WILL the television news reporters ever give us an accurate picture of the reality of daily life in China? Last weekend, ABCTV’s Sunday News featured a report on China, 25 years after Mao’s death. What do the Chinese think of Chairman Mao, the reporter asked, and what does history have to say about the years of his rule over the millions of Chinese? To answer these questions, the network gave us the words of but one talking head an American named Sidney Shapiro, whom viewers were told was a World War II GI who, enamored with the country, went to China after the war.
That explanation of Shapiro is, of course, only part of the story. Shapiro, in fact, was an American expatriate who teamed up with the Communists in 1947. A citizen of China since 1963, Shapiro for years worked in Mao’s propaganda apparatus, editing for the Party’s Foreign Language Press, which indeed published his own 1997 autobiography, one of the few Western books in English sold in China’s major tourist hotels for Englishspeaking guests. A native New Yorker, Shapiro worked for the US Army, training Chinese translators. He moved to China himself in 1947, and married a Shanghai activist in the Communist Party. Eventually, Shapiro and his bride stood in Beijing to welcome Mao and his troops as the People’s Liberation Army entered the Chinese capital. So beloved and trusted was Shapiro that during the Cultural Revolution, all sides in the different factions left him alone, since whichever side won, they wanted Shapiro as one of their own. As for this major event and horror in China’s 20th Century history, Shapiro only writes that "mistakes were made," which of course, he blames not on Mao, but on China’s feudal past. And for the worst crimes, these for Shapiro are attributed to "opportunists" who were "holier than Mao."
Not only did Shapiro write and edit for the Communist Party, as an actor and member of the Party’s Writer’s Guild, he starred in agitprop films in which he played the role of guess what the evil American imperialist. Indeed, he admits freely that even during the worst period of the Cultural Revolution, life was never hard for him and his wife. The Party continued to protect him, and his rentfree home was regularly serviced by Partyprovided butlers and home keepers. And when he gets to the recent past, for example, what he lovingly calls the Tiananmen Square "incident," Shapiro argues only that all would have gone well had the students not got out of control.
Yet this Communist hack and Party propagandist, a relic from the Mao years, is picked by one of our major networks to inform American viewers about Mao’s legacy. As Shapiro said on Sunday’s broadcast, Mao cared for the people and served them well, and that is why the Chinese people love him. Indeed, Shapiro even went on to state that Mao’s legacy is the great new strong China of today, which is why all older citizens who remember Mao revere him. Not a word about the millions killed during the famine of "the Great Leap Forward" and in the fury of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
News anchor and editor Peter Jennings, or whomever allowed this report to air, might do well to have looked at two front page stories the very same day one in The New York Times, the other in The Washington Post. The latter featured a story by Philip P. Pan on life for coal miners in the worker’s paradise built by the Great Helmsman. Readers learn that miners perish at the rate of one every hour, as they work in mines with no safety devices and with no independent trade unions to protect them from abuse, as they toil in what Pan calls "Dickensian conditions," with no independent agencies that might "temper market forces." Of course, TV viewers see the neon lights of Shanghai, the fashion shows of the new Beijing clothing firms, and the skyscrapers serving foreign investors. They do not see the China reporter Pan writes about, in which workers toil for years without receiving any pay, and in which 10,000 miners die every single year on the job, producing one quarter of the world’s coal. Maybe Sidney Shapiro could bring John L. Lewis back and send him to China. Even in the worst days of our country’s depression, American miners never worked in conditions as horrible as those in today’s China, where in a good year, some manage to earn $50 a month, and where the backlog of salary owed is over $600 million. Even the Chinese press admits that trade unions exist "in name only."
ABC News might also have taken a look at Craig S. Smith’s report on the current use of torture and execution by the presentday regime of Jiang Zemin, who has instituted a new anticrime campaign in which almost two hundred people per day are regularly executed without evidence or trial. Smith interviewed one man lucky enough to save his own life. A former professor, Liu Minghe had been arrested and accused of killing a woman the police said was his mistress, even though he could easily prove he was somewhere else with friends the day the woman was murdered. Liu got off because he had connections made during his years of Party membership, as well as family that managed to scrape up more than $36,000 with which to bribe the authorities. But before he was released, he was subjected to brutal roundtheclock interrogations, during which time he was hung from his wrists with handcuffs, not allowed to eat or drink, or close his eyes. After three days of torture, he confessed, and of course, was not allowed any legal counsel or contact with the outside world. He was also confined in a 200footsquare room with over 26 other prisoners, never allowed outside, and had his hands and feet constantly in shackles.
What Craig Smith reports is nothing less than an officially sanctioned torture state, in which cases are "solved" quickly via the technique of extorting confessions through torture. Thus almost 7000 cases of murders, robberies and bombings were supposedly solved in Sichuan province in a sixday period last year. And provinces evidently vie for scoring points by showing a regular high monthly tally of death sentences. Some experts told Smith that the Chinese regime may in fact execute 10,000 people each year most of them killed without any chance to defend themselves, and many of them, if not all, completely innocent. And if you wonder how judges can approve these methods, evidently judges do not have to have any legal training. Instead, virtually anyone taxi drivers, veterinarians and the like can become judges, if they have close connections with Party or government officials.
It was Mao, of course, who instituted torture and murder as official Communist policy. An estimated five million people were put to death in the first few years of the new regime proclaimed by Mao, the same years that Sidney Shapiro first came to China and gave the Chairman his blind allegiance. And even before he got into power, Mao regularly killed thousands of his own troops and followers, concocting nonexistent deviations that had to be eradicated. And, as in Mao’s day, people are regularly arrested and executed at mass rallies. Last June, Smith writes, 5000 people attended one such event at which 13 people were sentenced to death and 8 immediately executed in front of the crowd. Most often, they are paraded in open trucks, driven to a desolate field, and shot in the back of the head. Sometimes their organs are removed and rushed to hospitals for sale in the international transplant network, and sometimes families do not even know their kin have been arrested. They simply disappear. Families learn what happened when State authorities phone asking them to claim the body, and to bring the money to pay for the bullet used to kill the person just executed. The people’s State, evidently, does not foot the bill for its brutal and illegal executions. That cost has to be borne by the families of the deceased.
Perhaps sometime, our network news reports might show us this China which at present, only newspaper readers can learn about. That reality, however, might leave a bad taste in the mouth of prospective tourists to China, as well as the mass of viewers looking forward eight years hence to watching the coverage of the Olympics. Instead, we see the façade of the modern country, and learn that Mao led the path to this wonderful new China. And people think some of us make too many complaints about the media.