There are many memoirs by Chinese imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), but I’ve never read one, by a loyal Party member, like this. Xu Hongci’s ordeal began in 1957 and continued until his final escape, in 1972, from China’s gulag into Mongolia. Erling Hoh, whose translation makes this ghastly story riveting, rescued the manuscript from the belongings of Xu’s Mongolian widow. The story was already known in China but this translation makes it available to an international readership.
In 1957, Mao Zedong invited his subjects to speak honestly, even critically, about the Party and the regime, ‘tempting the snakes out of their holes’, as it was later alleged. Trustingly, many complied. Xu, a medical student and an ardent Party member, led the way in drafting and putting up a dazibao (‘big character poster’), which condemned Party elections as ‘fake’, criticised Mao for his secret inspection tours and his links to the Soviet Union, and urged that students be allowed to choose which foreign languages they learned. Other people soon put up their own posters. In the light of what we now know about the Chinese Communist Party, which has imprisoned Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, for many years, those posters seem foolhardy, but at that time, if Mao invited frank criticism, who could refuse?