The Most Effective Kind of Education

While there are many historical problems worthy of exploring in the study of history, I personably believe that one of the most important is an attempt to understand the process by which humans come to accept violence as legitimate. History has no monopoly on this, it is a deeply interdisciplinary issue. A second related, and equally interdisciplinary issue is to better understand the many different reasons why someone comes to accept some or all of the claims made by the institutions of power. This too, as a question of trust, is ultimately tied to legitimacy.

Like most movements aspiring to power, the Communist Party of China was also deeply interested in these questions, especially, of course, the latter. In looking through internal reports of the Treason Elimination Department (锄奸部) in Shandong from the 1930s and 1940s, I am fascinated by their emphasis on measuring and reporting not merely the elimination of the treason in question, but in the response to that elimination by the people. How did the masses respond? How many people were “mobilized” (发动) by public trial x or execution y?

I recently came across yet another source which has helped me think about, and continue to be puzzled about the two issues I opened with.

Last week I read the memoir of Sam Ginsbourg, a Russian Jew born in Siberia, but raised in Harbin, Vladivostok, and Shanghai. I’m mostly interested in Ginsbourg as a source of background information on his older brother Mark Gayn (Mark changed his name after moving to the United States), one of the most important journalists and first hand sources reporting on the complex political events of occupation Japan and Korea in the early aftermath of World War II.

Though I may post more on Mark some other time, Sam is also a very interesting figure. In 1947, as the Chinese Civil war was heating up, he travelled from Shanghai to Communist occupied Yantai (Chefoo), in Shandong province. He became a passionate supporter of Communism and a Chinese citizen in 1953. Ginsbourg took up a career in Shandong as a professor of Russian language and, whenever his card was up in political movements, as a bourgeois intellectual or Russian spy.

At least half of his memoir My First Sixty Years in China, published in 1982, deals with the long history of Communist political movements he experienced. In most cases, and especially during the Cultural Revolution, Ginsbourg found himself among the targets for attack. His own suffering and the ridiculousness of the accusations made against him and some of those close to him are described, albeit in a somewhat muted tone. Although I only skimmed through some of his encounters, it appears that he didn’t fare too badly. He wasn’t killed, and he doesn’t seem to have been severely beaten or subjected to long periods in labor camps. “On the whole,” he says, “the movements were a necessary political and ideological foundation for rapid economic growth.”1

His closing chapter is set up as a response to a visiting American academic who tries to get him to express regret for having moved to the liberated areas in 1947 and stayed through the tumultuous decades that followed. I am not too surprised to see him defend his home, his friends, and his entire way of life in those pages, rejecting the outsider’s arrogance and looking forward with great optimism at the future. All that was missing were the cute baby chickens shown in final scene of the movie To Live (活着).

More jarring however, was Ginsbourg’s display of that characteristic disconnect between what Ginsbourg himself experienced, and acts of violence he witnessed against those he did not know personally. Whereas he knows he was not himself a Russian spy, and that the President of Shandong University was probably not guilty of the many reactionary crimes he was accused of when he was purged, he doesn’t seem able to extend the same sort of skepticism to many other cases.

We see this when he describes a realization he has as he watched, in 1950, two “reactionaries” being delivered to the execution ground.

I reflected with satisfaction how far I had come since the autumn of 1947, when I had felt shock at the sight of a woman landlord being dragged to execution. Not an iota of pity or perturbation stirred me in 1950. I felt nothing but hatred for the two who were in the truck.”2

Later at Qingdao stadium (From Brazzaville to Kabul, from Pyongyang to Kigali, stadiums serve well for executions when you want to maximize impact) with, he claims, 50,000 in attendance, he watched the trial of two “ringleaders” of a secret religious society.

The woman – the abbess of a monastery – had caused the death of several ‘believers’, cheating hundreds of others of large sums of money and committed other crimes. The old man had raped sixty nuns of his nunnery, some of whom had died.

After the trial the two of them were led, or rather dragged, around the track of the stadium for everybody to see. As they rounded the huge arena, a roar of shouts followed them until they were hauled onto trucks and driven off.

The movement taught me and, I believe, others – who like myself had been born and had grown up in towns, especially those coming from well-to-do families – how horrible were the crimes that had been committed and were still being committed against the common people, how deep was the popular hatred toward the evildoers and how just the deserts. It was the best, the most practical, the most effective kind of education; and I have always thought myself lucky to have gone through it.3

Is it possible the two “ringleaders” were in fact murderers and rapists? It is certainly possible. For example, my own reading of reports from the period suggests that the Party often capitalized on the huge anger felt by local villagers against an infamous bandit or local puppet military commander. Punishing real evildoers is not just good justice, it is good politics. And yet it is just as possible that, like so many thousands of victims of the campaigns against religious organizations and secret societies in the late 1940s and early 1950s, these two leaders of religious societies had committed only the crime of leading an organization targeted by the party for complete liquidation or full co-optation. Accusing the leaders of outlandish and horrific crimes is the fastest way to demoralize and discredit such an organization, setting into motion a wave of self-criticisms and struggle sessions for other members who might then emerge cleansed of their crime of association – at least until the next movement needed a target.

Writing his memoir towards the end of his long life in China, Sam Ginsbourg wrote about that encounter and his realization at that moment without adding a word of doubt or reflection from the perspective of someone who had been a far more fortunate victim of criminal accusations. It seems that, indeed, it was a most effective kind of education.

  1. Sam Ginsbourg, My First Sixty Years in China (Beijing: Foreign Language Press Beijing, 1982), 247.  

  2. Ibid., 209.  

  3. Ibid., 210.  

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful piece.
    The people who I live with and talk to in contemporary China tend to have much less extreme experiences, but there is still a tendency to fail to reason from the little injustices they face to the greater injustice of a country whose legal system is skewed against them.
    But this is hardly unique to China – there is lots of evidence from Britain about people perceiving good service from hospitals and lower crime rates in their own area, but still being convinced that the country is going to the dogs.
    It’s a kind of acceptance that one’s own experience is individual, not necessarily unique; and a refusal to allow that singular experience to count against a deeply held belief. Good statistics, in many ways.

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