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The Ordeal of a Cell-Bound China Watcher

June 24, 1987|DONALD BREMNER | Times Staff Writer

"They accused me of being a spy. That's an insult! It just got me so mad I had to fight."

Nien Cheng was reviled in rich detail by the Maoist Red Guards who broke into her Shanghai home in 1966 and by the jailers at the No. 1 Shanghai Detention House. But the charge of spying for foreign imperialists aroused the emotions that helped steel her for a 6 1/2-year prison ordeal and two decades later still make her bristle.

"I grew up with a strong sense of loyalty, and duty, to my country. I felt humiliated that they should accuse me, who loved my country, of being a spy. I could not accept it, I had to fight. In prison, sometimes I would get so mad--I was rarely depressed--by and large my predominant emotion was anger.

"But I had to warn myself, no matter how angry you are, never say anything against the Communist Party or Chairman Mao, or I would be sentenced."

Hope of Freedom

As a political prisoner during China's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, she not only had to survive cold, dampness, heat, poor food, illness and physical abuse, but also avoid further antagonizing her Maoist captors while withstanding constant pressure to confess "crimes" suspected by political zealots.

Her hope of freedom with self-respect lay in a change of political climate. Forced to be a cell-bound China watcher, she studied the Shanghai party paper each day for clues to political shifts that might mean the outs were making a comeback.

In Los Angeles recently to promote her just-published book, "Life and Death in Shanghai" (Grove Press: $19.95, 547 pages), Cheng turned easily to the factional struggle that convulsed China for most of the decade starting in 1966, and offered a critique of Beijing's course today.

"Most people talk about the human side of my book" she said, "but I'm more concerned with the political side."

For Cheng, now 72, being treated as a spy by Maoists ignored her choice of Communist China over Nationalist Taiwan, and belittled her traditional Chinese patriotism.

Born in Beijing, granddaughter of a scholar, daughter of a trained naval officer and government official, Cheng was one of many idealistic young Chinese who went abroad between the two world wars for Western education. The left-wing London School of Economics in the late 1930s introduced her to England's Fabian socialists, Communist theoreticians Marx and Engels, and a fellow Chinese student who was to be her husband.

War Years in Australia

The war years were spent in Australia, where Cheng's husband was a diplomat for Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Chinese government. Returning home with their young daughter in 1948, they were appalled at China under Chiang, and when Mao Tse-tung came to power in 1949, they believed, as did many leftist Chinese intellectuals, that the Communists might mean a new and better China. "We were ready at least to give the new government our good will," she said. They stayed when Chiang and the Nationalists fled to Taiwan.

Her husband became Shanghai manager for Shell Oil, one of the foreign companies the new Communist regime allowed to continue in China. When he died of cancer in 1957, she stepped in as the Chinese assistant for Shell's British manager in Shanghai.

The Red Guards who invaded her nine-room home with its three servants abruptly ended this comfortable life. They ransacked her house, smashing many of her prized porcelains and other art objects as remnants of the rotten society that had to be destroyed to make way for the new. Cheng was hauled off to a primitive cell.

"In the beginning I was so depressed, because I was isolated. I realized I needed human contact, so I would shout at the guards: 'When is the government going to clarify my case? You are not carrying out Chairman Mao's correct policy. Chairman Mao didn't tell you to lock up an innocent person who supports the Communist Party.'

"I could never say anything against the party or Chairman Mao, or I would be sentenced, so I always accused whoever I was confronted with of not carrying out Mao's correct policy.

"You know, they questioned all my friends and servants, and they could never find anybody who told them I said anything against the Communist Party."

Accused of Spying

Cheng was accused not just of criticizing the party, however, but of spying, and she demanded that her interrogators let her write a statement saying that if they could "find anybody in China from whom I have tried to obtain confidential information, you can shoot me."

"That wasn't just a maneuver," she said. "I really meant it. I believe in the death penalty for spies." She signed the pledge, and no evidence was found to refute it.

Her interrogators in prison repeatedly ordered her to confess her "crimes," write a complete self-criticism and implicate accomplices. Certain that she was guilty of no crimes, she puzzled over the real reasons for her incarceration.

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