For a Kinder, Gentler Society
Engineering Communist China:
One Man's Story
  • Youli Sun
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Engineering Communist China:.  One Man's Story
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Coming of age along with Communist China, a bright, educated young engineer represented its elite base of support. The author, a historian, follows him through those tumultuous years, from total commitment to political prison.

About the Author

Youli Sun is Director of American University’s Beijing Program. He holds a PhD from the University of Chicago and did post-doctoral studies at Washington University; he is a specialist in American diplomatic history, modern Chinese history, and US-East Asian relations. He has taught at Washington University, Colby College, and the University of Southern Mississippi, and has received numerous awards for research and faculty excellence.

Dr. Sun’s first book, China and the Origins of the Pacific War, 1931-1941, was published by St. Martin’s Press in 1993. He has published articles in Diplomatic History, the Journal of Asian History, and other scholarly journals; and his work on “Chinese Military Resistance and Changing American Perceptions, 1938” was selected for inclusion in the book, On Cultural Grounds: Essays in International History, edited by Robert Johnson for Imprint Press.

Dan Ling worked as an engineer for many years and now is retired from China’s Academy of Agricultural Machinery. Mr. Ling lives in Beijing and is writing a book on political behavior.

About the Book

Dan Ling, a patriotic young engineer eager to help build a new China, falls afoul of the authorities and spends 17 years as a political prisoner. Rehabilitated after Deng Xiaoping came to power, Dan returns to work with unflagging determination...

Dan Ling, a patriotic young engineer eager to help build a new China, falls afoul of the authorities and spends 17 years as a political prisoner. Rehabilitated after Deng Xiaoping came to power, Dan returns to work with unflagging determination to help provide a good life for himself and his people after enduring prison, work camps and work farms, and the primitive life of the social outcast breaking new ground on the frozen northern frontier.

Ling’s personal story is interwoven with glimpses of rural and urban life from the 1950s to the 1970s as China fought to make the wrenching leap from a feudalistic to a modern society. Ancient practices alternate with breath-taking and misguided experimentation as the common man is called upon to stride boldly into the unknown but no doubt glorious future. Scenes of naivety, brutality, generosity and pettiness, personal bonds and vendettas, illustrate how peasants, workers and intellectuals survived in the evolving Communist system.

This is an expose written without rancor, and a heartening story of faith in man’s ability to progress.

 


Introduction
Since 1949, when the communists took over the country, Chinese society went through tremendous and fundamental changes. Many of these changes, such as the liberation of women, have become irreversible achievements that moved the nation forward. However, for the most part, the three decades from 1950 to 1980 marked a juvenile period of...
Since 1949, when the communists took over the country, Chinese society went through tremendous and fundamental changes. Many of these changes, such as the liberation of women, have become irreversible achievements that moved the nation forward. However, for the most part, the three decades from 1950 to 1980 marked a juvenile period of development characterized by enthusiastic inexperience, misguided overconfidence, political turmoil and oppression, with the Cultural Revolution standing as a stunning adolescent outburst.

 

The Chinese communists convinced themselves of the absolute truth of their belief and noble purpose, very much like most millennial movements — the Puritans in New England, who were building a City on a Hill, or the French Revolution and Russian Revolution that were creating new epochs in human history. They viewed any other ideas, institutions and social practices as incompatible with their ultimate goals. Individuals who differed from the new social and political norms were by definition enemies of the state and deserved to be either locked up or socially “reformed.” Only after the passing of the Mao Zedong era did the communists under Deng Xiaoping mature and recognize flaws in the ideology-driven social and economic institutions. Now reforms, economic and, to a limited extent political, are transforming China into a society that would appall Karl Marx or Mao Zedong — they would think it was time for another revolution.

During those radical and tumultuous years, how did Chinese citizens fare individually? People from different walks of life view this period from different perspectives. Some, in the early 21st century, will view the period positively and with nostalgia; others take a more negative view. Those who were imprisoned for one reason or another will certainly look at this part of history as regrettable, at best. Viewed as threats to the newly created utopian society, political prisoners fell victim to those ideological zealots in power who found it imperative and convenient to lock up subversive elements. This practice sparked protests in the West during the Cold War, for ideological reasons, and continued to be condemned after the Cold War as violations of human rights. In addition, the reform of the ideological and social misfits through hard labor has been controversial and is often criticized as harsh and inhumane, and also as an institution of slave labor.

It is a formidable challenge to objectively describe China’s penal practice within the cultural and political contexts. It is especially difficult and complex for this period. For example, even the president of China and Mao’s successor, Liu Shaoqi, was not exempt from imprisonment and physical abuse. Most descriptions of the penal system tend to be political rather than historical and fail to take into consideration that the general conditions for China as a whole were dismal, not just for prisoners. For example, the societal attitude toward the use of violence as a correctional means was widely shared. Spanking children was a parental right, in fact it was the right thing to do, quite different to today’s America. Though there were rules on the books against institutionallysanctioned violence, people who administered the system only half-heartedly enforced them and they could not free themselves from the general social values of the day. Corruption was also prevalent. In spite of numerous executions of high officials for bribery and embezzlement, official corruption has been on the rise. The usual attacks on China’s penal system tend to oversimplify the complex social and cultural factors underlying these abuses.

