An Old Tale Retold — The View from Maple Bridge, Part Three

Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium

Chapter XXIV, Part Three



The View from Maple Bridge is a four-part chapter in Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium. In part one, Ah, Humanity!, we observed the fortieth anniversary of the Anti Spiritual Pollution Campaign of 1983-1984, a short-lived ideological purge that had long-term repercussions. In certain regards, the underpinnings of the Xi Jinping era are to be found in the attacks on humanism, political reform and media openness in 1983.

In part two of The View from Maple Bridge, we discuss the ‘Maple Bridge Experience’ 楓橋經驗 of 1963, its revival in the guise of the 2008 ‘Peaceful Beijing Action’, a policing operation orchestrated by Xi Jinping during the 2008 Olympic year, as well as Xi’s ongoing obsession with Maple Bridge, one that dates back to 2003 and his tenure as the Communist Party Secretary of Zhejiang province.

Below, in An Old Tale Retold — part three of The View from Maple Bridge — we (re)introduce readers to ‘Human Rights in China’, a 1978 essay by Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans) which was included in his The Burning Forest: Essays on Chinese Culture and Politics, New York: Holt, 1986 (see pp.113-135).

In 1995, Leys granted me permission to publish a digital version of ‘Human Rights in China’ on the archival website that Richard Gordon of the Long Bow Group in Boston and I designed to supplement The Gate of Heavenly Peace, a documentary film about the Beijing Protest Movement and its bloody denouement.

‘Human Rights in China’ was written shortly after Mao’s demise and at a time when the People’s Republic while still in the thrall of Maoist dogma was tentatively ‘opening up’ to international business and investors. It was inspired in part by encounters the author had with diplomats, businesspeople and journalists who made the case that historically ‘China’ had a view of human worth that was different from that of ‘The West’, and in part by his desire to educate the ill-informed about some basic verities of the Chinese party-state system. In it, Leys also reviews the kind of self-serving sophistry familiar to anyone who deals with Xi Jinping’s China in the 2020s. He dissects narratives championed by the craven, the relativists and the opportunistic; he discusses the key role of labor camps (the gulag/ laogai system) and quotidian repression in Chinese life; and, he punctures the Communist Party’s cynical myths about ‘Chinese exceptionalism’. With succinct precision, he outlines the arguments people make to justify their engagement with, and profiting from, the Chinese party-state. Generation after generation of apologists have regurgitated the same tired arguments for nigh on half a century. Given that much that is old in China is new again, there is more than enough reason to reprint this old essay. As it will have significant resonances for students of the Xi Jinping era, we are including it in Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium. (For more on the long tail of collaboration, see also You Should Look Back and The Threnody of Tedium, both of which are also featured in the present series.) To this end, we encourage readers to focus on ‘Four Lines of Escape’ and ‘ “China is Different” — variations on a theme’ towards the end of this essay.

We preface ‘Human Rights in China’ with ’55 Days in Peking’, an account of China’s ‘covid years’, along with poems by Zang Kejia and Bertolt Brecht.


In June 2023, an American scholar attending a conference of business school professors in Hong Kong reported that:

‘One of our key guys from a top Chinese university came late. He was called to Beijing to hear the new rule that no foreign textbooks are allowed anymore. So, that applies to finance, statistics, chemistry, biology, history. And all books will have to include “certain things”.’

This observation brings to mind a passage in ‘Human Rights in China’:

A second useful definition of totalitarianism is George Orwell’s (in his postface to Homage to Catalonia). According to his description, the totalitarian system is one in which there is no such thing as “objective truth” or “objective science.” There is only, for instance, “German science” as opposed to “Jewish science,” or “proletarian truth” as opposed to “bourgeois lies”:

“The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future, but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event ‘It never happened’ — well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five, well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs.”

[Note: See Two Plus Two Equals Five — China’s New Math.]

A draft ‘Patriotic Education Law’ being reviewed by China’s ‘parliament’ in June 2023 proposed legal sanctions for educators, historians and writers whose work was at odds with Xi Jinping Thought and the official version of Chinese history.

Given the rejection of universal values, rights and various forms of international scholarship and thought since Vice-premier Wu Bangguo’s attack on political reform and ‘Western values’ in March 2011 — a clear indication of the ideological revanchism central to the Xi Jinping era — and in light of the repackaging of ‘Chinese style modernisation’ today, one can only wonder how long it will be before Beijing starts promoting ‘Chinese science’ and ‘Chinese truth’ over their flawed western equivalents?

— Geremie R. Barmé,
Editor, China Heritage
29 June 2023


Further Reading:


55 Days in Peking — Three Years in Three Minutes


What Are The People?


Zang Kejia 臧克家

Published in Chungking, winter 1945

translated by Geremie R. Barmé


What are The People?
Are they merely a banner?
One you wave on occasion
Only to put it away when necessary.


What are The People?
Just a beaten up felt hat?
One put on when required
But also trodden underfoot.


