Rescuing China's muzzled past, one footnote at a time

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Rescuing China's muzzled past, one footnote at a time
The historian Yu Ruxin in Hong Kong, May 29, 2021. In a two-volume tome, Ruxin explains the crucial role of the military in Mao’s stormy Cultural Revolution. Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times.

by Chris Buckley

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- For decades, Yu Ruxin, a businessman turned independent historian, scoured used book stalls across China for frayed, yellowing documents about the Cultural Revolution, a decade of mass political upheaval unleashed by Mao Zedong.

The fruit of his long quest was published in Hong Kong this month, a 1,354-page history that sheds new light on the central role of the military during the Cultural Revolution. The People’s Liberation Army is widely known to have been called in to impose order, but Yu also documents in meticulous detail how the military was also involved in purges and political persecution.

“Through the Storm,” a two-volume Chinese-language book buttressed with 2,421 footnotes, stands out all the more these days, when Chinese authorities are determined to erase the darkest chapters of the party’s history.

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, this month celebrated 100 years since the founding of the country’s Communist Party. The centenary has skipped over the political upheavals and mass suffering that characterized the party’s earlier decades in power.

Yu, 70, said he was not an opponent of the party, but that China should allow a candid accounting of the Cultural Revolution, when 1.6 million people were killed, by some experts’ estimates.

“We won’t be able to truly absorb the lessons of history, and history may just repeat itself,” Yu said in an interview from Hong Kong. “It couldn’t possibly be exactly like the Cultural Revolution, but something similar can’t be ruled out.”

Discussing such topics has become increasingly difficult in China in recent years. Historians and publishers have come under intense pressure to stick to the official line.

Still, Yu’s new book shows how independent Chinese historians can slip past the barriers. He grew up in Guangdong province in southern China, moved to Hong Kong in the late 1980s, and used earnings from a real estate business to fund trips to China for interviews and document hunts.

By painstakingly recounting how People’s Liberation Army forces became entangled in power struggles, Yu said he wanted to challenge the widespread focus on the student Red Guards as the key players who drove the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. In China, authorities now treat the military as the guardian of a unified, top-down order; Yu’s findings challenge that image.

Joseph Torigian, an assistant professor at American University who specializes in Chinese political and military history, said Yu’s book was an “exceptionally valuable” achievement.

“You really need to spend years slowly accumulating sources from a wide variety of places,” Torigian wrote in an email, “carefully putting the pieces together to get the basics right, and only then drawing some hypotheses.”

Yu’s quest to make sense of the Cultural Revolution began even before it was over. He was laboring in rural Guangdong when he heard the news that Marshal Lin Biao, Mao’s chosen successor-in-waiting, had perished in a plane that crashed while he was fleeing China on Sept. 13, 1971.

For Yu’s generation, that announcement was a stunning turning point. At the start of the Cultural Revolution, many like him had been fervently loyal to Mao. But now the devoted heir turned out to be, according to the party, a traitor.

“For us, it was like 9/11 was for Americans — you never forget when and where you heard the news,” Yu said. “We treated Mao as a godlike figure. Sept. 13 shattered that.”

The Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, after Mao died. Years later, after Yu had settled in Hong Kong, Chinese historians were beginning to explore the strife of previous decades. Under Deng Xiaoping, the Communist Party issued a resolution on history in 1981 that generally defended Mao’s legacy but acknowledged that he had made mistakes in his later decades that led to immense suffering.

After that, Chinese writers helped expose the scale of Mao’s disasters, like the Great Leap Forward, when tens of millions of villagers starved to death. Some were free-spirited academics or journalists; others were retirees who had lived through the events they dissected in blogs and journals.

“Their work really made a difference,” said Sebastian Veg, a professor who studies modern China at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris. “They changed the way that people talk about the famine. It’s no longer the ‘three years of natural disasters,’ as official history put it, but a disaster of policies and politics.”

Yu focused his research on the less understood role of China’s military in Mao’s final decades. Mao could not have started the Cultural Revolution without support from military leaders; nor would it have ended without their role in arresting radical leaders after he died in 1976, Yu said. The one book that had appeared in mainland China about the People’s Liberation Army in the Cultural Revolution was withdrawn from sale soon after appearing in 1989, he said.

“The role of the military in the Cultural Revolution was much bigger than the Red Guards and lasted much longer,” Yu said. “Look at most books, and you would never know that.”

He traveled across China, coaxing 50 or more aging former cadres and officers for interviews. He visited sites like the abandoned “atomic city” in northwest China, where vicious persecution disrupted efforts to build nuclear weapons.

Above all, Yu sought to make sense of Lin, Mao’s fallen successor. The party’s propaganda has presented the marshal as a malevolent schemer; his downfall earned one sentence in the official 531-page history of the party issued this year for the centenary. Yu said Lin’s undoing was complicated because Mao had regarded his successors as rivals.

Since Xi came to power in 2012, Chinese officials have sought to tightly control the narrative of the Communist Party’s history. Xi has cited the Soviet Union as a warning, arguing that it collapsed in part because anti-party critics were allowed to tarnish its legacy.

In Xi’s view, “too much debate and pluralism about history distracts everybody from the central task of China’s renaissance,” said Geremie R. Barmé, a historian of China and a fellow with the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. “The past must be determined and fixed, so that the possibilities for the future are also limited to the party.”

Hong Kong, until recently a haven for works that could not be published in the mainland, has not been spared. A national security law that Chinese leaders imposed on the city last year has intimidated publishers. Chinese border officials in recent years stepped up confiscations of forbidden books that travelers try to bring back from Hong Kong, and the pandemic-induced freeze on travel further devastated sales, said Bao Pu, a co-founder of New Century Press, the publisher of Yu’s book.

A decade ago, a book like “Through the Storm” could have sold up to 80,000 copies, mostly to mainland Chinese readers, Bao said in an interview. He will print only 1,000 copies, and he could not find a vendor willing to display the book at the recent Hong Kong Book Fair, he said.

Yu said that finishing the book had become a personal mission, whatever the numbers sold. Writing it took seven years, often in daily bursts of four or five hours, he said.

“I personally experienced that decade, and if I weren’t able to make sense of it, then a big part of my life,” he said, pausing, “would not have any meaning.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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