Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng [Book Review]

You need to read this book. This is isn’t made up. It’s a real account of a Nien Cheng’s life during the Cultural Revolution. Nien Cheng was kept imprisoned for over 6 years at Number One Detention house in Shanghai, from 1966 to 1973. During that time she was interrogated, beaten, and left isolated, all while being pushed to “confess” to being an “imperialist spy.” Why this treatment? Because she was western educated, and the widow of the former manager of a foreign firm in Shanghai. She wasn’t guilty of anything, and refused to produce a false confession, despite the quite literal torture. She made it out alive, miraculously, but her daughter wasn’t so lucky- she was beaten to death on the streets of Shanghai by the Red Guard. All because of who her family was. Nien Cheng was never the same after the death of her daughter. It’s so sad.

After being released from imprisonment due to health reasons and sent to live in a small apartment in Shanghai, Nien Cheng was spied on by her neighbours, and even by those she used to consider close friends. Other friends refused to come to see her, despite hearing the news of her release from prison, and the even more shocking news that she was still alive. They didn’t want to be associated with someone like her, someone accused of being a spy for the imperialists. It would make her look bad.

Eventually she managed to leave Shanghai to Canada, and then to Washington, DC, where she wrote her autobiography. Near the end of the book, she comments on the freedom she feels in the West. She can speak freely, without worrying her words may be taken as words again the Chinese Communist Party. She’s no longer spied on, and can live her life, after all these years.

I’m in awe of her perseverance, resilience, and her beautiful writing. The detail is in her writing is incredible, and there’s never a dull page. This book has opened my eyes to how horrible the Cultural Revolution was. Everyone needs to read it. This is important history.

Now, what does this autobiography have to do with data science and tech? It has to do with China’s proposed Social Credit System, estimated to be put in place in 2020. During the Cultural Revolution, as mentioned above, Nien Cheng was spied on, she couldn’t speak freely, and her friends didn’t want to be associated with her. And this is where China is heading in 2020. Mao would be so proud.

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