The fugitive ran north beside the railway tracks, the bleak wastes of the Gobi blanketed in darkness, towards the streetlamps of Zamyn-Üüd glowing faintly in the distance. By luck passing too close to a sentry tower to be visible on radar, Xu Hongci soon realized that the lights of the Mongolian border town were now closer than those of Chinese Erenhot, and that his month-long flight from the mountain prisons of remote Yunnan was at a triumphant end:
I squatted on the ground a few minutes, bidding my weather-beaten, grief-plagued motherland farewell. I didn’t shed tears. I was just sad and angry, confident that sooner or later the Chinese people would rise up to cast off the yoke of Mao’s tyranny and establish a democratic nation. I told myself, ‘On that day, I shall return.’
Many of us will have crossed paths with Xu’s rare and remarkable type, the uncompromising idealist who takes people and governments at their word and boldly, often innocently, calls them out when they fail to keep to it—they are the bane of autocrats both corporate and political.
When the Shanghai No.1 Medical College student answered Mao Zedong’s call in the spring of 1957 to “let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend,” criticizing the Communist leadership’s failure to produce a modern, democratic China, the young Party member predictably became one of the 550,000 victims of the Anti-Rightist Campaign that cynically followed. Fourteen years of forced labor, savage beatings, life-threatening illness and near-starvation in the notorious laogai mines and factories of the People’s Republic followed.
Prison memoirs invariably evoke an unspoken but unsettling question: how would I have coped with unjust confinement, such nightmarish conditions and character-testing torment? Would I have the strength to mentally pledge, as Xu did, to “regain my freedom or die fighting for it?” That he preserved not only this astonishing determination but also moral integrity throughout, refusing to despair like so many others amidst the Kafkaesque cruelties of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, is truly awe-inspiring—since as he sadly observes:
On death’s doorstep, man can become an animal and abandon every moral principle he has established in the course of his life. In our prison, convicts stole like kleptomaniacs, defecated where they pleased, fought, squealed, and were capable of every other hideous and despicable act.
All of which Xu witnesses, experiences and describes in terrible and gripping detail, along with a familiar cast of prison characters—the petty, vindictive officials, maddened by their efforts to serve Mao’s latest merciless political campaign—the feckless escape-mates (Xu makes four attempts, all dramatically described)—the all-too-rare but unexpectedly kind and humane. Of an encounter during his final 11-day trek through the countryside after fleeing his Lijiang prison (three weeks of fretful train travel followed), he writes,
Touched by the two peasants’ kindness, I thought about the other people who had helped me during my escape and felt a strong conviction that human nature, in its essence, is good. People become evil at the enticement of others. If there hadn’t been a Mao Zedong … there wouldn’t be lackeys … either.
The ingenious tools of his heart-stopping escape are also staples of the prison break memoir—the travel documents forged from hand-carved woodblocks, the prison clothes cleverly disguised with gasoline and shoe polish, the meagre savings hidden within a bar of soap, the hand-made ladder needed to scale the 10-foot electrified fence. And there was one final preparation:
I purchased a pack of cheap cigarettes, put the tobacco in my metal mug, and soaked it in my poison—concentrated nicotine. If my escape failed, I would end my life with it.
If Xu Hongci is not the only one of hundreds of thousands of laogai prisoners to escape the People’s Republic during the totalitarian Mao era, his is so far the only known success story.
The Chinese language publication might have languished but for writer and translator Erling Hoh, who stumbled upon it at the Hong Kong Central Library.
Xu endured a year in a frozen Mongolian labor camp, then married a local nurse, fathered two sons, and worked at various manual jobs until his verdict was overturned and he returned to the Shanghai area in 1984, twelve years after his miraculous escape. There he finally found work commensurate with his education and abilities, teaching at a petrochemical company, and in retirement began writing what would become a 380,000-character manuscript. There too, the shamed girlfriend who denounced him twenty-five years earlier said of his rehabilitation, without irony: “We should thank the great wisdom of Deng Xiaoping for that.” (Deng led the Anti-Rightist Campaign.)
No mainland publisher was willing to touch the still taboo subject of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and resulting Great Famine (the deadliest man-made catastrophe in history). But an edited version of Xu’s ordeal finally found a home in 2008, with one of the small Hong Kong presses that cater to mainland travellers seeking uncensored political reads. The harassment and abduction of these independent booksellers has of course been much in the recent news.
That Chinese language publication sold only 800 copies and might have languished, but for writer and translator Erling Hoh, who stumbled upon it at the Hong Kong Central Library. Hoh has done the Chinese people and political literature a great service by bringing Xu’s gripping, moving and eye-opening narrative to a much wider audience, adding useful introductions of contemporaneous historical information to each translated chapter. No Wall Too High also includes Xu’s hand-drawn diagrams of his various prison venues, a map of the four escape attempts and eight pages of photographs.
Xu Hongci died in 2008, soon after his moving story was first published in Hong Kong. But he wrote his unforgettable memoir between 1993 and 1995—an eon ago in contemporary Chinese politics. What observations and opinions the stubborn, battered patriot might now express, after another two decades of China’s extraordinary economic and social transformation, would have been interesting to hear: