July/August 2016

He did time for what he did: A CIA translator’s prison release papers

(click on the title to view the document)

Research on the fates of “counterrevolutionary elements” in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution tends to concentrate on the countless individuals who were charged and sentenced as such, rather than on those who at the height of the movement were released from labor camps. There are no doubt perfectly legitimate reasons for this research focus, albeit that our impression of what transpired overall may well – half a century later – be skewed as a result. In documentary terms, the prison release papers of individual 反革命分子 unquestionably continue to draw less attention from historians than the sentencing records compiled by quasi-judicial organs during, for example, the 1968 campaign to “cleanse the class ranks.”

The present Document of the Month (purchased in the Liulichang antiques market in Beijing in the late 1990s) dates from a time when literally hundreds of thousands of people all across China were under investigation for possible “counterrevolutionary” crimes. It is the release form of a Beijing resident sentenced to ten years in a labor camp as a “文化汉奸”in 1958. I described the background of this particular individual (who at one time had worked as a translator for the CIA on Okinawa) in some detail in my book Spying for the People: Mao’s Secret Agents, 1949–1967 (see page 127). Suffice to say that after his 1968 release from the camp where he served out his sentence, he was resettled in a Hebei rural People’s Commune. A decade later, as part of how the CCP decided to deal with the legacy of the Maoist past through administrative and judicial means, the original verdict that had branded him a counterrevolutionary element was formally “rectified” (改正) by the Beijing Municipal Intermediate People’s Court. By then he had already been allowed to leave the country and taken up residence in the United States.