The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957 (8 page)

BOOK: The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957
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The most important rally of all was held in Beijing on 1 October, as Mao Zedong declared the establishment of the Central People’s Government at a founding ceremony attended by 300,000 people. Preparatory work started early. Tiananmen Square, like most of the imperial capital, looked derelict after long years of neglect during the civil war. It was much smaller than today, cluttered with medieval walls, old roads and dilapidated buildings that once served as resting places for officials awaiting an audience with the emperor in the Imperial Palace, also called the Forbidden City. The pitted surface of the square was littered with rubbish. Thistles and errant trees shot up from the cracks in the paving slabs.

Dan Ling was one of those students who eagerly volunteered to help clean up the square. In reward for his hard work, he was allowed to watch the parade. He arrived early on the day of the ceremony, waiting outside the gate in the bitter cold. Drizzle set in after dawn. Once all his fellow students had arrived, they queued up and marched in formation, together with other groups, locating their assigned position on the square. They found it pockmarked with deep pits that had not yet been levelled. Dan and the students sheltered in these pits, huddling closely together to stay warm.

Thousands of banners fluttered in the autumn breeze above a sea of people carefully selected from all walks of life. Li Zhisui, a twenty-nine-year-old doctor who had returned to China from a job in Australia after reading how the communists had taken over Beijing, the city of his birth, without firing a shot, joined the crowds in shouting slogans: ‘Long Live the Chinese Communist Party!’, ‘Long Live the People’s Republic of China!’, ‘Long Live Chairman Mao!’ They also sang revolutionary songs.

At ten o’clock sharp, Mao Zedong and the other leaders appeared on a reviewing stand on the great Tiananmen gate, to the south of the Forbidden City. He electrified an already excited crowd. For many, it was their first glimpse of China’s messiah. Mao was fifty-six years old, tall, healthy, with a ruddy face. His voice was powerful and clear, and he spoke with decisive gestures. He no longer sported the military uniform in which he had so often appeared in photographs, but instead wore a dark-brown Sun Yat-sen suit, soon to be called the Mao suit. A worker’s cap covered his thick black hair, revealing a broad and high forehead. In a message of unity and democracy, he stood together with several non-communist political personalities, including Song Qingling, also known as Madame Sun Yat-sen. Although her sister was married to Chiang Kai-shek, during the civil war she had sided with the communists and was now a figurehead for a united front. But Mao was the centre of attention. To many onlookers he was a truly magnetic force. In a soft, almost lilting voice, he spoke in a strong Hunanese accent, which most Chinese speakers found relatively easy to understand. The effect of his speech was riveting: ‘The central government of the People’s Republic of China is established!’ he proclaimed, as the crowd went wild, shouting more slogans and erupting in thunderous applause. Li almost cried: ‘I was so full of joy that my heart nearly burst out of my throat, and tears welled up in my eyes. I was so proud of China, so full of hope, so happy that the exploitation and suffering, the aggression from foreigners, would be gone forever. I had no doubt that Mao was the great leader of the revolution, the maker of a new Chinese history.’

For Dan Ling the most exciting part of the day was the military rally. Troupes danced to the drum and gong beat of the rice-sprout song, and stilt walkers cavorted merrily in colourful costumes above the heads of the crowds. But the army was the centre of the procession, with some 16,400 soldiers in infantry and mounted cavalry, tanks, armoured cars and lorries equipped with machine guns. As the People’s Liberation Army paraded across Tiananmen, a few aeroplanes roared overhead in a display of unity and military might. The cadenced tread of soldiers was followed by serried ranks of workers, students and government employees, many carrying coloured paper banners and Mao Zedong portraits, a few of which were torn to tatters by the wind. Dan and his friends stood in the rain for more than ten hours, without food, water or shelter, but nonetheless elated.


