Writer Su Xiaokang wants to 'probe the legitimacy of the party' and 'slay the dragon of Mao'

Su Xiaokang says nation cannot progress until it rids itself of the spectre of the Great Helmsman

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 July, 2013, 6:17am

For two decades after his escape from the mainland, writer Su Xiaokang was often in a state of depression.

One of the country's most-wanted dissident intellectuals in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, Su fled after his influential documentary River Elegy was blamed by authorities for helping inspire the pro-democracy movement.

Charged with "inciting anti-revolutionary propaganda", he hid out in villages and mountains for three months while on the run from security police.

After his lengthy escape to the United States via Hong Kong and Paris, he was later reunited with his wife and young son. He thought he had found peace at last - but a near-fatal car crash in 1993 left his wife paralysed for life and shattered his world.

"For years, I was in a state of shock, I couldn't write anything," Su recently told the Sunday Morning Post in Taipei, where he has been the city's writer-in-residence since last month.

Nonetheless, friends encouraged him to continue putting his thoughts to paper.

In his book, A Memoir of Misfortune, published in Chinese in 1997 and in English in 2001, Su wrote about his wife's harrowing ordeal after the car crash. In The Lonely Delaware published in January, he told the story of his life in the US.

But it was not until his latest book, Tulong Niandai, or The Era of Slaying the Dragon, published last Friday, that Su was able to tackle the subject that first earned him fame - the repudiation of Mao Zedong's dictatorial rule and the criticism of the what he saw as an authoritarian Confucian culture.

His biggest achievement in that effort was River Elegy, the television series broadcast on state-run China Central Television in 1988 that boldly questioned the core of the country's traditional culture and values, which sparked debate across the country. Su was chief script writer.

The series was condemned by party conservatives as being instrumental in spreading liberal ideas and precipitating the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement in summer 1989.

The Era of Slaying the Dragon revisits historical episodes that the government would rather people forget: the Lushan conference (1959), at which Mao defeated his critics and plunged the country into the Great Leap Forward; the great famine (1958-62) that killed more than 30 million; and the Banqiao Dam collapse (1975), among dozens of substandard dams that burst when a typhoon struck Henan , killing as many as 230,000 people.

Su said he wanted to remind people of the disasters that the authorities were still trying to cover up.

"These are the original sins of the communist regime," he said. "To defend their regime, they know they have to uphold Mao's [legacy] and not let people probe their original sins, otherwise they would lose their legitimacy.

"But this is exactly what I want to do - to probe their legitimacy."

The title of the book invokes the imagery that late-1980s intellectuals often used in their works to obliquely criticise the Communist Party's dictatorship under Mao and authoritarian imperialist traditions.

Chinese emperors likened themselves to dragons, the symbol of divine power, he said.

"River Elegy criticised the Confucian culture and the culture of the dragon, which symbolises supreme authority," he said. "And Mao was the dragon."

Su said the repudiation of Mao was imperative for the country to move forward. But he sees the Communist Party going in the opposite direction.

For instance, President Xi Jinping was quoted by state media in January as telling a high-level forum that "to completely negate Mao Zedong" would lead to the demise of the party and "cause great chaos".

But Su thinks this is precisely what is holding the country back. "If Mao's legacy is not repudiated, it's impossible to take on [political] reform, let alone democracy," he said.

And given the alarming level of discontent among ordinary Chinese over rampant corruption, social inequality and environmental degradation, the lack of political reform would lead to "an explosion of a serious political crisis", Su said.

"For change to happen, China must first repudiate Mao."