In recent years, there have been reports in the West that as many as one million Uighurs in Xinjiang have been sent to re-education camps for “rehabilitation,” which Chinese foreign ministry officials have vigorously denied. Ironically, these officials may be unaware that more than 50 years ago, a large number of Chinese diplomats were also sent to “reform” schools similar to today’s Xinjiang re-education camps.
The latest issue of the journal Foreign Policy features an article by Bloomberg’s Peter Martin. The article is an excerpt from his new book China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy.
The article mentions that at the height of the Cultural Revolution, thousands of Chinese diplomats were imprisoned in similar concentration camps. For many of the Chinese diplomats shipped to the camps, the experience left deep wounds, and for some, it even shook their faith in Communist doctrine.
That said, in 1968, Mao Zedong issued the so-called “May 7 Instruction” on May 7, which called for labor reform and ideological education for Chinese party and government cadres, among others. In order to implement the spirit of the “May 7 Instruction”, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council and other state organs established 106 farms in 18 provinces and autonomous regions, including Henan Province, and called them “May 7 Cadre Schools” (“Cadre Schools” is short for “Cadre Schools”). cadre schools” for short) and sent and resettled more than 100,000 decentralized cadres, 30,000 family members and 5,000 intellectual youths (children). More than 100,000 “trainees” were “reformed” in the “May 7 cadre schools” run by provinces, cities (localities) and counties, and 70% to 90% of the central government cadres were sent there.
These “schools” were actually labor camps. When they arrived, not knowing what would happen next, many diplomats thought they would spend the rest of their lives in the countryside.
Zhang Bing, a 30-year-old diplomat, was sent to one such camp in the spring of 1969. She was born in a rented bungalow in a northern Chinese village and dreamed of one day seeing the ocean, or even the world. She taught at a high school after graduating from college, but when her husband joined the Foreign Ministry in 1965, she began to spend her spare time studying, even taking her three-month-old child to classes. After just one year of preparation, she was accepted into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
As she embarked on the train to Beijing with her baby in her arms, Ms. Zhang imagined a future there and in the capitals of the world. However, after only a few years at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, she was sent to the Ministry’s 321st Cadre School in Taiping Village, Heilongjiang Province, which borders Siberia where the weather is bitterly cold. About 500 foreign affairs cadres, including those from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, and the Ministry’s internal think tank, were sent to Taiping Village and nearby villages.
Twenty people were crammed into Zhang Bing’s dormitory. They shared two large beds – hard, heated platforms to protect them from the biting winds of northern China. Zhang Bing and her “classmates” spread straw on the platforms and hung curtains to separate the men from the women. It was difficult to work at night because the colleagues snored, farted, swatted mosquitoes and talked in their sleep. They even feared that coyotes would invade at night.
Life was even harder during the day. They work in the fields and build bridges, roads and houses for the locals. The work was hard and none of them knew what they were doing. When they were not working, Zhang Bing and her colleagues engaged in re-education and self-criticism, studying Mao’s Quotations and analyzing the shortcomings of the so-called “revisionist ideology”.
These “reforms” were particularly difficult for older diplomats, who were often injured in the process. One prominent veteran revolutionary and social scientist, Chen Hansheng, was forced to deliver newspapers and clean the “school” toilets. Because of his nearsightedness, Chen had to put his face in the excrement-covered pits when he washed the toilets.
The food was also very bad back then. Due to the lack of fresh produce, the diplomats ate pickles. In exceptional cases, they only had bean sprouts to eat. Some had diarrhea and others were severely constipated. Most avoided taking laxatives to avoid spending too much time around maggot-filled open toilets.
But in the midst of adversity, there were some “moments of joy. One of Zhang Bing’s “classmates” got hold of an accordion that the Red Guards had taken from Vice Foreign Minister Ji Pengfei’s house and used to play music in worship of the president. Her colleagues were allowed to leave the camp and perform in nearby towns and villages.
By November 1969, with tensions between China and the Soviet Union and cadres unable to grow any crops in their fields, Zhang’s entire camp was uprooted and moved to Mao’s hometown of Hunan.
Zhang Bing’s story is not an uncommon one. Another diplomat in a camp in Hubei remembers that “classmates” ate carrots for every meal and became malnourished. They again had to fetch water from a hole next to the public toilet. In some camps, diplomats were used to pull plows instead of oxen. Vice Foreign Minister Chen Jiakang even died in a “May 7 Cadre School.
Occasionally, when extra staff was needed, Zhang Bing and other “classmates” were called back to the ministry. But even returning to Beijing could be a humiliation. At a banquet for Pakistani dignitaries in Beijing, Zhang Bing was called back to staff a meal she served to Muslim guests that included pork, but no one told her about it. As a result, Zhang Bing had to write a self-critical review: “I don’t have even the most basic knowledge of diplomacy, I embarrassed the Foreign Ministry and the Chinese people!”
In 1971, the May 7 Cadre School began to be dismantled. Zhang Bing stayed until 1972, when she became ill and was sent to Beijing. When she was assigned to train for a new job at the ministry a few months later, she felt as if she had nothing to contribute. She asked herself, “If they send me back to the Foreign Ministry, what can I do? How can someone who only shouts slogans, writes big letters and does menial work in the fields become a diplomat?”
Zhang Bing went on to hold diplomatic posts in Sweden, Canada and New Zealand, fulfilling her dream of seeing the world. Still, her experience at the May 7 Cadre School left her with a sense of unease. She wrote after her retirement, “I have thought hundreds of times, is history real, or is it just a story? How should I, as an ordinary Party member, treat the Party’s history? ‘The May 7 soldiers are glorious. The May 7th Road is heroic.’ These are all lies that deceive people.”