Writing the truth to power is difficult, courageous, and uncertain in its effect. The importance of the late Gao Hua’s How the Red Sun Rose is evidenced by the fact that it is banned in China despite having been first published in Chinese in Hong Kong in 2000 and reprinted twenty-odd times. The book is, as Joseph Esherick notes in the Forward, “widely known, broadly respected, and officially proscribed.”
This highly detailed and somewhat narrowly focused history of the rise of Mao Zedong to supreme power within the Chinese Communist Party between 1930 and 1945 has now been published in English thanks to Hong Kong’s Chinese University Press and the translation of Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian. The book’s author, who taught at Nanjing University, died in December 2012.
Gao and his family had been victimized by the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, and it was that experience that led him to trace the political roots of the Cultural Revolution to the Yan’an Rectification Movement of 1942-44, which was used by Mao Zedong to purge all potential rivals within the Chinese Communist Party. Gao spent seven years researching and writing this book, with the hope “that hereafter China will embark on a trajectory of democracy and rule of law for the welfare of [China] and [its] people.”
Gao describes the Yan’an Rectification Movement as a
process during which Mao wielded his political power to thoroughly reorganize the top echelons of the Party and to redistribute power so as to establish absolute dominance.
Instead of using “show trials” to eliminate Party opponents and rivals like Stalin did in the Soviet Union in 1930s, Mao implemented what Gao calls “a politics of terror”, using torture and violence to coerce Communist Party members to engage in “self criticism” and make false admissions to being counterrevolutionaries, Kuomintang spies, or ideological “Trotskyites”.
Mao had foreshadowed these terror tactics in the late 1920s-early 1930s during his campaign to eliminate the Anti-Bolshevik or AB League in the Hunan-Jiangxi Border Area. It was a violent purge of Party rivals labeled as “counterrevolutionaries”, “despotic landlords”, and “reactionary rich-peasant elements”. Mao, Gao writes, used seemingly endless interrogations, torture, and threats of executions to extort confessions. More than one thousand Party members were killed, and Mao’s purges, like Stalin’s later purges in the USSR, extended to communist military forces and leaders. “[O]nce the great door of terror was opened,” Gao writes, “the situation quickly spun out of control.” Torture became commonplace. A policy of “killing without amnesty” was put into effect. Gao notes that while official Party history absolves Mao from any blame for “extremist policies and practices” against the AB League, the historical truth is that Mao was the originator of those policies.
Leading up to the Yan’an Rectification Movement, Mao demonstrated pragmatism and flexibility, shifting alliances within the Party and repeatedly outmaneuvering other contenders for power, including Wang Ming, Zhang Wentian, Zhou Enlai, and others. Mao shrewdly conducted this inner-Party struggle in the midst of war against Japan, conflict and cooperation with the Chinese Nationalists, and under the watchful eye of the Soviet-controlled Comintern.
Mao successively extended his rule over the Party, the army, and the domestic security services, and then imposed on the Party his version of Marxism-Leninism with Chinese characteristics—known later as Mao Zedong Thought. Mao’s ideology, Gao explains,
took the core content of Stalinism and Mao’s theoretical innovations and blended them with the moral self-cultivation of the Chinese Confucian tradition to form the fundamental principles of Mao’s revolution of thought.
His key allies in this effort included Kang Sheng, described (in translation) by Gao as Mao’s “henchman”, and army general Lin Biao. Kang Sheng was named director of the Central Committee’s Social Department and Intelligence Department. He served, Gao writes, as the “indispensable sword” in Mao’s hand and as “Mao’s Laventiy Beria” (Stalin’s head of the NKVD).
Throughout all of this turmoil, Mao maintained his focus on achieving sole power within the Party, unifying the Party and army to overthrow Kuomintang rule after Japan’s defeat, and making himself China’s absolute ruler. He succeeded at all three goals. Mao’s triumph within the Party was formalized at the Seventh Party Congress in April 1945.
Mao’s triumph led to calamities for the Chinese people, who suffered greatly under his rule, particularly from the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
That Gao’s book is banned in China despite having been published and reprinted in Hong Kong—for, one presumes, portraying Mao in an unfavorable light—raises questions about the current leadership’s relationship with that history and whether they consider that criticism of Mao strikes at the very foundation of Chinese communist rule.