»  The New York Sun

February 25th, 2004

  The Devils

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Before Mao
By Patrick Lescot
(Translated from the French by Steven Rendall)
Times Books; 386 pp. $26.95

One of the photographs collected at the center of this book has a great deal to tell us about Communism. Dated March 29, 1980, the photograph shows the late Chinese despot Deng Xiaoping face to face with an elderly European woman. Deng is seen in profile. He is wearing a Mao suit with some kind of dark armband. He is looking at the woman with courteous deference. The woman — she appears older than her age, which is 65 or 66 — is straight-backed and dignified, but she is looking off to one side, her face turned towards us, her eyes not meeting Deng's. Her expression says: I would much rather not be here. However, since everyone wants me to go through with this silly charade, I will go through with it. Behind the two of them is a large flower arrangement decorated with a vertical strip of paper on which can be seen Chinese characters reading: "In Remembrance of Li Lisan."

This woman is Elizabeth Kishkin, widow of Li Lisan, a Chinese Communist revolutionary who lived from 1899 to 1967. Patrick Lescot's book is a biography of Li, and an account of his part in creating Communist China.

Li was born, like most of the Chinese Communist leadership, into a well-off provincial family. At age 19 he left China to study in France. This, too, was a common thread in many of these leaders' backgrounds: Chou En-lai, Chen Yi, and Deng Xiaoping also spent time in France in the early 1920s. Li returned to his country in 1921, joined the Chinese Communist Party almost as soon as it was formed, and spent the rest of his life a devout Party member.

That life included fifteen years' residence in Stalin's U.S.S.R., from 1931 to 1946. This exile was on orders from the Kremlin. Its stated purpose was for Li to "study and reeducate himself." Li had been found guilty of a heresy, a heresy that was actually referred to as "Li Lisan-ism," and which basically consisted of having been insufficiently respectful to Stalin. The Chinese Party was in dire straits, ferocious assaults by Chiang Kai-shek's armies and secret police having reduced it to a few scattered remnants meeting clandestinely in back rooms, or camped out in remote areas of the countryside. They were in no position to refuse an order from Stalin. Probably the Soviet dictator did not wish Li any harm when he called him to Moscow. Li lived as freely and comfortably as anyone could in that time and place, and in 1936 married Elizabeth Kishkin, then a young editor at a Party publishing house. When the Great Purges of 1937-8 arrived, however, no-one was safe, certainly not any foreigner. Though he was not sent to the Gulag, Li endured nearly two years of interrogations and beatings in the dungeons of the NKVD.

Returning to China in 1946, Li stood alongside Mao Tse-tung on Tiananmen three years later, when Mao proclaimed the Chinese People's Republic. Li was then appointed Labor Secretary in Mao's politburo. For all his "revolutionary experience," however, he seems not to have understood what depths of inhumanity and cynicism were required of a good Communist. There is a telling scene in this book when, in 1950, Li warns Mao and other Chinese leaders not to follow the example of the U.S.S.R. "in the domain of proofs and methods of judicial inquiry." In Moscow, he told them, fantastic confessions were being extracted from innocent people by torture.

Mao and the hundred or so Communist leaders present listened to Li in a leaden silence, attentive and embarrassed … Li was accusing Stalin, the world's Guide, of injustice and criminal errors … The only kind of justice these men knew was expedient, political, or military. Chou En-lai promised to put discreetly on the agenda for discussions with their big brothers the question of the Chinese comrades who had disappeared in Russia. As for the creation in China of a legal system worthy of the name, they would see about that later.

The Chinese people are still waiting.

When the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution arrived in 1966, Li endured another round of beatings and denunciations, this time from his own countrymen. He died — "suicide," say the Party histories, whose credibility on such points is nil — while in custody in 1967. Elizabeth spent eight years in solitary confinement at Qincheng prison near Beijing. She, and her husband posthumously, were officially rehabilitated in 1980. That was the occasion of the photograph I described.

It is a wretched story, all too typical of China in the middle two quarters of the last century. In spite of his misgivings about Soviet justice, it is hard to feel much sympathy for Li. In his book We and They, Robert Conquest, working from a line in one of Auden's poems, conjures up the image of two citizens in a dictatorship seeing from a distance the lights burning late at night in the headquarters of the Secret Police. One of the citizens, a normal person, thinks to himself: "How terrible! They are interrogating, they are torturing! When can we rid ourselves of this horror?" The other citizen is a revolutionary, and his thoughts are quite different: "I can't wait until we take over! Then it will be our people burning the midnight oil up there!" Li Lisan was a revolutionary of this sort. He did not give a fig for law, constitutionalism, or human suffering. He just wanted his faction to be on top. To him, the horrors of Stalin's rule, including those shortcomings in "proofs and methods of judicial inquiry," were errors, not moral atrocities. There is no indication he suffered any mental or physical distress during the appalling Mao famines of 1959-62. When it became known in Party circles that starving peasants had begun to eat each other's children, the Li family took the precaution of keeping their pet fox terrier, Groschka, indoors.

Perhaps thinking that Li's story would be insufficiently interesting to a general reader if told plain, Patrick Lescot has dressed it up in a pseudo-novelish format, with lots of confusing flashbacks, invented conversations, and imagined inner dialogues. I personally find this distracting. When I read: "Stalin … said to himself that he liked this young man … ," I mutter under my breath: "How the heck do you know what Stalin said to himself?" Lescot's translator has compounded the fault by retaining eccentric Francophone transcriptions of Chinese words and names: Djouci, for example, in place of the regular spelling Zhuxi (for "Chairman.") Another reader might not mind any of this as much as I did, though. If you want to know what went on in early Chinese communism beyond Mao and his circle, this is a useful book to have.