By Emily Wan
In light of the recent death of Li Rui, the Chinese revolutionary who served as Mao Zedong’s secretary before his condemnation for criticism of the Communist Party, Hoover Institution Library & Archives convened a symposium on Monday to discuss his legacy in the modern debate about Chinese history and censorship.
Titled “From Old Guard Communist to Party Critic: Li Rui, His Life and His Legacy,” the panel was moderated by Eric Wakin, Director of the Hoover Library and Archives. One of the four speakers was Nanyang Li, Li Rui’s daughter and Hoover Institution visiting fellow, who spoke about her father’s life and the Li Rui Material Collection that recently arrived at Hoover. The materials were displayed at the event for attendees to view after the panel.
Li traced her father’s career in the Communist Party of China (CCP) as a passionate youth who worked for a succession of top officers, including Mao Zedong, before being expelled from the party’s inner circle and imprisoned for eight years after criticizing the Great Leap Forward.
She said that though she and her father had their conflicts. “I admire him so, so much as a man” for his fortitude and strength during his years of solitary confinement.
Li Rui was rehabilitated and allowed back into the party after Deng Xiaoping took power in 1978 and, after his return, helped Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping to success, though he later criticized them harshly.
In 1997, Li Rui reunited with his daughter after 20 years of estrangement. The pair worked to gather and preserve records of materials from Li Rui’s life. He wished for them to be kept at Hoover Institution as a resource for people seeking to understand why China has failed to achieve a constitutional system.
The collection includes his letters, meeting minutes, work notes, diaries, poetry and photographs. Alongside the original materials are photocopy reprints, digital scanned files and transcription files for ease of access. Nanyang Li described the timeline of the process, which began in 2002 and was completed on Feb. 14, two days before Li Rui’s death.
She showed pictures of collection materials which she believes provide valuable insight into the naiveté and innocent hope of the young people devoted to the CCP, qualities overlooked in modern criticism of that generation, as well as other important records of various stages of the CCP.
“The first educated youth who pursued the CCP were naive, full of dreams for shiny prospects,” Li said. “So many people blamed my father’s generation for leading China the wrong way, but if you read those diaries you would understand why they do this, why they believe the CCP. Because they were so naive.”
Orville Schell, the Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York, continued the discussion on a larger scale of the value of history and the archives and libraries that preserve it.
“They are the best antibody against authoritarianism,” he said. “One of the great hallmarks of authoritarianism or totalitarian government is the manipulation, distortion and even the erasure of history.”
He described censorship in modern China as a way for the government to escape responsibility for its past actions.
“[It’s a] problem of guilt, historical distortion and how to remedy it,” he said. “How do you bring a society to come to terms with what it’s just done to others, or in China’s case, bizarrely, to itself?”
In the case of China studies, he said, digitalization has endangered historical material, as libraries increasingly throw away hard-copy archives in favor of digital archives, submitting content to censorship and even deletion by the Chinese government.
“It contaminates the whole system,” he said. “It pollutes history by distorting it.”
He cautioned that scholars who faithfully work from sources subjected to state censorship may be inadvertently promoting the censors’ agenda, a deep issue that highlights the necessity of physical archives as opposed to purely digital ones.
The problem of bias is especially severe in the study of the history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), as was pointed out by Aminda M. Smith, an associate professor of history at Michigan State University whose courses incorporate Li Rui as an important component.
Smith suggested that disillusionment with the PRC and Mao Zedong has negatively shaped academic study of China, resulting in an oversimplified picture of its history and the people involved.
“It tempts us to put people into boxes: dissident, fool, victim, collaborator,” she said. “Those boxes do a disservice to so many people and their legacies, and this way of viewing the PRC also contributes to Mao Zedong’s hegemonic role in defining what Chinese communism was.”
Smith argued that Li Rui and many others wanted to “save Maoism from Mao” by preserving and developing its ideas independent of Mao’s own actions. Modern studies of PRC history, she said, neglect their commitment and efforts.
“No matter how you personally evaluate Mao Zedong, it would be a shame if he, and men like him, were to stand alone as representatives of a revolution that was also fought by men like Li Rui,” she said.
The panel concluded with Ian Johnson, a correspondent from The New York Times, who described Li Rui as a “patron saint” of the “unofficial history” movement in China for accurate and comprehensive preservation of history independent of the government’s official version. He said he has seen this movement develop not just among intellectuals, but among the general public.
He said that at all levels, people in China are searching for continuity after a tumultuous 20th century, turning to the past in order to make sense of the present, a desire that the CCP is trying to take advantage of.
“The Party is offering a kind of sanitized version of history that makes the party a champion of tradition, even though it was the principal driving force in destroying it,” he said.
Johnson said that Li Rui was a major player in the battleground of the conflict between the distortion and accurate preservation of history.
“This [conflict] seems to me to lie at the crux of this collection of materials, this archive and indeed the study of history as a whole, in which I ardently believe,” Schell said. “I don’t know any other way that men have of looking back on their manifold crimes and errors and correcting them, for the future doesn’t repeat itself.”
Contact Emily Wan at emilywan ‘at’ stanford.edu.