October 1 marks the 67-year anniversary of the founding of Communist China. A moment like this usually calls for some reflection on China’s past and future. Unfortunately, in today’s China under President Xi, seeking the truth about the past can be a dangerous endeavor if anyone dares to dissent from the government’s official versions. Napoleon Bonaparte once said “history is a set of lies agreed upon.” In China, it’s probably more accurate to say the government-sanctioned history is a set of lies forced upon its people.
I was born in China, and finished my undergraduate education before coming to the United States to pursue a master’s degree. So I was typical of the output of China’s government-sanctioned education system. When I first came to the United States, although I had some doubts here and there about certain historical events I had been taught in China, I spent very little time questioning them. Instead, I focused on working hard to better myself economically, like many other immigrants have.
My parents rarely mentioned to me anything that had happened in the past. One thing they did tell me was that our family’ genealogy book, which covered many generations of our clan, was destroyed in China’s Cultural Revolution. As a writer, I always wanted to write a family history book. So when my parents turned 70 several years ago, I realized I’d better get my parents talking about the past.
What My Parents Remembered
What I learned from my parents was shockingly different from what I had been taught in China. Allow me to present two historical events to illustrate my point.
The first historical event is the “land reform.” The Chinese Communist Party pushed for nationwide “land reform” from 1950 to 1953. In our high school history book, there were only a few sentences about land reform. The movement was depicted as a popular and necessary measure to distribute land back to poor Chinese peasants, who were supposed to be the rightful owner of the land.
Our Chinese literature class reinforced this notion. One of the required readings was an excerpt from a novel titled “Hurricane” (Baofeng Zhouyu, or 暴风骤雨) by a Chinese novelist, Zhou Libo. The novel supposedly presented the most realistic picture of land reform. It showed how the righteous landless peasants fought and won land reform despite sabotage by the evil landowners. I especially remember the excerpt we were required to memorize. It illustrated what a joyful event it was armies took land and farm animals from land owners and redistributed them to poor peasants. This novel was so popular in China that it was later adapted into a movie and stage play.
Worth noting is that whether in history lessons, books, movies, or any other form of entertainment, even in children’s nursery rhymes, land owners were always portrayed as the most wicked and horrible human beings. When I played jump rope with my classmates, we used to chant about how a group of youth bravely beat back a malevolent land owner who tried to steal chickens from peasants.
I didn’t know until a few years ago that I’m a great-granddaughter of a land owner. My great grandfather was a wheat farmer who owned land before 1949. He sweat on every inch of this land to provide for his family. During the land reform, his relatives and other poor farmers didn’t hesitate to take land, cattle, even tools away from him, and he lost all his property overnight. My childhood chants against evil land owners must have been extremely hurtful to my parents.
My great-grandfather wasn’t the only one who suffered during the land reform. Contrary to popular depictions, it was not a joyful event for many. More than 10 million former landowners’ properties were confiscated. Local villages were given quotas of how many land owners had to be identified, denounced, and killed per village. Not even land owners’ children were spared. An estimated 1 to 2 million land owners and their families were killed from 1949 to 1953. The so-called land reform was nothing more than a calculated terror in the name of wealth redistribution.
Eventually, the poor peasants didn’t come out as winners either. Through a series of collectivization movements, the land that had been handed out to poor peasants was gradually returned to the state. By 1958, there was no private land ownership in China. Of course, such truth is nowhere to be found in high school books, Chinese literature, or any other form of entertainment.
The Natural Disaster That Wasn’t
The second historical event is the Great Chinese famine from 1959 to 1961. As with land reform, only a few sentences in my high school history book touched on the famine. The famine was referred to as “Three Years Natural Disaster” or the “Three Years of Difficulties.” So in the eyes of the regime, the culprit was nature.
Nowhere in the history book did it mention how many people perished during the famine. Again as with land reform, there’s no officially sanctioned books, movies, or entertainment that portray what really happened in the famine. Through my parents, I learned I had a baby uncle, who was born in 1959. He died in my grandma’s arms because of starvation. My father also lost his maternal grandmother, two uncles, one aunt and her family of five, and one of his high school teachers.
In Frank Dikotter’s well-researched book, “Mao’s Great Famine,” he presented data to show that China had a good harvest in 1958, the year before the famine, and that weather was mild from 1959 to 1961. There were some drought in certain parts of the country but not serious enough to cause significant loss of lives under any normal circumstance.
China’s famine was not a natural disaster. It was a man-made atrocity. Official archives about the famine are still largely sealed by the government and difficult to access. We can only estimate that the death toll of the famine ranges between 30 to 60 million. To understand the scale of this atrocity, compare to the estimated death toll for World War II: 60 million. So Mao inflicted human suffering in one country equivalent to that of the entirety of World War II.
Socialism’s Failures Aren’t Trivial
Learning the truth of these historical events, especially my own family’s suffering, has been a watershed event for me. My first book, “Confucius Never Said,” became a very different book than I had initially envisioned. It still covers my family history, but I also tried to give voices to other ordinary Chinese people who didn’t survive. I have since become very vocal against socialism through my speeches and writings.
Socialism clearly failed in China. China’s Communist Party has gradually shifted away from it. The last three decades’ economic miracle has transformed China into an economic powerhouse, and produced a new wave of nationalism among the Chinese people.
While suppressing the truth of its own historical records, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) quickly tapped into this newfound nationalism to fill an ideological vacuum. Through government-sanctioned education and propaganda, it appeals to nationalism by blaming the West (mainly the United States) of trying to constrain China’s unavoidable rise, while repositioning its authority on the party’s ability to provide security, stability, and economic growth.
Failure to learn from the past is shaping China’s future. There’s a famous Chinese phrase: huò qǐ xiāo qiáng (祸起萧墙), which means the worst threat comes from within. What’s truly threatening China’s peaceful rise has less to do with external forces than internal conflict. The CCP’s reliance on using nationalism as a diversion to domestic issues is like playing a game of riding a tiger, which is dangerous because it could easily get out of control.
Frederick Douglass once said, “The life of the nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous.” The rest of the world can and will embrace China’s rise when China can candidly face its own recent history.