Kechun Li, a former actress from China, shares below a story about her uncle who suffered and died under the communist regime after its rise to power in 1949. Li was inspired to share her uncle’s story because she believes the world should know the truth about the evils of communism and the crimes committed by the Chinese communist regime against millions of innocent people in China. Her writing has been edited for clarity.
During my trip to China in 2013, I discovered some shocking truths about my uncle, who passed away four decades ago during the Cultural Revolution. Sadly, I never had the chance to meet this remarkable man, and I didn’t know much about him throughout my childhood.
But during the last three weeks of my trip, I met my uncle’s daughter, who told me more about her father. Listening to the stories of my uncle’s tragic life has been an overwhelming and heart-wrenching experience. I am saddened by how he suffered and died as a political prisoner—it was an injustice to him and to his family. The ugly truth is that my uncle was targeted by the communist regime because he was born into a privileged family, was well-educated, and had a promising future—before his life was cut short.
His name was Zhang Deji. My uncle passed away in a labor camp where he was detained after he served 20 years in prison. All that was left of him—a shirt and a blanket—was sent to his older sister in Chengdu City in southwestern China, instead of his ex-wife and daughter in Beijing. My aunt had a nervous breakdown when she received the package from the labor camp. Without opening the package, she held it against her chest and huddled in a dark corner at home, trembling and repeating to herself and her children: “Your uncle is in it … your uncle is in it.”
This was not the first time that my aunt had lost a loved one. She went through a traumatic experience when she lost her husband, who was arrested and sentenced to a labor camp in 1957. No one in the family ever saw or heard from him again. He was accused of being a counterrevolutionary and died in the camp in 1962.
I had a chance to meet my uncle’s daughter—my cousin, Kaiyu—while I was visiting Beijing at a Hilton hotel. Kaiyu and I chatted for four hours in the hotel’s dining hall and she cried for most of the time. She was only a toddler when her father was arrested and sentenced to prison. Kaiyu remembered visiting her father in jail—it was the only place where she could spend time with him. Her mother would take her there, and they were only allowed to see him for a very short time each week, 15 minutes in total.
Kaiyu showed me an old black-and-white photo of my uncle when he was still a free man. He looked healthy and handsome. He was thin and tall, had big clear eyes and full lips, a broad forehead that is considered in Chinese physiognomy a sign of intelligence, and large ears that are a sign of being blessed with good fortune. He was dressed in plain Chinese clothing. After the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took over China in 1949, people were not allowed to wear Western-style suits because those who did were criticized as being Western sympathizers and harassed by those who claimed they were the real revolutionaries. Before the communist takeover, Western fashion represented success, progress, and sophistication.
My uncle and my mother went to school together at the University of West China in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. The school was founded in 1910 by five Christian organizations after the Boxer Rebellion, and one of a handful of Catholic universities in China. Classes at school were taught in English—mostly by American professors and some Chinese scholars who were educated in the United States. My uncle was charming, wealthy, and popular among the girls in school. He inherited his fortune from his share of my grandfather’s estate. He was the third-eldest son of 12 boys in the family.
My uncle was only 15 years old when his father passed away in 1938. My grandfather was a lieutenant general and a warlord in Sichuan. Before he passed away at the age of 46 from a heart attack, he had divided his estate between all his sons and daughters—unusual because, traditionally, family assets were usually passed on to sons only. A portion of my uncle’s inheritance was agricultural land, but I don’t know how much land he inherited. My grandfather and his army were recruited to join forces with the Kuomintang to fight against the Communist Party’s Red Army in 1933 (during China’s civil war), and later the Japanese in the Sino-Japanese War.
My uncle graduated from the university in 1948. In 1950, he continued his education in Beijing and majored in economics. He spoke fluent English. After graduation, he worked for the Ministry of Commerce in the early 1950s. He had a promising future.