The following day Dan Ling came down with diarrhoea, which lasted a month and weakened him so badly that it almost took his life. Dan had first encountered the communist party in 1947, when he was fourteen years old. The nationalists referred to the communists as ‘bandits’, which only enhanced their prestige in the boy’s eyes. Outlaws, in folk legends, were often heroes fighting corrupt government officials. Several communist party members were arrested and imprisoned in a courtyard near Dan’s home, and sometimes the prisoners were allowed out, singing and putting on plays that impressed Dan and other boys from the neighbourhood. He idolised them, believing that poor people in liberated areas were able to eat their fill and enjoyed equal treatment. One day Dan and two other boys decided to join the communists, who were rumoured to have a stronghold in the mountains to the west of Beijing. Equipped with some food, water and a knife, the boys slipped away in the evening, stumbling across desolate fields and eerie graveyards in the dark. They spent the night in a small village, quickly exhausted their food supply and finally decided to abandon their mission. Dan’s escapade only heightened his enthusiasm for the communists. A year later, during the siege of Beijing, wounded nationalist soldiers swarmed all over the city. Some of them bullied people, intimidating even the local police. As the communist troops camping outside the capital cut off the food supply, cargo planes delivered badly needed provisions by parachute. The soldiers fought each other to reach the airdropped packets.

Dan had a vision of communist abundance that a visit to a picture exhibition of Soviet life had only reinforced. He was struck by a painting of a worker’s family: beaming parents and rosy-cheeked children sat at a dinner table overflowing with eggs, bread, meat and other kinds of food he could not even name. Dan boasted about the exhibition, posing as an expert on Soviet life and trying to win converts for the cause among family and friends. His parents were lukewarm, maybe because a life of hard work had dulled their imagination, but his two younger brothers drooled over the idea of plenty for all. Dan joined the party aged fifteen, motivated by youthful ignorance and the promise of food.

Li Zhisui, the twenty-nine-year-old doctor, grew up patriotic and proud of his country’s culture, literature, art and history. He was enticed by a job as a ship’s surgeon in Australia to escape civil war in 1948, but could stay there only temporarily as the country had strict immigration rules that favoured ‘whites only’. Living in a small boarding house, his pride crying out against the country’s racist policies, he slowly drifted into a state of depression. He rented a house in Hong Kong for his wife, but did not want to live there either, as he was too proud to become the disfranchised subject of an alien king in the crown colony.

Liberation jolted him out of his depression. Li was thrilled when he read about the communist victory, and believed that China would at long last assume its rightful place in the world. When he saw the headlines about the
incident, he immediately interpreted it as a victory against imperialist incursions. After his brother had written to him from Beijing asking him to return, his patriotism was rekindled and he decided to go home. He believed that the united front with non-party intellectuals was real: ‘I worshipped the party. It was the hope of new China. I had been like a blind man in Australia, with no idea where I was going. The united front policy had shown me the light.’

Many other Chinese overseas answered the call to serve the motherland. In Hong Kong underground agents took batches of people across the border to Guangzhou. The journey was arduous. The new recruits were asked to dress like farmers and meet in a designated spot near the border. From there they followed their guide on foot across hills and rivers to the liberated areas in Dongjiang. For many, hoisting the red flag was a highlight of the trek. ‘My eyes were moist with tears as I saw our flag run up the flag pole.’ A group photo was taken to commemorate the occasion. Wong Yee Sheung, educated at the Diocesan Girls’ School in Hong Kong, changed her name to Huang Xing, meaning Yellow Star. Hundreds of others marched with her, stopping at local schools on the way and sleeping on the ground in neat straight rows in the classrooms. After seven days they reached Guangzhou, where they were housed ten to a room in the East Asia Hotel. Across the street, the Oi Kwan Hotel, where the nationalists had set up their headquarters only months before, was decorated with a long banner hanging from the roof: ‘The Chinese People Have Stood Up’.

