In Era of Upheaval, Author Stood against Storm

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post on November 15, 2009.

Nien Cheng, the author of Life and Deathin Shanghai, died in Washington onNovember 2 at the age of 94. She was anincredibly courageous woman and theembodiment of grace and wisdom.She loved traditional Chinese culture,but her world was shattered on August 30,1966, when Red Guards ransacked herhome and, on September 27, arrested her.She spent the next 6½ years in Shanghai'sNo 1 Detention House, in solitaryconfinement.

Communist Party interrogators accusedCheng of being a spy, but her real "crime"was that she was viewed as a "capitalistroader". She had attended the LondonSchool of Economics in the 1930s, whereshe met her husband, Kang-chi Cheng,who later became general manager forShell in Shanghai.

When he died, in 1957, Nien Chengbecame a special adviser to the newgeneral manager. She was the highestrankedbusinesswoman in China at thetime. Her skills in dealing with partyofficials were invaluable and helped Shellstay in China until the start of the CulturalRevolution in 1966.

During her imprisonment, Chengrefused to admit to any wrongdoing. Shewas tortured and nearly died, but herdetermination to survive and her deep faithgave her the strength to persevere. She wasreleased from prison on March 27, 1973,only to find the Red Guards had murderedher only child, Meiping, for failing to"confess" and denounce her mother as a"class enemy". Cheng's one hope in lifewas gone; she left China forever in 1980,and settled in Washington in 1983.

Anyone who knew Cheng couldimmediately see that she was special – eventhe doctor at the No 1Detention Housesaid he never met a more "truculent andargumentative" prisoner. When shelearned of her imminent release, sherefused to leave the prison unless theauthorities declared, in writing, that shewas "innocent of any crime or politicalmistake". She insisted that they offer "anapology for wrongful arrest", and called theofficial statement "a sham and a fraud".

After nearly seven years in prison, shedeclared: "I shall remain here until a properconclusion is reached about my case." Theauthorities refused, and the guards had todrag her out of prison.

It is ironic that Cheng learned aboutsocialism during her studies at the LondonSchool of Economics, where she became aleftist. In her essay The Roots of China'sCrisis, she wrote: "When I read a book onthe Soviet Union by Sidney and BeatriceWebb, I thought, 'How wonderful andidealistic socialism sounds'."

Later, after her husband had served inAustralia as a diplomat for the Nationalistgovernment, the Chengs made the fatefuldecision to return to China in late 1948.They and many of their Western-educatedfriends were seduced by Mao Zedong'scall for democracy, and wanted tohelp build a new China.

In her essay, Cheng notes that while shehad learned about socialist ideals, such asthe apparent success of Soviet centralplanning and state ownership, herprofessors never talked of "class struggle"or "the realities of communist rule".

What she painfully discovered was thatin a society where individuals have noeconomic freedom, and there is nogenuine rule of law, no one is safe from thepower of the state. The Communist Partyunder Mao's iron fist destroyed civil societyand traditional culture.

As she wrote in Life and Death inShanghai, a new China was created afterthe communists' victory in 1949, but it wasnot the socialist ideal she had envisioned.Rather, the party created "mindless robots,unburdened by the capacity forindependent thinking or a humanconscience". Success depended on power,and justice vanished. "The result was afundamental change in the basic values ofChinese society," she wrote.

Mao's mantra was: "Strike hard againstthe slightest sign of private property."Cheng's property, including her pricelessporcelain collection, was confiscated. Herdaughter was murdered and her freedomdestroyed by the state.

While in jail, in 1971, the inmates wereassembled and an official announced:"Many of you are here precisely becauseyou worshipped the capitalist world of theimperialists and belittled socialist China.You placed your hope in the capitalistworld and believed that one day capitalismwould again prevail in China."

Today, mainland China is perhapsmore capitalist that any other country, butit is "crony capitalism". The nation lacksfull-fledged private property rights,especially in land; there is no independentjudiciary to protect people and propertyagainst the party's monopoly on power;and freedom of religion and expression aresharply curtailed. The battle for justice thatCheng fought has not yet been won.

In her book, Cheng recognised thesignificance of president Richard Nixon'svisit to China in 1972, and the importanceof engaging China. She witnessed theprogress the mainland had made sinceDeng Xiaoping's opening to theoutside world in 1978. She understood thecritical role of trade and investment inlinking China to the West. But she alsounderstood that, "Unless and until apolitical system rooted in law, rather thanpersonal power, is firmly established inChina, the road to the future will always befull of twists and turns."