Back in 2013, when CCP history expert Tan Song (譚松) held a talk at the Chinese University of Hong Kong on the atrocities peasants committed against landlords in the early 1950s under the CCP’s goading, a female professor who was in attendance begged him to stop spelling out the savagery in such excruciating detail.
Tan denied her request outright. “If we refuse to look at horror in the face, history will repeat itself.”
That woman should have been let off the hook for beseeching Tan to halt his lecture. I’ve read his book “The Blood-soaked land” (血红的土地), and it’s not for the faint-hearted. Those who want to understand the CCP should read it, though, for the regime’s campaign against landlords more or less became the prototype for subsequent political movements, and understanding it can help Hong Kong people make sense of Beijing’s maneuvers against us, for we are its latest nemesis.
Tan fell down the landlord rabbit hole by accident. In the early aughts, he toured the Yangtze river to have one last look at the architectural sites that were about to be demolished by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. When he was in the Sichuan part of the river, he chanced upon a story about a landlord’s concubine that shook him to the core: in the early 1950s, Huang Shiying (黄世英）was gang-raped by four peasants, who then shoved an iron rod into her, causing her to die of a haemorrhage. They then asked her eldest son to come fetch her body; in the decades that followed, they continued to live in the same village as her children. They were never punished because they committed their act in the name of landlord extermination, a righteous cause under the CCP.
“I was only 15 years old at the time,” her son recounted to Tan in 2003, shortly before his death. “It didn’t look like my mother was breathing, but her blood-soaked body was still warm and rigor mortis hadn’t yet set in. I carried her on my back all the way home. I buried her by the river.”
Little did Tan know at the time that one day, political winds would force him to part with his mother too. By the mid 2010s, the CCP was already hounding him in earnest over his independent investigations; to finish his work he’d have to flee abroad. Before his departure (to the US), he made one final visit to his 90 year-old mother, his sole surviving parent. She and her husband had been fervent believers in CCP’s cause in their youth and both risked their lives working as underground spies before the regime took power. She had told Tan before that she supported his pursuit of truth despite the anxieties it brought her. “I’m unable to stop you because what you’re doing is right.”
Now, upon realizing her son was coming to say goodbye, she took out all her bank passbooks – RMB5000 here, RMB10,000 there – and insisted that he take all her savings.
Tan recounts what was in all likelihood his last day with his mother: “It was raining that day, and it was in the rain that my aged and infirm mother and I made our way into one bank after another, to take out the scant sums she had squirreled away over the years. When I bid her farewell one last time, I could feel her gazing at me longingly, but I dared not look at her, lest all I saw were tears streaming down a face that was wrinkled and etched with grief.”
History is now repeating itself in Hong Kong. We’ve had that naked corpse of a 15 year-old female protester found floating at sea; that 22 year-old protester who died from a three-storey fall under mysterious circumstances. Juries have delivered open verdicts on both deaths, so we have to live with unanswered questions. Yet even this is progress. As former legislator Chan Chi-chuen rightly observes, “even though truth still eludes us, at least we succeeded in staving off falsehood, managing to do so even as the government pulled out all the stops in trying to get a finding of accidental death delivered.” This is an attitude Tan would have applauded. After all, he spent almost 15 years bringing his self-financed landlord project to fruition all the while evading the CCP.
It’s only now – after my experience of the extradition law protests in 2019 – that I’ve come to understand one detail about that lecture Tan gave in Hong Kong. Towards the end of his talk, using an overhead projector, Tan presented the names of all the victims he’d found over the course of his interviews. “None of them should be forgotten,” he remarked. It’s only now, when Hong Kong is on its own truth expedition and, as a writer, I have to look at horror in the face, that I understand the therapeutic value of commemorating CCP victims: remember them and their deaths become meaningful, as this may prevent history from repeating, perhaps even stopping others from coming to the same fate.