent, swamping the postal system. Journalists who troubled to read the Chinese press or talk to refugees also knew something terrible was going on; clues and references appeared, but they were mostly discounted by mainstream option.

Inside China, the famine split the leadership of the Communist party. On one side stood Mao and his colleagues who, having hoped to win credit for the "Great Leap," refused to take the blame when it turned to disaster; on the other were those like Liu Shaoqi, Peng Dehuai, and Deng Xiaoping, who tried to stop it. Well into the Cultural Revolution, launched in 1965 in large part to cover up the catastrophe, Mao and his followers persecuted those at any level of the bureaucracy who had attempted to do something about the dying.

Becker cites a story that will be known to American readers of Jung Chang's Wild Swans (1991), a chilling and hauntingly beautiful chronicle of one Chinese family. As Becker tells it, Jung's father, a dedicated Communist revolutionary who had served as a senior official in Chengdu, Sichuan, was so "horrified at what he saw in the countryside, although local officials prevented him from seeing the worst," that he fell sick and had to be hospitalized. This fact alone, Becker writes, "was enough to provoke persecution [of him] during the Cultural Revolution, when he was attacked for 'tine waning of his revolutionary will.' He died in 1974, half insane, after a long period in a work camp." There were many, many others.

Becker's own outrage is unmistakable in his fine and courageous book, although he maintains a calm, soft-spoken tone throughout. Not so Zheng Yi, a writer after the style of Lu Xun, vivid and striking and bitterly ironic. Scarlet Memorial was written between October 1990 end duly 1991 in China, when Zheng was on the run after the Tiananmen massacre; it was published after he escaped with his wife, the poet Bei Ming, to Hong Kong. Casting the book as a solemn journey through the recent Chinese past, Zheng bids the reader accompany him, tolerating "the smell of stinking corpses and the smell of blood, holding back the desire to vomit," as together they inspect the crimes of the Cultural Revolution.

Unlike the famine, the Cultural Revolution was largely an urban phenomenon; its victims, like its perpetrators, were mostly members of the educated middle classes and intelligentsia, and many were Communists. The Cultural Revolution claimed its victims directly: not by taking crops and then leaving people to devour one another and die but by beatings and murders. Once again, though, degeneracy reached an extreme in actual cannibalism.

Traditional Chinese literature attests to the existence among the wealthy at certain times and places of a refined taste for human flesh. To this day, human liver, human brain, and other organs are still reputed for their tonic--or bu--qualities. These atavistic beliefs, a menacing presence in the shadows of Chinese civilization, are what animated the atrocities documented by Zheng Yi.

On August 18, 1968, in the Sanli township of Guangxi province, some 167 people accused by the minions of the Cultural Revolution were pushed toward the bank of the river:

The mad crowd then started beating them with their hands, feet, and stones. Immediately blood and flesh flew in the air, numerous people slipped and fell in the pools of blood. When the murderers got tired of beating, they simply pushed everyone into the river, and guards manning machine guns . . . then opened fire on the victims.

But then came even greater horror. Perhaps 100,000 innocent people were murdered by party-led gangs in Guangxi, and in many cases their organs were eaten. In Sishao village, the militiamen put Deng Jifang, the son of a landlord, into a cage and carried him to the town square, where he was hung from a electricity pole:

People immediately started to beat him with ruthless ferocity, but this punishment did not adequately slake the crowd's thirst for revenge, so they resorted to "using a burning-red spatula to scorch his face and chest." The very cruelty of these acts threw the crowd into such a frenzy that it seemed to be totally out of control. Veteran party members, cadres, land-reform activists, and the poor and lower-middle peasants all joined in calling for Deng's death. Someone even voiced a demand to disembowel Deng. Once the victim had passed out, he was pulled to the side of the river, and with five or six people pressing down on Deng's arms and legs, Yi Wansheng cut open his chest with a sharp butcher's knife.