What are The People?
Are The People but puppets?
Manipulated by pulling strings
Moving according to whim, speaking only when required.


What are The People?
Is ‘The People’ merely an abstraction?
One that adorns your ‘proclamations’ and ‘announcements’.
A sword to attack your enemies, a shield to protect yourself.


What are The People? What are they?
You don’t need me to tell you:
Their actions will speak for themselves.


Twelve years after publishing this poem, which had been composed as an attack on the Nationalist government of the Republic of China, Zang Kejia (臧克家, 1905-2004) was denounced as one of the ten leading Rightist Elements by the Communist Party. Following his rehabilitation in the late 1970s, Zang became an outspoken critic of liberal trends in post-Mao Chinese culture. — trans.


The Solution

Bertolt Brecht

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?


Human Rights in China

Simon Leys*

[* Annotations and links have been added by China Heritage. — Ed.]


How much of this is known in the free countries of the West? The information is to be found in the daily papers. We are informed about everything. We know nothing.

— Saul Bellow, To Jerusalem and Back


On the question of human rights in China, an odd coalition has formed among “Old China hands” (left over from the colonial-imperialist era, starry-eyed Maoist adolescents, bright, ambitious technocrats, timid sinologists ever wary of being denied their visas for China, and even some overseas Chinese who like to partake from afar in the People’s Republic’s prestige without having to share any of their compatriots’ sacrifices or sufferings). The basic position of this strange lobby can be summarized in two propositions:

  1. Whether or not there is a human-rights problem in China remains uncertain — “we simply do not know”; and,
  2. even if such a problem should exist, it is none of our concern.

I shall attempt here to reply to the increasingly vocal and influential proponents of this theory; more simply, I shall try to remind my readers of certain commonplace and commonsense evidence that this line of thought seeks to conjure away. I do not apologize for being utterly banal; there are circumstances in which banality becomes the last refuge of decency and sanity.

The starting point of any reflection on contemporary China — especially with regard to the human-rights question — should be the obvious yet unpopular observation that the Peking regime is a totalitarian system. My contention is that totalitarianism has a quite specific meaning and that, inasmuch as it is totalitarian, Maoism presents features that are foreign to Chinese political traditions (however despotic some of these traditions might have been), while it appears remarkably similar to otherwise foreign models, such as Stalinism and Nazism. Yet “totalitarianism” has become a taboo concept among fashionable political scientists, and especially among contemporary China scholars; they generally endeavor to describe and analyze the system of the People’s Republic without ever using the world “totalitarian” — no mean feat. It is akin to describing the North Pole without ever using the word “ice,” or the Sahara without using the word sand.

A convenient and generally acceptable definition of totalitarianism is provided by Leszek Kołakowski in his essay “Marxist Roots of Stalinism”:

I take the word “totalitarian” in a commonly used sense, meaning a political system where all social ties have been entirely replaced by state-imposed organization and where, consequently, all groups and all individuals are supposed to act only for goals which both are the goals of the state and were defined as such by the state. In other words, an ideal totalitarian system would consist in the utter destruction of civil society, whereas the state and its organizational instruments are the only forms of social life; all kinds of human activity-economical, intellectual, political, cultural-are allowed and ordered (the distinction between what is allowed and what is ordered tending to disappear) only to the extent of being at the service of state goals (again, as defined by the state). Every individual (including the rulers themselves) is considered the property of the state.

Kołakowski adds that this ideal conception has never been fully realized, and that perhaps an absolutely perfect totalitarian system would not be feasible; however, he sees Soviet and Chinese societies as very close to the ideal, and so was Nazi Germany: “There are forms of life which stubbornly resist the impact of the system, familial, emotional and sexual relationships among them; they were subjected strongly to all sorts of state pressure, but apparently never with full success (at least in the Soviet state; perhaps more was achieved in China).”

[Note: In this regard, see Homo Xinensis, 31 August 2018; and, We Need to Talk About Totalitarianism, Again, 31 March 2022.]

Lack of space prevents me from invoking a sufficient number of examples to show how well the above definition fits the Maoist reality. I shall provide only one illustration, selected from among hundreds and thousands, because this particular illustration is both typical and fully documented by one unimpeachable witness — I mean the noted writer Chen Jo-hsi [陳若曦], who is now free to express herself among us, and who reported it in a public lecture on the Chinese legal system, which she gave in 1978 at the University of Maryland. In 1971, when Chen was living in Nanking, she was forced with thousands of other people to attend and participate in a public accusation meeting. The accused person’s crime was the defacing of a portrait of Mao Zedong; the accused had been denounced by his own daughter, a twelve-year-old child. On the basis of the child’s testimony, he was convicted and sentenced to death; as was usually the case in these mass-accusation meetings, there was no right of appeal, and the sentence was carried out immediately, by firing squad. The child was officially extolled as a hero; she disclaimed any relationship with the dead man and proclaimed publicly her resolution to become from then on “with her whole heart and her whole will, the good daughter of the Party.”