Hong Kong became a great crossroads. Crowds arrived from abroad to join the revolution while refugees poured into the crown colony, clamouring for a haven from the advancing communists. People from all walks of life fled China, taking with them their skills and capital. Dr T. V. Soong, who had negotiated the Sino-Soviet Treaty in 1945, disembarked in Hong Kong, welcomed by a guard of honour. General Long Yun, the former Yunnan warlord, landed with his entourage, but would soon return to China as a leading government official.

Like Soong and Long, most of these refugees were only passing through Hong Kong, soon resettling in South-east Asia, the United States, Latin America or elsewhere. But approximately 1 million people decided to stay. Some were prosperous industrialists who brought entire mills with them and tied their fate to the crown colony. The majority were craftsmen, shopkeepers, farmers and paupers who had crossed the border with little more than the clothes on their backs. Hundreds of thousands begged and roamed the streets, living in huts built of mud, wood, bamboo, sheet-metal, tar-paper and other materials in the hills of Hong Kong and Kowloon. Another 40,000 were street sleepers who managed to claim a space under a veranda or in a basement, living and cooking in the open. Others built squatter huts on rooftops. Those who were slightly better off shared cubicles in tenement houses, each family having just a few square metres. Among the refugees were several thousand soldiers, many crippled and disabled. The regime in Taiwan viewed them as a security risk and refused them entry. After months of surviving in a shanty town clinging to Mount Davis, they were settled at Rennie’s Mill by the Social Welfare Office, living in large tents and tin sheds. The place soon became known as Little Taiwan.

Another 1 to 2 million refugees also crossed the Taiwan Straits, following Chiang Kai-shek and the nationalists. Many of them were deeply traumatised. Families were often divided, as soldiers and government officials had left some of the women and children behind in the rush to escape. Ying Meijun, for instance, bade farewell to her one-year-old son at a railway station in September 1949. The boy was crying so much that she left him in the care of his grandmother, fearful of taking him on an overcrowded train. She would not see her first-born child again until 1987, when he was a forty-year-old man broken by years of hard labour on a state farm. As a young child, he used to chase trains along the tracks in front of their home, thinking that his mother was on board. For hundreds of thousands of refugees, all contact with friends and relatives was lost, and for three decades many did not even know who on the mainland was still alive. Their sense of isolation was compounded by the hostility they encountered from the local population. In a massacre known as the 228 Incident in 1947, the nationalists had slaughtered thousands of unarmed demonstrators who protested against the corruption and oppression of the post-war regime. Martial law and a reign of terror followed, creating deep divisions between mainlanders and the Taiwanese for decades to come.

On the mainland the bamboo curtain soon came down, ending one of the largest human migrations in Chinese history. But the vast majority of the population were neither enthusiastic supporters nor diehard opponents of the new regime. Most had little choice but to stay, watching liberation and the fanfare that followed with a mixture of relief, hope and wariness.


After the celebrations came the police. They were less friendly than the soldiers. They did the rounds, inviting themselves into people’s homes in their search for forbidden items, from weapons to radios. The policeman who harassed Kang Zhengguo’s family in Xi’an had a shabby uniform and a heavy northern Shaanxi accent. ‘We always served him tea in the parlour, but he seemed unaccustomed to smooth cedar chairs, and after sitting for a while, he would shift to a squatting position right on his chair, without even taking off his shoes.’ He was interested in the family’s vacuum-tube radio. The police suspected that the device was used to send wireless telegrams rather than receive broadcasts. The head of the Kang household was repeatedly summoned to the police station for questioning. Exasperated, he eventually surrendered the device.

All over China the police visited people suspected of being sympathetic to the old regime. In big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Wuhan, special teams trained to take over public security arrived within days of liberation. After briefing by underground members of the communist party, they moved into the precinct stations and police headquarters and ordered everybody to stay at their posts. General Chen Yi, now the new mayor of Shanghai, replaced his peaked cap with a dark beret, exhorting the police force in a three-hour meeting, an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth: they should ‘reform themselves, and at the same time carry on their work without undue anxieties’, he explained.

BOOK: The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957
3.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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