By the time Zheng Yi interviewed him, Yi Wansheng, the butcher who wielded the blade, was eighty-six years old, a short, skinny man playing cards with his friends in a dark and shabby hut. He was happy to recount what happened next:

Yi Wansheng attempted to cut out the heart, liver, gall bladder, and kidneys, but the blood in the victim's chest was so hot that he couldn't touch the body parts. Yi then poured some river water over the victim and, as his chest cooled off, Yi extracted the organs, cut them into pieces, and laid everything out on a board. The heart was cut into finger-sized pieces. People in the crowd struggled to get a piece. "The people were so numerous that I didn't even get a share."

The treatment of children was more brutal still.

Only after contemplating dozens of such tableaux--such "scarlet memorials"--is the reader allowed to emerge with Zheng Yi from the jungle, ready "to expose our attire with its rotten smell to the bright sun."

And today? Of all those who have devoted themselves to exposing conditions in China, Harry Wu is surely the best known. Born in Shanghai in 1937, Wu spent nineteen years undergoing "reform through labor," or laogai, and now lives in California. Troublemaker: One Man's Crusade Against China's Cruelty(n3) is the third of his books about political oppression in China. Unfortunately, it is written in a slangy, tough-guy style that is difficult to take--and does no justice to Wu himself--but it is must reading nevertheless.

Wu is drawn, almost obsessively, back to China and to his comrades still in the gulag there. Pretending to be a businessman, he has signed contracts for prison goods; to get into camps, he has donned the uniforms of secret-police and convicts. On his most recent trip, in 1995, he nearly returned for good when he was arrested and released only after considerable pressure from Washington. Troublemaker recounts four such secret visits since 1991 in search of information and documentary footage.

Early in 1994, using his new American passport for the first time, Wu entered China without difficulty and met up with a veteran British investigative journalist, Sue Lloyd-Roberts of the BBC. Reports since the late 1980's had suggested that organs, especially kidneys, were being harvested without consent--"cannibalized"--from prisoners executed in the regime's Strike Hard campaigns against crime. The organs were then given or sold to party officials, others with money or connections, and foreigners. Thanks to the rising number of executions in crime-ridden China, a profitable mini-boom had been created, with a steady stream of affluent customers, mostly from East and Southeast Asia, getting organ replacements at the country's top hospitals.

Wu and Lloyd-Roberts posed (improbably enough) as an American married couple with an uncle who needed an immediate transplant. At the celebrated West China University of Medical Sciences in Chengdu (originally founded by missionaries), they interviewed Dr. Yang Yuru, who "positively glowed" as he described the advantages of obtaining a kidney in China as against the "many legal procedures" and time delays encountered in the United States. After Lloyd-Roberts headed back to London with film that would cause a minor sensation when screened, Wu, now accompanied by his wife Ching Lee, went on to Wuhan. At Tongji University, they dropped in on a ward and found five people who had just had transplants. "There were six kidneys available that day," they were told by the recipients themselves, whom they filmed. "`All from young prisoners, all under twenty-five, and very healthy. They were executed at eleven in the morning, and we had our operations at two in the afternoon.'"

The doctors pioneering this transplant work in China are at least as highly skilled and creative as those who worked for the Nazis, with whom they share an evident lack of interest in the sources of their experimental material. In interviews with Wu they are evasive, which may suggest the promptings of conscience but with equal plausibility may simply be an expression of fear (it is a crime to disclose the true origins of the organs).

A long with the transplant hospitals, another corrupted institution is evidently China's vast system of orphanages. Orphans have never been in short supply in China. Survivors of the famine recall how despairing parents would dig small holes by roadsides, deep enough to hold their starving children immobile but shallow enough for their heads to be visible and their cries heard, in the hope that some merciful person would take and adopt them.