This episode was neither exceptional nor accidental; it was a deliberate, well-planned occurrence, carefully staged in front of a large audience, in one of China’s in major cities. Similar “happenings” recur periodically and accompany most “mass campaigns.” They have a pedagogic purpose in that they fit into a coherent policy pattern and exemplify the state’s attempt to become the unique, all-encompassing organizer of all social and human relations. It should be remarked that whatever feeling of scandal a Westerner may experience when confronted with such an incident, it is still nothing compared with the revulsion, horror, and fear that it provokes among the Chinese themselves. The episode not only runs against human decency in general, but more specifically it runs against Chinese culture — a culture which, for more than 2,500 years, extolled filial piety as a cardinal virtue.

A second useful definition of totalitarianism is George Orwell’s (in his postface to Homage to Catalonia). According to his description, the totalitarian system is one in which there is no such thing as “objective truth” or “objective science.” There is only, for instance, “German science” as opposed to “Jewish science,” or “proletarian truth” as opposed to “bourgeois lies”:

“The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future, but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event ‘It never happened’ — well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five, well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs.”

How does this definition square with Peking reality? Let us glance at Maoist theory. In one of its key documents (the so-called May 16 Circular) we read precisely:

The slogan “all men are equal before the truth” is a bourgeois slogan that absolutely denies the fact that truth has class-character. The class enemy uses this slogan to protect the bourgeoisie, to oppose himself to the proletariat, to Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought. In the struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, between Marxist truth and the lies of the bourgeois class and of all oppressive classes, if the east wind does not prevail over the west wind, the west wind will prevail over the east wind, and therefore no equality can exist between them.

In their latest book, Le Bonheur des pierres (Paris: Le Seuil, 1978), C. and J. Broyelle produce an interesting quotation from Mein Kampf and show that by merely substituting in Hitler’s text the words “bourgeois” and “antihumanism” for the words “Jews” and “antisemitism” one obtains orthodox, standard “Mao Zedong Thought.”

“Two and two are five.” We find countless variants of this type of proposition in the Chinese press: the downfall of the “Cultural Revolution” leaders and the rehabilitation of the “Cultural Revolution’s” opponents are currently described as the supreme victory of the “Cultural Revolution”; Deng Xiaoping was in turn a criminal, then a hero, then again a criminal, and then again a hero; Lin Biao was a traitor; Madame Mao was a Kuomintang agent, and so on. Of course, none of this is new; we heard it all more than forty years ago at the Moscow trials, and we also remember how, in Stalinist parlance, Trotsky used to be Hitler’s agent. Victor Serge, who experienced it all firsthand, analyzed it well: the very enormity of the lie is precisely designed to numb, paralyze, and crush all rationality and critical functioning of the mind.

[Note: See Simon Leys, ‘Two Plus Two Equals Five—China’s New Math’China Heritage, 8 September 2021.]

“The leader controls the past.” In both Chinese Shadows and Broken Images I have described the constant rewriting of history that takes place in China (as it does in the Soviet Union) and in particular, the predicament of the wretched curators of the History Museums, who in recent years have been successively confronted with, for instance, the disgrace, rehabilitation, re-disgrace, and re-rehabilitation of Deng Xiaoping. These political turnabouts can be quite bewildering for the lower cadres, whose instructions do not always keep up with the latest shakeup of the ruling clique. As one hapless guide put it to a foreign visitor who was pressing him with tricky questions: “Excuse me, sir, but at this stage it is difficult to answer; the leadership has not yet had the time to decide what history was.”

There is nothing furtive or clandestine about history rewriting; it is done in broad daylight, and sometimes, at its most humble level, the public itself is invited to collaborate. Thus, at one stage of Deng’s political vicissitudes, journals that had already been printed before his latest successful somersault were sent to subscribers together with little slips of paper expatiating on his virtues, slips that were to be pasted by the readers themselves over various special passages that described him as a scoundrel.

The most spectacular example of this practice will be remembered by many. The day after Mao’s funeral, all Chinese newspapers carried photos of the top leadership standing in a long line in front of the crowd at the memorial ceremony. When it was the monthlies’ turn to carry the same photos, the “Gang of Four” had meanwhile been purged. The photos, already known to the Chinese public, were issued again, but this time the disgraced leaders had all disappeared from the pictures, leaving awkward gaps, like missing front teeth in an open mouth — the general effect being underlined rather than alleviated by the censor’s heavy handling of the airbrush, and by his clumsy retouching of the background. To crown the cynicism of such blatant manipulation, a little later, New China News Agency issued a report denouncing Madame Mao for the way in which, in her time, she had allegedly falsified various official photographs for political purposes!


Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 18 September 1976


The incident of the missing figures in the official photographs, though widely circulated, did not provoke any comments in the West (with the exception of C. and J. Broyelle’s remarkable book, from which I am borrowing freely here). After all, aren’t Chinese always supposed to behave in inscrutable and strange ways? What was not realized was the fact that however odd the incident may have appeared in our eves, the Chinese themselves felt it was even more grotesque and humiliating. The explanation for this bizarre episode did not lie in the Chinese mentality, but in totalitarian psychology.

