Why one writer is fighting to call China’s Communist Party to account for its wrongdoings
Zhang Yihe says the party needs to apologise for wrongdoing during the Mao era and to cease curbing freedom of thought among the nation’s thinkers and intellectuals
Chronicling China’s history as it really happened rather than as the government tells it is a race against time for 75-year-old acclaimed writer Zhang Yihe, whose family ties to the upper echelons of the communist regime during its early years continue to be a source of her dissent and the focus of her writing.
“I have no hope in China’s future,” Zhang said in an interview with the South China Morning Post.
The writer’s mission and aim is a simple but forceful one: the government should apologise for the purge of democratically-minded intellectuals in the name of an “anti-rightist” movement exactly 60 years ago. It should also atone for the wrongs committed by former leaders, particularly Mao Zedong.
“I always believed that in order for China to walk a better path it would be necessary to reach the right historical judgement,” Zhang said, in a rare interview. “In this case, it’s the eradication of Mao’s ideology.”
For Zhang, whose latest book was published in Hong Kong in February, her mission is also deeply personal. Her father, Zhang Bojun, was among the estimated 550,000 people implicated in the “anti-rightist” campaign that served as a prelude to the decade long Cultural Revolution.
Zhang’s father was a co-founder of the China Democratic League, a political group that peacefully coexisted with the Communist authorities during the fledgling years of the People’s Republic, with the encouragement of Mao.
Mao initially appeared so supportive he appointed Zhang as vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, with his term running from 1954 to 1959. He was also named minister of transportation.
It was when Zhang became too outspoken during the Hundred Flowers campaign, in which Mao asked for dissenting voices to speak out before later launching a crackdown, that he was given the title “China’s number one rightist”.
Mao believed “rightists” were sympathisers of Western imperialism who formed a threat to the Communist regime, thereby legitimising his campaign against politicians in and outside the party.
Zhang Yihe said the term“anti-rightist” movement was misleading at best: “It was a campaign against intellectuals as well as the political parties representing them,” she said.
“They were just a group of intellectuals – pure intellectuals. They had no armies. They were not seasoned political animals. All they had was imagination [for the future].”
Monuments should be erected in areas of the country that saw major purges, she said, but admitted the idea was virtually impossible because “the Communist Party is too narrow-minded”.
Zhang said the crackdown was the beginning of decades of oppression against intellectuals who dare speak out in China. The result is a silent intellectual community, she added.
“The Chinese Communist Party has no intellectuals anymore. That’s the ill of the Chinese people as a race. How can you compare yourselves with Western intellectuals?
“There are so many defects existing in our system, but do any students stand up against them? Is it plausible no one is aware of these defects? No. Everyone is talking about them in private. Look at the students nowadays and all you can feel is sadness.”
Zhang dismissed the description of China’s political system as democracy with Chinese characteristics. “All over the world, if you want to participate in politics, you form a party. But China is an exception: you form a party and you end up in prison.”
With the Communist Party enjoying popular enrolment among students at top universities, Zhang called it integration into vested interests. “Not a single student who joins the Communist Party does so out of an ideal to fight for communism,” she said.
“China’s pace of modernisation is shocking. Where else in the world are there children like those in the mainland with that kind of quest for cars, banknotes and houses?” Zhang said. “Frankly people don’t know what to do about our children.”
Zhang has enjoyed a decade of literary acclaim for her writing that contains the personal tales of purged intellectuals, but she said it would be an “overexpectation” for young people to remember older generations’ stories, not least due to the omnipresence of official historical accounts.
“What is before us is a generation that doesn’t read. In the internet age, it’s not about gaining knowledge, but information,” she said. “People like us will be ripped out sooner or later – you as a person, your books, your articles.”
Still, her writing goes on.
“My father’s generation is too bitter and painful,” she said. “I have my old stories to tell and I will do my part by writing them down, no matter whether you believe Zhang Yihe or not. Having a book out there is better than not.”
Zhang linked the last words of her father with Hong Kong during her visit to the city last week.
Referring to her nickname, she recalled: “My father told me this before he died, ‘Xiaoyu, democracy is a global trend. It will arrive in China.’”
But it’s way too slow, she said. “Look at Hong Kong today – who could’ve imagined this?” she said.