Trouble with the authorities began when my uncle was accused of a crime he did not commit. His wife told me the story during one of our phone calls. Fortunately, I was able to talk with my aunt several times before she passed away in 2015. My husband and I returned to China for Chinese New Year in 2015 and attempted to meet my aunt but she had already passed away one week before our trip. My aunt said my uncle was accused of causing the death of one of the peasants who leased land from my uncle, and that this incident occurred when my grandfather was still alive. One summer, my grandfather’s right-hand man (hired by my grandfather to manage his property and land) went to the countryside to collect a percentage of harvested crops from a peasant—an old man—who was supposed to pay back a loan. My uncle, who was 13 years old at the time, was invited to come along. The old man died later of unknown causes.
In 1954, 18 years after the old man died, my uncle was accused of causing his death even though there was no evidence. There was no trial, but my uncle was convicted and accused of being an “evil landlord” by causing the old man’s death. He was sentenced to life in prison. The accuser was the old man’s grandson, who had joined the People’s Liberation Army (PLA, China’s military) and turned my uncle over to the marshal court. Communist China does not have true courts of law.
Shortly after the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was founded (after the CCP won the civil war), the CCP began confiscating properties and executing people who were landlords and Kuomintang military officers. The movement was called “clean up the bandits and counter-strike on landlords.” The marshal court acted as enforcers and handled all the “criminal” cases. All high-ranking Kuomintang officers—above the rank of captain—were executed. Those below the rank of captain—such as lieutenants, sergeants, and common soldiers—ended up in Chinese prisons, sentenced to forced labor camps, or placed under house arrest.
Those who escaped China were able to avoid torture, humiliation, persecution, and death. My mother once told me there were executions every night in Chengdu, where I was born. And one night, 300 hundred people were executed. Anyone who owned land, property, or a business was persecuted and their assets confiscated. Individuals and their family members could be labeled as “class enemies” as well. In the early 1950s, my father’s side of the family immediately lost everything because my grandfather’s wealth and reputation were so prominent. My mother’s side of the family also lost all their assets at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966.
My uncle had managed to survive 20 years in prison. He could not claim his innocence while he was in prison or in the labor camp, but had to “confess” his “sins” to display a good attitude and show remorse that it was a “vice” to inherit land and assets from his father. The Chinese law for prosecution states: “Leniency is granted for those who confess. Severity is applied to those who resist.” He had long denied that he was falsely convicted for causing the death of the old peasant, so his sentence was reduced to 20 years. Under Chinese law, prisoners were forced to work at labor camps after their imprisonment to “reform” their thoughts and behavior to conform with orders from the new leaders and to be accepted by the revolutionary society.
Kaiyu never saw her father again after he was transferred from Beijing to another prison in Sichuan in 1966. She was only 14 years old. She could not visit him at the new location because she needed a special permit to travel across the country. At that time, people had to get permission from authorities to travel within China. Kaiyu was bullied by children in school and in the neighborhood. For more than two decades, young people were encouraged to cut off relationships with family members who were considered “class enemies,” so it was difficult for Kaiyu to keep in contact with her father. I would have asked more questions, but when I looked at my cousin’s sad face, I choked up and could not bring myself to speak.
While in the labor camp, my uncle developed a lung disease. He might have survived if he had received proper medical care. The conditions are unimaginable in Chinese labor camps: an intolerable physical and psychological atmosphere, poor nutrition, and contaminated living conditions. Despite being treated inhumanely, my uncle worked hard in the labor camp. He was recognized for his work in breeding healthy rabbits. As a reward for his hard work, the labor camp was going to release my uncle. However, the disease took his life. My uncle was known as a truly good man; one of my uncle’s former inmates told this to my uncle’s older sister and her family in Chengdu. When my uncle passed away in 1975, my cousin Kaiyu had to undergo “re-education” in the countryside in Inner Mongolia.
My uncle never lost hope while he was still alive. He believed that he would one day be reunited with his only daughter. He wanted to be a devoted father and to pass on traditional values that had been eradicated under the communist regime to Kaiyu. However, he knew that he would not have a home to return to in Beijing if he were released from prison. It was a beautiful home, a sprawling Chinese-style mansion with 19 rooms and a courtyard, located in the most prestigious area near the Forbidden City, the home of imperial family members and high government officials during the Qing Dynasty. My uncle also understood that his wife had to file for divorce because their situation brought humiliation and pressure from society—from her employer, colleagues, neighbors, and the authorities.
