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NO WALL TOO HIGH
by Xu Hongci (Rider £20)
His arms lashed tightly behind his back, squeezed between two soldiers and prodded mercilessly with rifle butts, he was paraded through the streets and into the square where 10,000 hate-filled faces were screaming abuse at him.
Xu Hongci was experiencing the sharpest edge of the terrible witch-hunts that masqueraded as justice in the China of mad Chairman Mao.
He was hauled up onto a table, his slumping head grabbed by the hair and forced houten poorten upwards to face the baying mob. Quotations from Maos Little Red Book echoed from loudspeakers as he was denounced as a counter-revolutionary, an imperialist, a criminal. He was sentenced to . . .
A great escape: Xu Hongci.
Xu fully expected the next word to be death, and he welcomed the prospect. He had been a prisoner for 12 years, serving the hardest time imaginable in the laogai, Chinas chain of brutal slave-labour camps for those considered enemies of the state.
Virtually with his bare hands, hed built dams, dug mines, quarried mountains, worked in paddy fields for 19 hours a day, all on starvation rations of gruel and husks. Hed been shackled with irons, whipped, beaten and humiliated.
To be pinned to the ground and finished off with a bullet in the back of the neck - as he had seen done to countless others - would be a release.
Instead, the voice on the loudspeaker pronounced 20 years imprisonment.
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7,000 miles on two wheels ¿ in pursuit of love: As… Britain - a nation of shopkeepers, suffragettes and Jedi!… Share this article Share Xus extraordinary tale of endurance - handwritten by him 20 years ago and published for the first time in the West - is a rarity. Historians number the butchered and starved-to-death casualties of Maos 30-year regime at 60 million, outstripping Hitler (30 million) and Stalin (40 million) as the worst murderer in human history.
But while there have been notable victims accounts of Nazi and Soviet atrocities, there has largely been silence from those who actually suffered at first hand the worst of Red Chinas astounding inhumanity to its own people.
And thats what makes Xus moving account a must-read. His is a story that must not be buried, but confronted.
The irony for Xu, born in Shanghai in 1933, is that he was a fervent Communist and a revolutionary, who as a teenager worshipped Mao. As a student activist, he rose up through the party ranks.
Brutal Chinese dictator Mao Zedong
Then he made the mistake of taking Mao at his word. In 1957, as the Communist world fretted over developments in the Soviet Union, the Great Leader invited constructive criticism of his regime. Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend, he declared.
At the college where he was studying medicine, Xu offered his ideas to make the Communist party more democratic and less dictatorial, only for Mao to spring his trap.
Xu had outed himself. He was denounced as a Rightist and disgraced, along with millions of others who had dared speak their mind. Even his girlfriend turned against him.
He was exiled to a remote labour camp for re-education. With Orwellian irony, this hell on earth went by the name of the Eternal Happiness Farm. He was worked to within an inch of his life. Twice he escaped, but surveillance was so tight in Maos police state that he was caught and hauled back.
Xu fully expected the next word to be death, and he welcomed the prospect That he survived at all is probably down to the fact his medical training gave him a valued position in what passed for hospitals in the prison farms and penal labour colonies.
Not that life on the outside of Maos gulag was much better. The Great Leader ordered a Great Leap Forward and pretty well overnight millions of peasants were forced off the land to work in factories. With no rice to sustain them, those millions starved to death.
Through all this, Xu bided his time in captivity, hoping for release. And it seemed near - until another of Maos initiatives, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, unleashed a further round of bloody persecution.
With his record of dissent and refusal to kowtow, Xu was an obvious target, hence his humiliating appearance in front of the howling mob and his new sentence to another 20 years.
This time he would be properly behind bars, in a seemingly impregnable high-security prison surrounded by a high wall and an electric fence, with guards and their dogs on constant patrol, a communist Colditz.
But just as the inmates of the German prison were determined to find a way out, so Xu began to plan his escape - the thrilling climax of this book and as gripping as any World War II prisoner-of-war epic.
NO WALL TOO HIGH by Xu Hongci (Rider £20)
Over the next three years, he made his preparations. In the prison factory, which made agricultural tools, he secretly carved wooden blocks for the stamps he would need on the travel documents he was forging.
He explored the prison for weak spots, a point out of sight of the spotlights and the sentries in their towers where he could climb the wall.
He hoarded parcels of food. He plotted his route once outside. He made and hid the components of a ladder. He also prepared a phial of poison from nicotine in cigarettes.
If his attempt failed, he would put an end to his misery.
In August 1972 he got his chance. Blackouts were common, but on this day the electricity went out at 10am and, the convicts were told, would not come back on until the next morning.
After roll-call that night, he hid in the prison yard, then climbed up and over the wall, into the factory, out through a window, with a final heave across the dead electric fence. His luck held. He had six hours until his absence would be discovered.
Xu headed up into the mountains, keeping on houten poorten the move for 40 hours before daring to rest. He took trains when he could - those travel documents passed muster - before ending up in the Gobi Desert. Thirty days after escaping, he crossed the border into Mongolia.
As far as anyone knows, he is the only person to escape from Maos deadly labour camps and live to tell the tale. After Maos death, Xu returned to Shanghai in 1984, two years after his case was reviewed and his convictions quashed, anxious to see his mother again.
He brought his wife, whom hed married in Mongolia, and their three children. He worked as a management instructor for a petrochemical company until his retirement in 1993, when he began to write this extraordinary and powerful memoir. He died in 2008, aged 75.
He left a warning. Maos problem he says was that, steeped in the mentality of ancient China, he was unable to listen to dissenting opinions. Its a thought that todays rulers in Bejing, with their authoritarian approach to human rights, would do well to keep in mind.
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