Semantron 23 Summer 2023

The interior self in the surveillance state: the role of the personal diary in Maoist China

Edmund Irving

One of history’s great gifts is that it casts a light on the present. Life in Mao’s China presents a challenge to any student of liberal or democratic values who upholds the right of freedom of opinion and expression. The Chinese Communist Party’s grip ove r the masses, through force and indoctrination, completely subverts the western notion of the diary being a space to harbour private thoughts and instead turns it into a public space in which to visibly express adherence to Mao Zedong Thought. This essay focuses on the value of the diary to the individual and to the authoritarian regime before concluding that the erosion of the boundaries between public and private in China serves as a stark reminder of the importance of freedom of opinion and expression. The importance of the diary as a historical document is also examined due to the ambivalence surrounding its insight and reliability. Despite this, the diary remains of immense historical value. B. Michael Frolic’s Mao’s People – Sixteen Portraits of Life in Revolutionary China is a collection of stories gathered from 250 interviews conducted in Hong Kong between 1972 – 76. Common themes include ‘ the constraints imposed on common people by the bureaucracy ’ and ‘ the way in which individuals outwardly support the system and inwardly resist it ’. 1 The measures taken by the CCP to restrict privately-held resistance rendered the diary a quasi-public document that no longer functioned in its original purpose of recording an individual’s internal thoughts. One example, The One Man Whose Girlfriend Turned Him In: A Political Mistake That Cost a Career , concerns a nameless young deputy director of a department cadre whose downfall was a result of his actions in the 100 Flowers Movement of 1956 – 57. The anonymity of the individual confirms that the restrictions enforced by the regime affected countless citizens. Having initially decided against criticizing the CCP, he and fellow intellectuals attacked ‘ party cadres in the ministry ’. 2 This provoked students at the school he worked in to demand that those who attacked the party had to criticize themselves, only for his colleagues and girlfriend to then denounce him publicly. This forced the individual to write a self-criticism before being internally exiled to a rural area, away from political activity, to work as a labourer. While eventually reinstated in his original position, his ambitious dreams were permanently shattered.

As Hong Kong was under British control until 1997, its laws and liberal governing structures allowed this interview – a form of oral history – to unfold in a manner that was suppressed in mainland China.

1 Michael Frolic, B. Mao’s People . Mao’s People — B. Michael Frolic | Harvard University Press Consulted: 02/08/2022. 2 C. Kirby, William. HarvardX: China and Communism 42.3: Blooming a nd Contending: ‘Fragrant Flowers’ | Section 42: Fleurs du mal: Blooming & Contending in Early Communist China | China and Communism | edX Consulted: 20/07/22.


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