The most masterly analysis of totalitarian psychology is certainly the one provided by Bruno Bettelheim in his book The Informed Heart, which was rightly hailed as “a handbook for survival in our age.” The great psychiatrist observed the phenomenon firsthand in Buchenwald, where he was interned by the Nazis. The concentration camp is not marginal to the totalitarian world; on the contrary, it is its purest and most perfect projection, since there the various factors of resistance to the system — the familial, emotional, and sexual relationships mentioned by Kołakowski — have all been removed, leaving the subject totally exposed to the totalitarian design.

Bettelheim noted that prisoners were subjected to a “ban on daring to notice anything. But to look and observe for oneself what went on in the camp — while absolutely necessary for survival — was even more dangerous than being noticed. Often this passive compliance — not to see or not to know — was not enough; in order to survive one had to actively pretend not to observe, not to know what the SS required one not to know.”

Bettelheim gives various examples of SS behavior that presented this apparent contradiction — “you have not seen what you have seen, because we decided so” (which could apply precisely to the blatantly falsified photo of the Chinese leaders) — and he adds this psychological commentary:

To know only what those in authority allow one to know is, more or less, all the infant can do. To be able to make one’s own observations and to draw pertinent conclusions from them is where independent existence begins. To forbid oneself to make observations, and take only the observations of others in their stead, is relegating to nonuse one’s own powers of reasoning, and the even more basic power of perception. Not observing where it counts most, not knowing where one wants so much to know, all this is most destructive to the functioning of one’s personality… . But if one gives up observing, reacting, and taking action, one gives up living one’s own life. And this is exactly what the SS wanted to happen.

Bettelheim describes striking instances of this personality disintegration — which again are of particular relevance for the Chinese situation. Western apologists for the Peking regime have argued that since the Chinese themselves, and particularly those who recently left China, did not show willingness to express dissent or criticism (a questionable assertion — I shall come back to this point later), we had better not try to speak for them and should simply infer from their silence that there is probably nothing to be said. According to Bettelheim, the camp inmates came progressively to see the world through SS eyes; they even espoused SS values:

At one time, for instance, American and English newspapers were full of stories about cruelties committed in the camps. In discussing this event old prisoners insisted that foreign newspapers had no business bothering with internal German institutions and expressed their hatred of the journalists who tried to help them. When in 1938 I asked more than one hundred old political prisoners if they thought the story of the camp should be reported in foreign newspapers, many hesitated to agree that it was desirable. When asked if they would join a foreign power in a war to defeat National Socialism, only two made the unqualified statement that everyone escaping Germany ought to fight the Nazis to the best of his ability.

Jean Pasqualini — whose book Prisoner of Mao is the most fundamental document on the Maoist “Gulag” and, as such, is most studiously ignored by the lobby that maintains that there is no human-rights problem in the People’s Republic — notes a similar phenomenon. He confesses that after a few years in the labor camps, he came, if not exactly to love the system that was methodically destroying his personality, at least to feel gratitude for the patience and care with which the authorities were trying to reeducate worthless vermin like himself. Along the same lines, Orwell showed premonitory genius in the last sentence of Nineteen Eighty-four: when Winston Smith realizes that he loves Big Brother, that he has loved Big Brother all along… .

Seemingly, I have wandered away from my topic: instead of dealing with human rights, I have talked about the nature of totalitarianism, the falsification of the past, and the alteration of reality. In fact, all these observations are of direct relevance to our topic. We can summarize them by saying that totalitarianism is the apotheosis of subjectivism. In Nineteen Eighty-four, the starting point of Winston Smith’s revolt lies in this sudden awareness: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” (Once more, see the falsified photos of the Chinese leadership on Tian’anmen!) “His heart sank as he thought of the enormous power arrayed against him … . And yet he was in the right! The obvious, the silly, and the true had got to be defended. Truisms are true, hold on to that! The solid world exists, its laws do not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall toward the earth’s center … . If that is granted, all else follows.”

Objectivism — the belief that there is an objective truth whose existence is independent of arbitrary dogma and ideology — is thus the cornerstone of intellectual freedom and human dignity, and as such, it is the main stumbling block for totalitarianism.

Objectivism, as opposed to totalitarianism, can take essentially two forms: legality or morality. For historicocultural reasons, Western civilization seems to have put more emphasis on legality, while Chinese civilization was more inclined toward morality. Yet to oppose the two concepts, as some admirers of Maoism have attempted to do, betrays a complete misreading of both notions. In traditional China, “morality” (which meant essentially Confucianism) was the main bulwark against incipient totalitarianism. This question was best expounded by the Chinese historian Yü Ying-shih in a masterful essay (“Anti-intellectualism in Chinese Traditional Politics,” Ming Pao Monthly, February and March 1976) which could be schematically summarized as follows: Confucianism described the world in terms of a dualism; on the one hand there is the concrete, changing realm of actual politics, on the other hand there is the realm of abstract, permanent principles. The duty of the scholar-politician is to serve the ruler insofar as the ruler’s behavior and policies harmonize with the unchanging moral principles, which provide a stable reference by which to judge them. In case of a clash between the two realms, the Confucian scholar must, in the strong and unambiguous words of Xun Zi, “follow the principles and disobey the Prince.”

