Should any of us ever find ourselves in such an unfathomable position, let us hope we are too prove as unbreakable as Xu Hongci.
With an escalating war of words between the Trump administration and North Korea, there’s a legitimate fear that we could be a mere tweet away from global catastrophe, though that terrifying prospect is currently only grounded in speculation. For those who managed to survive the years during which Mao Zedong effectively destroyed the whole of China through his warped take on communism, the daily horrors were very real. From the mass food shortages and subsequent famines that saw hundreds of thousands die to the Great Leap Forward and so-called Cultural Revolution, the decades under Mao’s rule were brutally oppressive, rife with paranoia and the constant looming fear of imprisonment or worse with the utterance of anything that could be perceived as being anti-party line.
For those unlucky individuals branded as rightists, enemies of the dictatorship of the proletariat or simply suspected of possibly harboring anti-Maoist thoughts, the best they could hope for was dismissal from the party and an extended stay at one of the many labor camps that sprouted up across the country under the aegis of being facilities designed to help reform those unwilling to fall in line. Xu Hongci was just such an individual, his story told in the engrossing No Wall Too High. A bright medical student with a devotion to the basic tenants of communism as espoused by Marx, he had the temerity to, when asked directly by the party, air his grievances with regard to how the country was being governed.
Ostensibly a free forum within which to express concerns and thoughts for how to better the implementation of communism, it instead served as a means by which to out those not entirely satisfied with the preaching of Mao. For this, Xu was sentenced to six years in a labor camp oxymoronically referred to as the Eternal Happiness Farm, part of the larger White Grass Ridge labor camp system. Here he and his fellow dissidents were subjected to all manner of demeaning and degrading treatment and so-called “self-criticisms,” one of the many ways in which the communist party sought to break down and humiliate individuals. Never one to be contained, Xu almost immediately begins planning his first of many escape attempts, vanishing into the darkness only to be caught a short time later.
This pattern continued for a number of years as Xu was subsequently transferred from one labor camp to another, each becoming bleaker and more foreboding. At each, the cadres in charge became increasingly sadistic in their treatment of those imprisoned, either through inhumane working conditions within the depths of the mines, the heavy iron-clad shackles the more escape-prone were saddled with or the hair-trigger tempers that saw even the slightest slip-up as something worthy of setting an example. Given his history of escaping, Xu was one of the primary targets for the cadres’ ire, spending a great deal of time shackled, in restricting cells and subjected to debilitating working conditions. Able to leverage his medical training, however, he did manage to occasionally work his way up to a position in which he could help his fellow prisoners. Yet, given the overwhelming desire for those imprisoned to ingratiate themselves with those overseeing the camps, he was also the subject of many a backstabbing and fabricated accusation. By the time all was said and done, Xu would find himself facing 20 years in the menacingly named 507 Agro-machinery Factory.
It was here that he would spend the bulk of his 14 years imprisoned. But it was also here that he steeled his resolve to escape once and for all, fleeing to some semblance of freedom away from his homeland. Taking Xu’s handwritten memoir and interspersing it with historical context and the political and social changes that were unknown to him at the time, translator Erling Hoh helps flesh out the already riveting tale of, as the subtitle indicates, one man’s daring escape from Mao’s darkest prison. With virtually no detail left unshared—many of which are decidedly not for the squeamish—Xu provides a fascinating look not only at his harrowing escape, but also at the realization that the party and ideologies he had originally supported were in fact a cancer that was destroying all of China.
With the ending a foregone conclusion, the tension is in the story of his escape and what he had to endure in order to gain his freedom. It’s a startling look behind the scenes at some of the worst human atrocities ever committed in the name of a political ideology. With millions having lost their lives, Xu’s story is quite literally a one-in-a-million tale of the lengths we will go to stand up for the things we believe in. An extreme example, it nonetheless shows that real dissent in the face of tyranny is far more than simple sloganeering and social media posturing. Should any of us ever find ourselves in such an unfathomable position, let us hope we are too prove as unbreakable as Xu Hongci, learning from his example of self-preservation through a strict adherence to the strength of his own beliefs in the face of overwhelming opposition.