Another kind of Chinese History
The party history does not recount the story of Guan Yuqian, a former interpreter at the Ministry of Finance in Beijing. But his experience, which he describes in two recent books, captures the pain and trauma of tens of thousands of people during those traumatic three decades.
Born in Guangzhou in 1931 and growing up in Shanghai, Guan first served as an interpreter to the Soviet advisers who came to China in the 1950s. In 1957, after voicing opinions deemed not acceptable, he was designated a 'rightist' and sent to a labor camp in Qinghai, the Chinese Siberia.
In the 1960s, after rehabilitation, Guan was sent to the Finance Ministry in Beijing, where he worked in the protocol department handling foreign visitors. During the Cultural Revolution, he was detained again and confined to his office. Red Guards told him that a mass criticism session would discuss his 'crimes' and decide his fate.
Unable to face being sent back to labor camp, Guan looked for a razor to commit suicide. Instead, he found the passport of several Japanese, including Kazuturu Saionji, son of Kinkazu Saionji, a graduate of Oxford University and pro-Chinese parliamentarian who had moved to Beijing in 1958; the passport had a visa for the Egyptian capital Cairo.
He noticed that he bore a striking resemblance to Kazuturu and decided to try to escape by assuming his identity. He booked an air ticket on his behalf and went to the airport the next day. In the toilet, he changed his blue Mao outfit for a western suit and tie, switched the photographs in the passport and walked to the immigration desk, wearing glasses and a face mask. "My chance of failure was 99 percent," he said. "I was terrified."
Guan knew the passport officer, named Liu, but the man did not recognize him because of the glasses and face mask. "Is this your passport?" "Yes". "Fine, have a safe journey." Two Czech businessmen who were traveling with him left him in a hotel in Cairo, where he did not know a soul.
When he came down to the lobby on the first day, a man with a beard stepped forward and announced that he was under arrest. He was taken to a city prison and informed that he would be repatriated to China for judgment.
"In an Arab prison, every day seemed like a year. The International Red Cross asked me if I wanted to go to the US. I refused since it was hostile to China. I was a patriot and did not want to take part in anti-China activities. I asked for a neutral country. It would be better to die in a Chinese prison than an Egyptian one, so I started a hunger strike to be sent back to China."
A few days later, he was informed that West Germany had agreed to accept him. He went to work in an Asian research institute in Hamburg, which asked him to write his first paper, on the Cultural Revolution.
He went on to obtain an MA and then a PhD in languages and literature at Hamburg University and took up a teaching post he has held until today. He translated two books of Lu Xun into German.
"Those who conducted class struggle did of course not consider the feelings of people," he said. "When the revolutionaries from the mountains saw people like me, a graduate from Shanghai, they could not accept us.
"In 1957, we were encouraged to voice our opinions and many party members wrote 'big character posters'. Mao later said that this was a conspiracy to 'lure the snakes out of the holes'. At the time, no one could have imagined it."