Nien Cheng, author of best-seller Life and Death in Shanghai and one of the greatest Chinese voices of humanity to have opposed communism, passed away in Washington yesterday. To read her account of the cruelty and madness of the Cultural Revolution, during which she was imprisoned for six-and-a-half years and her daughter killed, is to come away inspired by Nien Cheng’s sheer strength of character and the dignity and power of the individual even in the face of totalitarianism. Her refusal to accept dogmas, her deep understanding and love of Chinese culture and history, her capacity for self-reflection, the way in which she used her learning and sharp wit to confront her oppressors and expose their incoherent views, and her ability to survive persecution—all was truly a triumph of the human spirit.
I had the great good fortune to have known Nien Cheng both through Cato and because she coincidentally lived in the same Washington condominium building as I did for many years until I recently moved. (It was the same building in which she typed her book manuscript once she lived here in exile, never thinking that many people would read it.)
To know Nien Cheng was to confirm the impressions one forms of her from reading her book, and more. As neighbors, we chatted from time to time, and on several occasions my now-wife Lesley and I enjoyed tea and lively discussion in her apartment. Mrs. Cheng was generous and polite, and she was curious about the opinions of others. But she was also very well read, kept up on current affairs, and was opinionated, honest and transparent. She was always insightful. The trappings of political power never impressed her. She was regularly invited as a guest to White House functions by several administrations, but although she was honored, she had long been turning them down because, as she told me, she was too old for such things and it was too much time standing around.
Nien Cheng never liked to waste time and so maintained the habits of an industrious person. Perhaps that was partly a strategy to keep her mind at ease since the death of her daughter tormented her all of her life. I’m sure, however, that she ultimately died in peace. Never displaying an air of self-importance, she was ready and happy to pass on, as she told me and others on more than one occasion. For testifying to the world about the realities of Chinese communism and for living a courageous life, Nien Cheng holds a special place in the hearts and minds of all advocates of the free society, especially the Chinese.
May her spirit live on.
The Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago. A hideous symbol of the suppression of liberty, it should remind us of the ever-present threat to our freedoms. Even two decades later the legacy of repression continues to afflict many people in Eastern Europe. For instance, those in countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain still struggle with the knowledge that their friends and neighbors routinely spied on them.
Reports the Associated Press:
Stelian Tanase found out when he asked to see the thick file that Romania's communist-era secret police had kept on him. The revelation nearly knocked the wind out of him: His closest pal was an informer who regularly told agents what Tanase was up to.
"In a way, I haven't even recovered today," said Tanase, a novelist who was placed under surveillance and had his home bugged during the late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's regime.
"He was the one person on Earth I had the most faith in," he said. "And I never, ever suspected him."
Twenty years ago this autumn, communism collapsed across Eastern Europe. But its dark legacy endures in the unanswered question of the files — whether letting the victims read them cleanses old wounds or rips open new ones.
Things have never been so bad here, obviously, but that gives us even more reason to jealously guard our liberties. Defend America we must, but we must never forget that it is a republic which we are defending.
According to him, the failure of Russia to acknowledge the criminal nature of its communist past—as was rightfully done in the case of Nazism after its demise—in large part explains the return of authoritarianism in Russia. There don’t seem to be any celebrations of the fall of communism planned in Russia, and the West is currently consumed with major issues including how to deal with Iran, the global financial crisis, etc. But valiant efforts to remind the world of the horrors of communism include the compelling new documentary, The Soviet Story, which features Bukovsky and new evidence of Soviet complicity with the Nazis. Join us for a screening of the movie at the Cato Institute on November 2.