For this reason Maoist legality and Maoist morality are equally inconceivable; both are self-contradictions (the same applies to Stalinist or Nazi legality or morality; the terms are mutually exclusive). Mao himself readily and cynically acknowledged this situation; for his subordinates, however (as for Stalin’s), in practice this created an increasingly dangerous and frightening predicament to the point where a number of old and prestigious Communist leaders could be bullied, persecuted and even tortured to death during the “Cultural Revolution.” Those who survived the turmoil, having come so close to being devoured by the very beast they themselves had raised, suddenly discovered the urgent need to establish some sort of legality. Their appeals, which filled the pages of the People’s Daily two years after Mao’s death, were pathetic, because they ran against the nature of the regime. Establishment of legality would mean the end of the system; with legal boundaries, Party authority would cease to be infallible and absolute, and a genuine rule of law would mark the end of its ideological rule. From a Communist point of view, such a situation would obviously be inconceivable.

It is in this context of quintessential — indeed, institutional — illegality that the human-rights question must be considered. In other words, for such a system, the very concept of human rights is necessarily meaningless. Thus, in this respect, the historical record of the regime could be characterized as a continuous and ruthless war waged by the Communist government against the Chinese people. Let us briefly enumerate here a few episodes selected at random, merely as illustrations.

  • Liquidation of counterrevolutionaries, land reform, “Three Antis” and “Five Antis” campaigns (1949-52). Five million executions (conservative estimate, advanced by one of the most cautious and respected specialists of contemporary Chinese history, Jacques Guillermaz, in Le Parti Communiste chinois au pouvoir [Paris: Payot, 1972], 33, n. 1).
  • “Anti-rightist campaign” (1957). According to the figures issued by the Minister for Public Security, during the period from June to October alone, “100,000 counterrevolutionaries and bad elements were unmasked and dealt with”; 1,700,000 subjected to police investigation; several million sent to the countryside for “reeducation.”
  • “Cultural Revolution” (1966-69). No total figures are available as yet. By Peking’s own admission, the losses were heavy. In the last interview he granted to Edgar Snow, Mao Zedong said that foreign journalists, even in their most sensational reporting, had grossly underestimated the actual amount of violence and bloodshed. A full and methodical count still remains to be established from the various figures that are already available at the local level (90,000 victims in Sichuan province alone, 40,000 in Guangdong). The trial of the “Gang of Four” was an opportunity for further official disclosures on the enormous scope of these atrocities.
  • The anti-Lin Biao and anti-Confucius campaigns (1973-75), and then the campaign for the denunciation of the “Gang of Four” (1976-78), were both accompanied by waves of arrests and executions. Finally, in 1979, the Democracy Walls were outlawed and the Democracy movement was suppressed. Arbitrary arrests and heavy sentences based on trumped-up charges eliminated vast numbers of courageous and idealistic young people and finally destroyed all hopes for genuine political reform within the Chinese Communist system.

Political and intellectual dissent in Communist China has produced an endless list of martyrs. The first victims fell well before the establishment of the People’s Republic, as early as the Yan’an period. Later on, the repressions that successively followed the “Hundred Flowers” and the “Cultural Revolution” decimated the intellectual and political elite of the entire country.

Besides these illustrious victims, however, we should not forget the immense crowd of humble, anonymous people who were subjected to mass arrests — as happened in the aftermath of the huge anti-Maoist demonstration in Tian’anmen Square (April 5, 1976), or who are suffering individual persecution all over China. They are imprisoned, condemned to hard labor, or even executed merely for having expressed unorthodox opinions; no one takes notice of them, they never make the headlines in our newspapers. It is only by chance encounter that sometimes, here and there, a more than usually attentive visitor comes across their names and records their fate, from ordinary public notices posted in the streets. Moreover, besides these political dissenters, countless religious believers are also branded as criminals and sent to labor camps simply because they choose to remain loyal to their church and to their faith.

The Chinese “Gulag” is a gigantic topic that has been well described by firsthand witnesses — Jean Pasqualini (Bao Ruo-wang) and Rudolf Chelminski, Prisoner of Mao (New York: Coward McCann & Geoghegan, 1973), and Lai Ying, The Thirty-sixth Way (New York: Doubleday, 1969). The reading of these accounts is a basic duty for everyone who professes the slightest concern for China. I have commented elsewhere (in Broken Images) on the central relevance of the labor camps for any meaningful analysis of the nature of the Maoist regime. Suffice it to say here that whoever wishes to dispose of the human-rights issue in China without first tackling this particular subject is either irresponsible or a fraud.