The Chinese government tends to regard international criticism as an affront to China’s national dignity. In a culture where saving face is so important, people simply do not expose their dirty laundry. As the popular saying goes, “domestic quarrels and disgrace should be kept within the family.” However, such criticism cannot be rejected out of hand, merely because it seems insensitive; criticizing the critics does nothing to disguise the fact that there are serious problems in the society. Chinese officials know very well that all kinds of abuses in the prison system exist and they could actually use the help of international community to make progress in the area of human rights. Instead, driven by patriotic emotions, the government sometimes ended up defending the indefensible.

Ironically, perhaps, the communists who created the current penal system, especially reform through labor, were the most idealistic people one could find in 20th-century China. As young cultural iconoclasts of the May 4th era, the communists vowed to rid China of both foreign imperialism and what they called feudal cultures and traditions. Torture and arbitrary applications of justice were part of the old system and unsuitable for a communist society. Yet, once they were convinced of their moral rectitude, the government…


Excerpt
Chapter 1.

Like many people in his generation in the 1940s, Dan grew up with an unshakable admiration for the Chinese communists. When Dan was in middle school, the Civil War between the Communists and the Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government was going on. To him and his friends, the communists were real folk heroes; they were called the Eight Route Army.

The KMT (Kuomintang), or the Nationalist, government called them “the Communists...

Chapter 1.

Like many people in his generation in the 1940s, Dan grew up with an unshakable admiration for the Chinese communists. When Dan was in middle school, the Civil War between the Communists and the Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government was going on. To him and his friends, the communists were real folk heroes; they were called the Eight Route Army.

The KMT (Kuomintang), or the Nationalist, government called them “the Communists Bandits.” Ironically the concept of the bandit, or outlaw, has also had a positive connotation throughout history, especially in times of popular discontent when a change of regime is desired. As often happens in folk legends, the outlaws were the good guys, fighting evil and corrupt government officials. Dan first came into contact with communists in 1947 when he was fourteen years old. That year, some Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members were arrested and imprisoned in a nearby courtyard in Dan’s alley. Dan’s family lived near Hou Hai, the Back Lake, in the northern part of Beijing. The neighborhood boys did not know if all of these political prisoners were real communists, but in their minds, they were. Sometimes the men were let out for a while and they gave boys like him haircuts. In spite of their status, these prisoners remained cheerful and optimistic, singing and putting on all kinds of shows and dramas. The boys were impressed; they often waited outside the courtyard for them to come out and play.

Some of the prisoners were actually college students from the northeast provinces of China who were forced to leave their homes due to war. Once, they organized a big parade that passed in front of Dan’s house near Guang Hua Si, a temple that was still standing in those days. “Anti-hunger” and “Anti-Civil War” were the slogans. The demonstrators were met by gunshots and clubs. Many of the students were arrested. This left deep a deep impression on Dan and the people of Beijing.

Dan and his friends idolized the communists; they believed that poor people had enough to eat in the communist areas and that people were happy because of the equal treatment they received. They learned that there were communists in the mountains west of Beijing, but did not know precisely where. Under the KMT rule, any connection to the communists was treated as a crime and meant serious punishment. However, the temptation to meet the communists was strong.

One day, Dan and two other boys decided to go off and join the communists. They were too young to expect their parents to approve such a rash action. However, since the Sino-Japanese War started in 1937, there seemed to be a trend or fashion among idealist young students to join the CCP. Many college students actually made it to Yenan, the communist headquarters in northern Shenxi province.

And so the three planned to take a few essentials from their families and slip away. In the end, one boy’s parents found out the plan and stopped him from going; but Dan and the other boy started their journey. They took some food, water and a knife. Outside the walled city of Beijing, there was nothing but farm fields and graveyards. There was no light of any kind in the evenings. Electric lights came to the city and the surrounding villages much later. Several miles into the countryside, the desolation began to seem spooky. Nonetheless, they continued their journey and made it as far as today’s Haidian area, where Beijing University is. They spent a night in a small village. Without any adult company and with a limited food supply, they gave up the next day. In spite of this misadventure, Dan’s enthusiasm for the communists remained unabated.

People hated the KMT government for a variety of reasons, among them corruption and inflation. The word corruption in those days referred loosely to embezzlement, bribery and networking of officials who did favors for each other at public expense. (The exact same problems are just as rampant, if not more so, in contemporary China, half a century later). Although the KMT government did conduct the “crushing tiger” campaign, the effort to wipe out corruption, nothing had changed noticeably and the popular discontent with the government and the officials remained strong. Dan was too young to understand precisely what corruption entailed, but he felt the impact of inflation that inflicted heavy wounds on the population, rich and poor alike.



Pages 248
Year: 2003
LC Classification: DS777.75S855
Dewey code: 951.05'092--dc21
BISAC: HIS008000
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ISBN: 978-0-87586-240-8
Price: USD 22.95
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