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Book Review: Red in Tooth and Claw

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Red in Tooth and Claw: Twenty-Six Years in Communist Chinese Prisons
by Pu Ning (New York: Grove Press, 1994) 228 pages; $21.

The essential details of the Soviet house of horror are now fairly well known. The story of the Soviet Gulag has been told not only in the great work by Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago , but in other volumes, as well. Eugenia Ginsberg’s Journey into the Whirlwind and Within the Whirlwind are mesmerizing records of the Siberian camps. Vladimir Bukovsky’s To Build a Castle and Natan Sharansky’s Fear No Evil explained the torments suffered by dissidents who dared to oppose the Soviet state. And Victor Nekipelov’s Institute of Fools told of the terrors faced by the dissidents sent to psychiatric institutions for their opposition to Soviet power.

Less is known, however, about the Chinese Gulag — a slave labor system that has killed tens of millions of victims since the communists came to power in 1949. While the Soviet Gulag is now a closed chapter in the history of Russia, the Chinese Gulag still operates. In 1992, Hongda Harry Wu published the first detailed account of the Chinese system in his book Laogai — The Chinese Gulag (see the review in Freedom Daily, January 1993).

The Chinese communists created a chamber of horrors no less gruesome than the one in the Soviet Union. In a two-part feature article in The Washington Post in August 1994, Peking correspondent Daniel Southerland summarized the latest evidence that suggests that during the reign of Mao Tse-tung as many as 80 million people died due to communist policies in China; this would be a number exceeding the best estimates that communism killed about 61 million people in the former U.S.S.R.

Harry Wu has recently told about his own experiences in the labor camps in his book Bitter Winds: A Memoir of My Years in China’s Gulag . Arrested in 1960, just as he was about to graduate from the Peking Geology Institute, he spent nineteen years in the camps, finally being released in 1979.

He was forced to work in coal mines and on collective farms. Barely surviving on starvation rations during most of those years, he explains how the instinct for survival destroyed much of his sense of humanity. He stole the root of a shriveled plant from another inmate just to have a morsel more in his stomach. Slave laborers were beaten to death, worked to death, and tormented with unending indoctrination sessions late at night after long, exhausting hours of work each day.

But why did the communists insist upon indoctrination as well as forced labor? “Suddenly the traditional practice of footbinding came to my mind,” Harry Wu says, after a session with a prison official. “We have switched to headbinding, I thought. It’s no longer the fashion to bind a woman’s feet, but they bind a person’s thoughts instead. That way the mind can’t move freely. That way ideas all take on the same size and shape. That’s why they want to change me, that’s why they force me to reform.”

But far more disturbing and revealing is the story of Han Wei-tien, told by Chinese author Pu Ning in his book Red in Tooth and Claw: Twenty-six Years in Communist Chinese Prisons . Pu Ning read the diaries of Han Wei-tien after Han was released and allowed to go to Taiwan in 1979. He interviewed Han extensively and decided to tell his story.

Born into a wealthy and politically well-connected family, Han chose a military career and began to rise in the army ranks of the Nationalist (or Koumintang) Chinese government. After the fall of mainland China to the communists in 1949, the Nationalist government ordered him to secretly return to Shanghai and organize anticommunist underground opposition. He was soon uncovered, arrested, and ordered to be executed. At the last minute, before he was to be shot, it was decided that a better punishment would be “reeducation through labor.” He ended up being sent to Chinghai Province in western China to work as a slave laborer building a military highway across the high, mountainous Tibetan plateau to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.

In the dead of winter, thousands worked endless hours in snows and blizzards to build, inch by inch, this military highway across seemingly impassable mountain ranges. Here is Han’s description:

This was the longest blizzard I had ever experienced. . . . Nor were these downy flakes dancing in the wind. Hardly snowflakes at all, but shafts of ice, each shaft thrown at you, trying to pierce your clothes and skin. We felt as if we were naked there, fallen into a sea of icy needles. . . . All of us were freezing. Our hands were so stiff that we were not able to hold the axes or shovels any longer. The legs of the older ones were so stiff they could no longer stand on their feet. . . . Guards were rushing here and there, cursing and chiding us with white leather lashes. They plied the meter-long weapons against the raw flesh of those who had passed out and dared to “lie down and rest.” Some guards even drew out thick sticks and used them indiscriminately on the prisoners’ heads. Blood dripped down to redden the white snow. This treatment, however, did not make the fallen ones rise to their feet. I saw them lying still in the snow, not uttering a cry on the sting of the lash. . . . One of us was holding up his pickax, intending to bring it down on the ice. But as it fell, he fell with it, never to rise again. The motor in this human machine had stopped suddenly and forever. . . . Seeing all this the guards knew that they had done enough for the day.

They were also assigned the task of constructing a bridge across the Pa Yin River. “A sacrifice of ten thousand, fifty thousand, or even one hundred thousand people cannot be too dear a cost in the building of the bridge,” declared a party leader to the workers. To slow down the river’s fast current, prisoners were sent into the icy water to form concentric rings and serve as human dams where the foundations of the bridge were to be placed. Into the freezing water went hundreds of the human slaves. When they were allowed to step out of the river, their legs were found to be badly frozen.

Those who collapsed were . . . put in front of a fire. . . . It was hoped that the warmth would help the men regain consciousness and thaw their frozen legs. . . . One of those being thawed by the fire dropped to the ground as his lower legs suddenly dislocated from his knees, like two living branches snapped on a young tree. This astonishing thing happened not just to one victim, but to many who were “cured” with fire. All of us were appalled to see one lower leg after another dislocate from the upper leg as the fire hastily warmed the frozen people. We later learned that the lower leg is attached to the knee by bands of tissue, the ligaments, which, frozen through, will break easily if heated suddenly and quickly. . . . [N]o fewer than a hundred pairs of legs were dislocated, and some three or four hundred men had contracted arthritis, though they had been spared dislocated legs.

In 1966, Han was accused of starting a fire that destroyed a few hundred tons of wheat on a collective farm in Chinghai Province. When he refused to confess or say who had performed this “counter-revolutionary” deed, he was placed into a dry well and kept at the bottom, in the dark, for two years. When he was finally taken out, he was almost completely blind. It took five years for his eyesight to return, but never to normal. While a slave laborer on that collective farm, before his imprisonment in the well, he had met and fallen in love with a young Tibetan tribal princess who helped to keep him alive with extra food and clothing. After he was released from the well, he found out that she had been killed by the communists while she was leading a group of Tibetan freedom fighters against the occupying Chinese army.

Released from his “reeducation through labor” in 1976, he was able to leave China in 1979 and go to Taiwan. But the Nationalist Chinese authorities refused to believe his story of being an uncompromised anti-communist after all those years in prison, and the Nationalist government kept him under house arrest for five years before finally giving him his full liberty. He still lives in Taiwan, free, finally, but still a captive of his memories.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).