Kaiyu found on a map the town where her father was sentenced to hard labor in Sichuan. It was located on a mountain ridge on the border between Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. My cousin doesn’t know where her father was buried. My other cousins made a trip to an unmarked graveyard years later where my uncle was supposedly buried, but they couldn’t identify his grave site. Kaiyu has never attempted to find her father’s grave. She said revisiting the past would have been too painful for her and she would rather move on with her life. And now she has a son to care for.
My uncle’s death has remained hidden and without closure. No one has fought for his rights or against his unjust persecution. I couldn’t put the pieces of the puzzle together for a long time even though I had heard of this uncle whom I had never met. This is the most devastating fact that I have ever faced since I lost my parents. I went through an extremely painful grieving process. My parents had barely survived the persecution during the Cultural Revolution, but my uncle didn’t make it.
My maternal grandfather died within a month from a stroke after he was beaten by the Red Guards, and his family members were also beaten. He committed no crime but only spoke against the communists, saying that people had been better off under the Kuomintang and starved under the communists. This occurred during and after the Great Leap Forward in the early 1960s when China went through a famine. My grandfather was sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. In 1979, he was given an official pardon—13 years after his death.
I know that there are more relatives of mine who died either in labor camps after being tortured, or of starvation. During the Cultural Revolution, my father’s eldest sister was beaten and forced to kneel down on sharp broken glass in public, and half the hair on her head was shaved off to mark her as a counterrevolutionary. Her son, my first cousin and a college professor, was interrogated and tortured to death. My mother was a target and humiliated in front of many people because she attended the University of West China, a school founded by Christians from the West. Chinese people had been told for a long time that Americans were the “number one” enemies of China. All my family members who lived during my grandparents’ and parents’ generations could not escape political persecution from the 1950s through the Cultural Revolution. Who knows how many millions of people died under Communist persecution during that time?
These were crimes against humanity that no one has been held accountable for. Most Communist revolutionaries are dead now. However, their descendants have reaped most of the benefits and privileges and have become one of the wealthiest people in the world. All that was left of my uncle’s life was a shirt and a blanket. His death was unjust. But he had been loved and missed dearly. He is not forgotten.
My uncle’s death will never be justified. His life was cut short. He never gave up hope for his own freedom and to be reunited with his daughter. The 21 years of his life in prison and in labor camp took everything away from him and his family, including his human rights. His life was totally destroyed. I still wonder why my parents never told my brother and I about my uncle. Perhaps they tried to protect their innocent children from the shocking truths about the evils of communism and what it did to my uncle as a political prisoner.
My uncle’s soul has not rested in peace and I want to ask, “Why did this injustice happen to him?” My heart cries out for justice, for an official pardon for my uncle—because my aunt and cousin were unable to recover from the losses, unable to live the promising life that they deserved. My uncle was innocent and he was accused of a crime he didn’t commit. His suffering and death reflected the political system and regime that purposely targeted innocent people who represented capitalism and freedom—they were despised by the Communist revolutionary society. There were people who were buried alive with emperors during the Shang and Zhou Dynasties when China was a warrior state (1555–256 BC). Similarly, my uncle and the millions of political prisoners were sacrificed to worship the founder of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong. Sadly, my uncle’s tragic life and death is not unique. History repeats itself.
I decided to write down my uncle’s story because the world should know the Chinese Communist regime has committed crimes against humanity and killed millions of innocent people in China. My uncle was one of the them. I want others to learn the truth. The financial success of modern China is built on the bloodshed of millions of innocent Chinese people like my uncle—this is the price of communism.
Kechun Li was born on Nov. 28, 1958, in China. She is an actress, known for appearing in “Dam Street” (2005), “The Last Aristocrats” (1989), “Zhao Qian Sun Li” (1982), and “Duo cai de chen guang” (1984). Currently, she resides in California.