Nien Cheng, author of Life and Death in Shanghai (1986), died in Washington last November at the age of 94. She was an incredibly courageous woman and the embodiment of grace and wisdom.
She loved traditional Chinese culture, but her world was shattered on August 30, 1966, when the Red Guards ransacked her home and, on September 27, arrested her. She spent the next six and a half years in Shanghai’s No. 1 Detention House, in solitary confinement.
Communist Party interrogators accused Cheng of being a spy, but her real “crime” was that she was viewed as a “capitalist roader.” She had attended the London School of Economics (LSE) in the 1930s, where she met her husband, Kang-chi Cheng, who later became general manager for Shell Oil in Shanghai.
When he died in 1957, Nien Cheng became a special adviser to the new general manager. She was the highest-ranked businesswoman in China at the time. Her skills in dealing with party officials were invaluable and helped Shell stay in China until the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966.
During her imprisonment Cheng refused to admit any wrongdoing. She was tortured and nearly died, but her determination to survive and her deep faith gave her the strength to persevere. She was released from prison on March 27, 1973, only to find that the Red Guards had murdered her only child, Meiping, for failing to “confess” and denounce her mother as a “class enemy.” Cheng’s one hope in life was gone; she left China forever in 1980 and settled in Washington, D.C., in 1983.
Anyone who knew Nien Cheng could immediately see that she was special—even the doctor at the No. 1 Detention House said he never met a more “truculent and argumentative” prisoner. When she learned of her imminent release, she refused to leave the prison unless the authorities declared, in writing, that she was “innocent of any crime or political mistake.” She insisted that they offer “an apology for wrongful arrest” and called the official statement “a sham and a fraud.”
In that statement she was accused of conspiring with the British government because in a letter she signed in 1957, shortly after she joined Shell, “she divulged the grain supply situation in Shanghai.” That accusation was ludicrous. Her secretary was merely conveying common knowledge to the incoming general manager, who was still in London—namely, that “the Shanghai government allows everyone twenty catties of grain per month.”
After nearly seven years in prison she declared, “I shall remain here until a proper conclusion is reached about my case.” The authorities refused, and two female guards had to drag her out of prison. It was not until later that Cheng learned that her interrogators were trying to get her to confess to being a spy so that Jiang Qing (Mao Zedong’s wife) and other radicals could oust Premier Zhou Enlai, a moderate who favored allowing foreign firms like Shell to operate in China.
It was only after Mao’s death in 1976 and Deng Xiaoping’s decision to open China to the outside world that Cheng was officially declared innocent of any crimes against the State and “rehabilitated” in November 1978.
The Realities of Communist Rule
It is ironic that Cheng became enticed by socialism during her studies at LSE. In her essay “The Roots of China’s Crisis” (in Economic Reform in China, which I edited along with Wang Xi), she wrote, “When I read a book on the Soviet Union by Sidney and Beatrice Webb, I thought, ‘How wonderful and idealistic socialism sounds.’”
Later, after her husband had served in Australia as a diplomat for the Nationalist government, the Chengs made the fateful decision to return to China in late 1948. They and many of their Western-educated friends were seduced by Mao’s call for democracy and wanted to help build a new China.
In her essay Cheng notes that while she had learned about socialist ideals at LSE—including the apparent success of Soviet egalitarianism, central planning, and state ownership—her professors never mentioned “class struggle” or “the realities of communist rule.” What she painfully discovered was that in a society where individuals have no economic freedom and no genuine rule of law, no one is safe from the power of the State. Economic life is politicized, corruption is endemic, and inequality of power reigns, in stark contrast to promises of egalitarianism.
As Cheng wrote in her book, “The fact is that the Communist government controls goods, services, and opportunities and dispenses them to the people in unequal proportions.” During the Maoist regime one’s rank in the party determined one’s economic status. “Though the salary of a member of the Politburo was no more than eight or ten times that of an industrial worker, the perks available to him without charge were comparable to those enjoyed by kings.”
The Chinese Communist Party under Mao’s iron fist destroyed civil society and traditional culture. A new China was created after the Communist victory in 1949, but it was not the socialist ideal Cheng had envisioned. Rather, the party created “mindless robots, unburdened by the capacity for independent thinking or a human conscience.”
Success depended on power, and justice vanished. “The result was a fundamental change in the basic values of Chinese society,” she wrote.
Mao’s mantra was, “Strike hard against the slightest sign of private property.” Nien Cheng’s property, including her priceless porcelain collection, was confiscated. Her daughter was murdered and her freedom destroyed by the State.
While in jail, in 1971, the inmates were assembled and an official announced, “Many of you are here precisely because you worshiped the capitalist world of the imperialists and belittled socialist China. You placed your hope in the capitalist world and believed that one day capitalism would again prevail in China.”
Today, mainland China is perhaps more capitalist than any other country, but it is “crony capitalism.” The nation lacks full-fledged private property rights, especially in land; there is no independent judiciary to protect persons and property against the party’s monopoly on power; and freedom of religion and expression are sharply curtailed. The battle for justice that Cheng fought has not yet been won.
In her book Cheng recognized the significance of President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 and the importance of engaging China. She witnessed the progress the mainland has made since Deng Xiaoping began to liberalize markets in 1978. She understood the critical role of trade and investment in linking China to the West. But she also understood that “Unless and until a political system rooted in law, rather than personal power, is firmly established in China, the road to the future will always be full of twists and turns.”
Seeking Truth and Justice
Nien Cheng’s journey from an idealistic Marxist liberal at LSE in the 1930s to a realistic market liberal—after living through Mao’s upheavals and seeing the end of private property and the uncertainty and injustice caused by arbitrary and unlimited State power—gave her a great appreciation of America.
Near the end of her life, in a personal letter, she wrote,
I can hardly believe I have lived so long. I think it is mainly because I am never angry nor am I ever worried. I believe in “constant change,” so I always think a bad situation will change into a good situation or not so bad after all. In any case, there is always a solution. As for being angry, after what had happened to me in China, I think I have used up all the anger inside me. There is simply nothing to be angry about in America.
All Americans should be proud Nien Cheng chose to make America her home. She believed that here she would be free to choose and that her person and property would be protected by the law of the land.
Today, as the U.S. government grows in size and power, it would be well to remember the wisdom of Nien Cheng—and the danger to personal freedom when the State erodes economic freedom.
A shorter version of this article first appeared in the South China Morning Post, November 15, 2009.