In those days of mass starvation, good-hearted passersby could do little, but by the 1990's food supply was abundant in most of China. Orphans, however, have evidently continued to be maltreated, abused, and starved to death. Thousands of children are still abandoned, often by rural people who come and leave them in urban railroad stations (Wuhan, a hub like Chicago, is said to be particularly popular). Many are then picked up by China's "social-welfare" organizations. But as the descriptions and photographs in a new book demonstrate,(n4) the official apparatus may not save these wretched babies. Instead, it once did and may still collude in their deaths.

The horrid condition of orphanages in China may in part be explained by the demoralization brought on by Communism and the decades of struggle and murder. But the most fundamental explanation is the Chinese policy of population control.

In theory, at least, no couple in China is today permitted more than one child. Although those with money or connections, or dwelling in rural areas, can often find ways around the prohibition, the vast majority of women in China who find themselves pregnant with a second child are forced to undergo often gruesome abortions. If a woman delivers a second child in a hospital--and fails to pay a sufficient bribe to the staff--the infant, even if healthy, can be reported as "stillborn" and disappear. In addition to those left abandoned, many of China's orphans are such forbidden second children.

If these children were to be adopted, or otherwise saved by the state, the whole thrust of the population policy would be defeated. In fact, adoption is forbidden to any couple who already have a child. For those who end up in orphanages, the prospect is thus very grim.

Dr. Zhang Shuyun began working at an orphanage in Shanghai in 1989. There, according to Death by Default, she found children dying of hypothermia after being

left tied by orphanage staff to "potty chairs" in freezing weather conditions and wearing only a single layer of cotton clothing each, for more than 24 hours. When summoned to the scene of this atrocity-in-progress by a dissident staff member, the Supervision Bureau investigators personally witnessed the ugly, black-blue swellings that had emerged on the children's tightly bound arms and legs. Moreover, they saw with their own eyes that several of the children had already lapsed into unconsciousness. Upon hurriedly arriving at the scene, however, the orphanage's [Communist] party secretary, Zhu Meijun, flatly refused the government investigators' timidly-put request that the children be untied and given emergency medical treatment. Their deaths followed in due and inevitable course.

Dr. Zhang left China in March 1995 to take her case to the international community. She brought archives from her "welfare" institute showing a ratio of deaths to admissions of 77.6 percent in 1991. She also carried a set of 34 color photographs depicting the severely malnourished bodies of ten infants and young children who died at the orphanage during June-July 1992, and an eleven-year-old boy in a state of extreme emaciation; he had been tied by his wrists and ankles to a bed, and died just over a week later. Several of these photographs had been taken secretly by Ai Ming, an orphan afflicted with polio who survived and also escaped in 1995, in the orphanage's "waiting-for-death room" and morgue.

Children who were troublesome, or unpopular, or disabled had their young lives extinguished routinely by such methods. Since China's civil-affairs authorities not only run the country's network of orphanages and all other "social-welfare" institutions but also control the crematoria, discreet disposal of the little cadavers posed no problem.

I Individuals LIKE Dr. Zhang and Ai Ming, and like Zheng Yi and Harry Wu, today have custody of the honor of China. Though all four now live in exile, many others remain behind. At their head must be counted Wei Jingsheng.

Wei gained prominence in 1978 during the "democracy-wall" movement that was briefly sponsored by Deng Xiaoping. But after his usefulness to the party had been exhausted, he was imprisoned; released briefly in 1993 when Beijing was bidding to host the Olympics in 2000, he was then rearrested in 1995. Today Wei is held at the Jidong Number One Prison, also known as the Nanpu New Life Salt Works Prison, where he will probably die of a worsening heart condition and other health problems unless he is released soon.

A new book of Wei's writings is entitled The Courage to Stand Alone,(n5) but in fact Wei is being held incommunicado precisely because he dares to speak for so many; his imprisonment is part of the regime's general crackdown launched after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989 against dissidents, religious believers, Muslims, Tibetans, and others. Still, his courage is exemplary. Among the materials gathered here are prison letters written between 1979 and 1995; an autobiographical sketch; "The Fifth Modernization," an eloquent cry for democracy that is a fundamental document of China's reform movement; and material on his 1979 trial. These, together with the informative notes and introduction, reveal a man of high intelligence, generally good spirits and even humor, and deep insight into the fundamental political problems China will face sooner or later: questions of political order and legitimacy, of citizenship and rights, of representation, and of annexed territories like Tibet and Xinjiang.

Like many other dissidents, Wei, who was born in 1950, took as his first moral compass the sincere Communism of his parents: his name, Jingsheng, proudly proclaims that he was "born in the capital." Like many others as well, from officials at the top to the simplest farmer at the bottom, he came to discard his faith when confronted by the reality of the great famine. In the late 1960's, as hysterical Maoworship was sweeping China (and seeping abroad), Wei visited his father's home village. He had already learned about the "three years of natural disasters," as 1959-61 were officially termed; now he came to see that there was "nothing at all natural" about them. He heard from the villagers how rice had been left to rot in the fields because the farmers were too weak from hunger to harvest it, and that many starved to death as they watched the grain ripen and blow away. And he heard how villagers exchanged babies as food. "Who had made them do this?" he asks. "Who had made them swallow, along with the tears and misery of other parents, the human flesh that they had never imagined tasting?"

The answer is Mao--the man who, in Wei's words, "had driven millions of dazed peasants to take up their hoes to strike down their neighbors and eat the flesh of people just like themselves to save their own lives." Today Mao still reposes in his mausoleum in the city to which Wei Jingsheng is linked through his name: Beijing, now a shiny international center, with luxury hotels and restaurants, heavy traffic, fashion shows, and multimillion-dollar deals. Although Mao's image is much less ubiquitous today than a decade ago, his accomplices and followers are still in power, still mouthing Marxist-Leninist slogans.

Of course China has changed greatly since the days of the worst crimes catalogued in these books. The Gulag Archipelago is in print there; communes have been abolished; internal passports no longer exist. Most dramatically, prosperity unlike anything seen since 1949 trickles gradually into even remote areas. It is easy to argue that this rising economic tide will ultimately lift the boat of human rights, putting an end to religious persecution and forced abortion, freeing the prisoners, pardoning the exiles, permitting the expression of legitimate dissent. Economics, however, as history has repeatedly shown, is no sovereign remedy. What will be required is human action driven by conscience.

These memoirs are each powerful reminders that such action has by no means been absent in China even during the grimmest periods of its history, and continues today, far more widely than is appreciated in the West. Eventually, it must have its effect. One day the Tiananmen massacre will be officially reexamined. The gates of inquiry, already slightly ajar, will be opened to reconsider the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward; the "anti-rightist" campaigns that killed hundreds of thousands in the early 1950's; and ultimately the role of Mao himself and his followers. That reckoning will be the work of the Chinese themselves, and will probably catch the rest of the world by surprise. The question for us today is on which side we will wish to have been counted when at last that day does come, and whether we will, by our own actions, have hastened or delayed its arrival.

(n1) Translated and edited by T.P. Sym, foreword by Ross Terrill. Westview, 199 pp., $28.00.

(n2) Its subtitle is "Mao's Secret Famine, The First Full Account of the Tragedy That Claimed Over 30 Million Victims." Free Press, 352 pp., $25.00.

(n3) With George Vecsey. Random House, 328 pp., $25.00.

(n4) Death by Default: A Policy of Fatal Neglect in China's State Orphanages. Human Rights Watch Asia/Yale, 394 pp., $20.00.

(n5) Edited and translated by Kristina M. Torgeson, with essays by Andrew Nathan, Liu Qing, and Sophia Woodman. Viking Penguin, 283 pp., $22.95.


By Arthur Waldron

Arthur Waldron is professor of strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College. His previous articles in Commentary include "How Not to Deal With China" (March 1997) and "Deterring China" (October 1995).