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China Marks Communism Half Century

September 26, 1999

BEIJING (AP) _ It’s just a YMCA meeting, Feng Lanrui recalls telling her parents when they asked what their 16-year-old daughter was whispering about with friends in her bedroom back in 1937.

The Y meeting was a cover. Feng, daughter of a minor official in China’s Nationalist government, and her friends were talking about the urban underground communist movement, fired by a passion to save their country from Japanese invaders.

Far from Feng’s comfortable city home, poor, teen-age cowherd Xia Jingcai joined Mao Tse-tung’s Red Army on its 6,000-mile Long March from south China to the north, drawn by the communist force’s recruiting slogan: ``Kill the rich to help the poor.″

China’s communist revolution was born of urban intellectuals like Feng and nurtured by rural peasants like Xia. Behind today’s patriotic fervor celebrating communism’s triumph 50 years ago _ on Oct. 1, 1949 _ lie lives of tumult and dedication.

Feng, Xia and other veteran revolutionaries lived through the heady years of communism’s early promise, famine and political persecution that killed millions. And then the capitalist reforms that have brought rapid development and improved living standards but also an epidemic of corruption and other social ills.

``I was a pretty strong-willed person. My parents gave us a lot of freedom and didn’t mind much what we did,″ Mrs. Feng, now 79, said in an interview in her dim, high-ceilinged study, where glass-fronted bookcases are packed two books deep and the walls are decorated with calligraphy and a portrait of the late Premier Zhou Enlai.

Feng’s independence offended strict traditional Chinese teachers and foreign Protestant missionary teachers alike and got her expelled from three schools. An uncle once imprisoned by the Nationalists gave her books from the Soviet Union. At a book group, she read articles about Chinese revolutionary leaders.

``At first we didn’t understand it, but we knew it was secret. I hid it under my pillow,″ she said.

After Japan’s full-scale invasion in 1937 forced the Red Army and the Nationalists into an uneasy alliance, Feng and her friends openly tried to rally support for the fight. At night at her home in the southwestern city of Chongqing, the Nationalists’ wartime base, they printed communist propaganda.

Feng joined the Communist Party secretly in 1938 at age 17. Three times she evaded arrest once the Nationalist authorities learned she was a party member.

``The third time my comrades told me, `Look, Zhou Enlai would negotiate for you if you were important, but you’re not, so you have to get out,‴ she said.

She was smuggled to Yan’an, Mao’s base in the northern province of Shaanxi, in 1940. Feng spent nearly five years there studying, teaching and writing.

Long Marcher Xia arrived in the arid hills near Yan’an in 1935 amazed to be alive. Only about 8,000 of the 80,000 soldiers who set out with Mao on the trek were alive when it ended just over a year later. Of the 30 men who started with Xia from his part of southwestern Guizhou province, only one other made it.

Red Army soldiers retreating from the Nationalists subsisted on one meal a day, usually little more than pumpkins, coarse sorghum and red-hot peppers or grain seized from rural landlords. Even Mao and the other commanders slept on roughhewn wood beds covered with straw. Men fought with spears when they had no guns.

Many drowned crossing rivers, froze to death or suffered altitude sickness in snow-covered mountains, Xia remembers. Severely wounded men were often left behind.

``I never saw shoes. Just straw sandals,″ said Xia, a thin and vigorous man of 78 who lives in a retirement home for revolutionaries in Ji’an, in Jiangxi province in southern China.

Too young at 14 to be a soldier, he was a messenger, bugler and nurse’s assistant. He was never seriously wounded, but once got so sick he fell behind. Luckily, he managed to catch up while his platoon took a break.

``The commander said, `What’s wrong with you? Here, grab this horse’s tail and hang on.′ He saved my life.″

While Xia later fought the Japanese and then the Nationalists, Feng worked in communist-held areas as a writer. She left Yan’an on foot with friends, singing and chatting as they walked 20 miles a day for a month to the communist-controlled city of Zhangjiakou. She married Li Chang, a Yan’an alumnus and soldier, but saw him only a few times during the civil war years.

Feng was setting up a youth newspaper in Shanghai when Mao stood atop Beijing’s Gate of Heavenly Peace to announce the founding of communist China on Oct. 1, 1949.

``I was 29, not old and not young,″ she said. ``We didn’t think then that establishing a country would be all that difficult. We were so simple then.″

After working as a reporter and editor, in the mid-1950s Feng studied economics at the Communist Party School in Beijing and researched Marxist theory.

Like many veteran communists, she and her husband suffered during the Cultural Revolution, when the aging Mao pitted various factions against each other in vicious political campaigns.

Feng had been the only person to speak up for a colleague who was condemned in the anti-rightist campaign of the late 1950s, which targeted those who had dared to criticize Mao. That was used against her during the Cultural Revolution, the decade-long upheaval that began in 1966 when Mao stirred up zealous youths to attack teachers, government officials, intellectuals, religious believers and those associated with traditional culture.

Feng’s husband was a government official in charge of foreign liaison. He and his wife suffered for his association with high-ranking officials who were purged.

``We were accused of many things: Being `capitalist roaders,′ opposing socialism and Mao and the Communist Party,″ she said.

Radical Red Guards ransacked their house six times, hauling away research materials and mementos. She was sent to a work camp for officials. Her husband did hard labor in prison. Their 3-year-old son went to a baby-sitter in another province. Three older children and Feng’s little sister, whom she was raising, followed millions of other youths to the countryside.

``We always believed it would all someday be resolved. If you got angry, you would be angry to death,″ Feng said.

After Mao died in 1976, Feng and Li were among the many whose names were cleared. They went to work at the government-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. She focused on economics and was one of the first to warn about unemployment _ formerly a taboo topic.

Xia also suffered during the Cultural Revolution, despite his Red Army background. He had just quit the army and been named director of a paper mill when the Cultural Revolution began. Radicals jeered at him in public and forced him to wear a sign around his neck branding him an opponent of the revolution.

Xia allows that the Cultural Revolution was ``a little excessive,″ but says that at the time he felt he was being tested.

``For the Chinese revolution to succeed it has to go through struggles,″ he said.

He still hopes for an egalitarian China and has no complaints about living simply.

After more than 20 years of successful capitalist-style reforms, few Chinese still share Mao’s vision of a communist utopia. The gap between rich and poor is widening. Today’s goals are to make a decent living, get ahead, get rich.

Feng worries about the ill effects of modernization: corruption, income disparities and inadequate social welfare. But after 61 years in the Communist Party, she remains optimistic.

``There’s always change,″ she said. ``History always develops.″

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