Zhou Enlai observed quite accurately (in 1959) that “the present of the Soviet Union is the future of China.” There will be, in the future, Chinese Solzhenitsyns to provide us with the fully documented picture of what Maoism in action actually meant for millions of individuals. Yet it should be remarked that the most amazing thing about Solzhenitsyn’s impact is that the West reacted to it as if it were news. Actually, Solzhenitsyn’s unique contribution lies in the volume and precision of his catalogue of atrocities — but basically he revealed nothing new. On the essential points, information about Soviet reality has been available for more than forty years, through the firsthand testimonies of unimpeachable witnesses such as Boris Souvarine, Victor Serge, Anton Ciliga, and others. Practically no one heard of it at the time because no one wanted to hear; it was inconvenient and inopportune. In the foreword to the 1977 edition of his classic essay on Stalin, originally published in 1935, Souvarine recalls the incredible difficulties he had in finding a publisher for it in the West. Everywhere the intellectual elite endeavoured to suppress the book: “It is going to needlessly harm our relations with Moscow.” Only Malraux, adventurer and phony hero of the leftist intelligentsia, had the guts and cynicism to state his position clearly in a private conversation: “Souvarine, I believe that you and your friends are right. However, at this stage, do not count on me to support you. I shall be on your side only when you will be on top (Je serai avec vous quand vous serez les plus forts)!” How many times have we heard variants of that same phrase!

On the subject of China, how many colleagues came to express private support and sympathy (these were still the bravest!), apologizing profusely for not being able to say the same things in public:

“You must understand my position . . . my professional commitments . . . I must keep my channels of communication open with the Chinese Embassy. I am due to go on a mission to Peking….”

Four Lines of Escape

Finally, I would like to examine successively the various methods that have been adopted in the West to dodge the issue of human rights in China.

The first line of escape is the one I have just mentioned. It is to say, “We do not know for sure, we do not have sufficient information on the subject.” Actually, there are enough documents, books, and witnesses to occupy entire teams of researchers for years to come. Of course, much more material is bound to surface; however, when the Chinese Solzhenitsyns begin methodically to expose the Maoist era in all its details, anyone who exclaims in horrified shock, “My God! had we only known!” will be a hypocrite and a liar. We already know the main outlines; basically there can be no new revelations, only the filling in of more details. The essential information has been available practically since the establishment of the regime, and everyone even slightly acquainted with Chinese affairs is aware of it. It is true that, compared with the Soviet Union, there may be a relative scarcity of documentation; this does not mean (as some people have had the temerity to assert) that the situation is relatively better in China — it means exactly the opposite. Under Stalin, what Soviet dissenter ever succeeded in meeting foreign visitors or in smuggling manuscripts to the West? The Stalin analogy is acutely relevant here, since China has always kept, and still keeps, proclaiming its unwavering fidelity to the memory of Stalin and to the principles of Stalinism. The main accusation that Peking directs against Moscow is precisely that it has partly betrayed this heritage.

[Note: For more on this subject, see We Need to Talk About Totalitarianism, Again, 31 March 2022.]

The second line of escape (and possibly the most sickening one) is to say sadly, “Yes indeed, we know; there have been gross irregularities — even what you might call atrocities — committed in the past. But this is a thing of the past: it was all due to the evil influence of the ‘Gang of Four.'” This new tune is now being dutifully sung by the entire choir of the fellow-travelers, the traveling salesmen of Maoism, the sycophants, and the propaganda commissars — the very people who, a few years ago, used to tell us how everything was well and wonderful in China under the enlightened rule of the same “Gang of Four.” Pretending shock and indignation, they now come and tell us horrible stories — as if we did not know it all, as if they had not known it all — the very stories we told years ago, but at that time they used to label them “anti-China slander” and “CIA lies.”

The downfall of the “Gang of Four,” however momentous, was, after all, a mere episode in the power struggle within the system — it did not bring a significant modification of the system. It does not have any bearing upon the human-rights issue. Violations of human rights, political and intellectual repression, mass arrests, summary executions, persecutions of dissenters, and so on, were perpetrated for nearly twenty years before the “Gang of Four’s” accession to power, and now they continue after the “Gang’s” disgrace. Not only have these methods and policies not changed, but they are being carried out by the same personnel, people who were not affected by the ups and downs of the ruling clique. The terms in which criticism of the “Gang” is being expressed, and the methods by which the “Gang” is being denounced, represent a direct continuation of the language and methods of the “Gang” itself. At no stage was any politically meaningful criticism and analysis allowed to develop; the basic questions (From where did the “Gang” derive its power? What kind of regime is it that provides opportunities for such characters to reach supreme power? How should the system be reformed to prevent similar occurrences in the future?) cannot be raised; whenever clearsighted and courageous people dare to address these issues (Wang Xizhe, Wei Jingsheng), they are immediately gagged and disappear into the Chinese “Gulag.”

