A Chinese Parallel to My Soviet-Era Emigration Experience

In response to my memoir about emigrating from the Soviet Union, a Chinese-American reader e-mailed me the following [posted with permission of the author]:

Thank you for posting your memoir. I really enjoyed reading it. I can completely identify with your experiences, as my family also had to make its escape from a Communist country, China. My parents are professors who came to this country with nothing, and worked their way up by taking 2-3 menial labor jobs. Your anecdote about how adults never criticized the government in front of you had me nodding my head; my mother told me one of the big reasons why she wanted to leave the country was the ever-present tension between telling me the truth and risk me getting into trouble in school and not saying anything and watching me be brainwashed.

My parents have made similar statements to me, noting that telling me the truth in the USSR was even more dangerous than with most other children because I was never one to keep my opinions to myself.

This, of course, is not the first time that people have noticed parallels between the Russian and Chinese experiences with communism. Alexander Solzhenitsyn made the same comparison many years ago, as did various others. The two regimes adopted very similar policies and institutions: a one party state, government ownership of the economy, a vast network of secret police, collectivization of agriculture, and stultifying censorship and political repression, among others.

At the macro level, this led to massive death and suffering, with Mao Zedong possibly exceeding the world record for mass murder previously set by Stalin. At the micro level the similarity is reflected in stories like the above. Two small incidents from my own family history further illustrate the point:

In the 1950s, when the two big communist powers were still allies, my grandfather had some Chinese students at the scientific research center where he worked. After relations between the two regimes soured in the 1960s, he learned that at least one of the students had spent years in a brutal “reeducation camp” during the Cultural Revolution, in part because he had previously been in the USSR. China’s reeducation camps were of course largely based on Soviet models.

In the late 1970s, my father was required to run a political education session at his workplace. By this time, he had become disillusioned with communism and had already applied to emigrate. So he picked as his subject the “errors” of the “dogmatic” Chinese communists. He saw it as an indirect way of criticizing the USSR’s own very similar rulers without running afoul of the authorities.