Since Mao’s death, the pathetic reformist efforts of the leaders have actually demonstrated that Maoism is consubstantial with the regime. What happened to the Maoists in China reminds us of the fate of the cannibals in a certain tropical republic, as described by Alexandre Vialatte:

“There are no more cannibals in that country since the local authorities ate the last ones.”

The third line of escape: “We admit there may be gross infringements of human rights in China. But the first of all human rights is to survive, to be free from hunger. The infringement of human rights in China is dictated by harsh national necessity.”

What causal relationship is there between infringement of human rights and the ability to feed people? The relative and modest ability of the People’s Republic to feed its people represents the bare minimum achievement that one could expect from any Chinese government that continuously enjoyed for a quarter of a century similar conditions of peace, unity, and freedom from civil war, from colonialist exploitation, and from external aggression. These privileged conditions — for which the Communist government can claim only limited credit — had been denied to China for more than a hundred years, and this factor alone should invalidate any attempt to compare the achievements of the present government with those of preceding ones. Moreover, to what extent is the People’s Republic truly able now to feed its population? Deng Xiaoping bluntly acknowledged in a speech on March 18, 1978, the backwardness and basic failure of the People’s Republic’s economy. After nearly thirty years of Communist rule, “several hundred million people are still mobilized full time in the exclusive task of producing food … . We still have not really solved the grain problem … our industry is lagging behind by ten or twenty years … .”

In proportion to population, food production in the People’s Republic has not yet overtaken the record of the best Kuomintang years of more than forty years ago! The economic takeoff has not yet been achieved: China is still in a marginal situation, not yet secure from potential starvation, always vulnerable to the menace of successive bad harvests or other natural catastrophes.

Further, some of the major catastrophes that have hit the People’s Republic and crippled its development were entirely Mao-made and occurred only because the totalitarian nature of the regime prevented rational debate and forbade informed criticism and realistic assessment of the objective conditions. Suffice it to mention two well-known examples. The “Great Leap Forward,” which Mao’s private fancy imposed upon the country, resulted in widespread famine (an authoritative expert, L. Ladany, ventured the figure of fifty million dead from starvation during the years 1959-62). Falsified production statistics were issued by the local authorities to protect the myth of the Supreme Leader’s infallibility; the hiding of the extent of the disaster prevented the early tackling of the problem and made the tragedy even worse. In the early fifties, one of China’s most distinguished economists and demographers, Professor Ma Yinchu, expressed the common-sense warning that it would be necessary to control population growth, otherwise the demographic explosion would cancel the production increase. Mao, however, held to the crude and primitive peasant belief that “the more Chinese, the better.” Ma was purged, all debate on this crucial issue was frozen for years, and precious time was wasted before Mao reversed his earlier conclusion (before obtaining his rehabilitation, Ma himself had to wait twenty years for Mao to die).

Such examples could easily be multiplied. In a totalitarian system, whenever common sense clashes with dogma, common sense always loses — at tremendous cost to national development and the people’s livelihood. The harm caused by arbitrary decisions enforced without the moderating counterweight of debate and criticism almost certainly exceeds whatever advantage could be gained from the monolithic discipline achieved by the system. Totalitarianism, far from being a drastic remedy that could be justified in a national emergency, appears on the contrary to be an extravagant luxury that no poor country can afford with impunity.

“China is Different” — variations on a theme

The fourth line of escape is articulated in several variations on a basic theme: “China is different.”

The first variation on this theme:

“Human rights are a Western concept, and thus have no relevance in the Chinese context.” The inherent logic of this line of thought, though seldom expressed with such frankness, amounts to saying: “Human rights are one of those luxuries that befit us wealthy and advanced Westerners; it is preposterous to imagine that mere natives of exotic countries could qualify for a similar privilege, or would even be interested in it.” Or, more simply: “Human rights do not apply to the Chinese, because the Chinese are not really human. Since the very enunciation of this kind of position excuses one from taking the trouble to refute it, I shall merely add here one incidental remark: human rights are not a foreign notion in Chinese modern history. Nearly a century ago, the leading thinker and political reformer Kang Youwei (1858-1927) made it the cornerstone of his political philosophy. In practice, under the first Republic, a human-rights movement developed effectively as a protest against the “white terror” of the Kuomintang; the famous China League for Civil Rights was founded in 1932 and mobilized the intellectual elite of the time, with prestigious figures such as Cai Yuanpei, Song Qingling, and Lu Xun. It also had its martyrs, such as Yang Quan (assassinated in 1933). However, the history of human rights in China is, after all, an academic question. What is of burning relevance is the current situation. Foreigners who pretend that “the Chinese are not interested in human rights” are obviously blind and deaf. The Chinese were forcefully expressing this very demand on the Democracy Wall [at Xidan in Beijing, 1978-1979], and on this theme popular pressure became so great that even the official newspapers finally had to acknowledge its existence.

Second variation:

“We must respect China’s right to be different.” One could draw interesting logical extensions of that principle. Had Hitler refrained from invading neighboring countries and merely contented himself with slaughtering his own Jews at home, some might have said: “Slaughtering Jews is probably a German idiosyncrasy; we must refrain from judging it and respect Germany’s right to be different.”

Third variation:

“China has always been subjected to despotic regimes, so there is no particular reason for us to become indignant at this one.” Such reasoning is faulty twice over: first, because Chinese traditional government was far less despotic than Maoism; and second, because, had it been equally as despotic as Maoism or even more so, this would still not provide a justification. The second point does not need to be argued (since when can past atrocities justify present ones?); let us briefly consider the first. The great ages of Chinese civilization, such as the Tang and the Northern Song, present a political sophistication and enlightenment that had no equivalent in the world until modern times. Other periods were markedly more despotic, and some (Qin, Ming) even tried to achieve a kind of totalitarianism. However, they were always severely hampered by technical obstacles (genuine totalitarianism had to wait for twentieth-century technology to become really feasible). Ming politics were ruthless and terrifying, but they were such only for the relatively small fraction of the population that was politically active, or in direct contact with government organs. In the mid-sixteenth century Chinese officialdom consisted of some ten to fifteen thousand civil servants for a total population of about one hundred and fifty million. This tiny group of cadres was exclusively concentrated in the cities, while most of the population was living in the villages. Distance and slow communications preserved the autonomy of most countryside communities. Basically, taxation represented the only administrative interference in the life of the peasants, and simply by paying their taxes, the people were actually buying their freedom from most other governmental interventions. The great majority of Chinese could spend an entire lifetime without ever having come into contact with one single representative of imperial authority. The last dynasty, which ruled China for nearly three centuries, the Qing government, however authoritarian, was far less lawless than the Maoist regime; it had a penal code that determined which officials were entitled to carry out arrests, which crimes entailed the death penalty, and so on, whereas Maoist China has been living for thirty years in a legal vacuum, which, as we have read in the official press, eventually enabled countless local tyrants to govern following their caprice, and establish their own private jails where they could randomly torture and execute their own personal enemies.

Fourth variation:

“Respect for the individual is a Western characteristic”; in China (I quote from an eminent American bureaucrat) there is “an utterly natural acceptance of the age-old Confucian tradition of subordinating individual liberty to collective obligation.” In other words, the Chinese dissidents who are being jailed and executed merely for having expressed heterodox opinion, the millions who, having been branded once and for all as “class enemies” (the classification is hereditary!), are reduced, they and their descendants, to a condition of being social outcasts, or are herded into labor camps. These people either, as good traditional Chinese, imbued with “the age-old Confucian tradition of subordinating individual liberty to collective obligations,” are supposed to be perfectly satisfied with their fate, or, if they are not (like the 100,000 demonstrators who dared to show their anger in Peking on April 5, 1976, and all those who, two years later, gathered around the “Democracy Wall”), thereby prove that they are un-Chinese, and thus presumably unworthy of our attention!

In all these successive variations, “difference” has been the key concept. If Soviet dissidents have, on the whole, received far more sympathy in the West, is it because they are Caucasians — while the Chinese are “different”? When Maoist sympathizers use such arguments, they actually echo diehard racists of the colonial-imperialist era. At that time the “Chinese difference” was a leitmotiv among Western entrepreneurs, to justify their exploitation of the “natives”: Chinese were different, even physiologically; they did not feel hunger, cold and pain as Westerners would; you could kick them, starve them, it did not matter much; only ignorant sentimentalists and innocent bleeding-hearts would worry on behalf of these swarming crowds of yellow coolies. Most of the rationalizations that are now being proposed for ignoring the human-rights issue in China are rooted in the same mentality.

Of course, there are cultural differences — the statement is a tautology, since “difference” is the very essence of culture. But if from there one extrapolates differences that restrict the relevance of human rights to certain nations only, this would amount to a denial of the universal character of human nature; such an attitude in turn opens the door to a line of reasoning whose nightmarish yet logical development ends in the very barbarity that this century witnessed a few decades ago, during the Nazi era.


The above essay, first published in 1978, was essentially based upon observation and experience of the Maoist era. To what extent can it still provide a valid reflection of today’s situation? In the past, I have often expressed skepticism regarding the ability of the Communist system to modify its essential nature. I dearly wish that its political evolution may eventually prove me wrong. In this matter, however, the pessimism generally expressed by most Chinese citizens appears to have some justification: what can we expect from a regime that is now solemnly reaffirming that all its laws and institutions must remain subordinated to the supreme guidance of the “Thought of Mao Zedong”?

[Note: Reading this essay in 2023, we can simply replace the ‘Thought of Mao Zedong’ with ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’. — Ed.]



  • Simon Leys, ‘Human Rights in China’, in The Burning Forest: Essays on Chinese Culture and Politics, New York: Holt, 1986, pp.113-135, first published online here. Notes have been added, as have subheadings, breaks and underlining.