Another Kind of American History in Chongqing, 3: Puzzle

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by Xujun Eberlein

(Continued from 1:Prologue and 2:Evolution)

For the two years following 9-11, I struggled with a Hamletian question, "To quit, or not to quit?" I eventually chose the former, bowed out of my high-tech job, and became a writer and a guilty dependent of my husband.

After I started writing in earnest (my focus then was on the cultural revolution), I browsed the Internet more diligently. One day in early 2005 I happened upon a Web page, whose content gave me pause.

Written by the proud son of a Navy officer who had served in SACO, the text expressed admiration for Miles and Tai Li (i.e., Dai Li), and was a tribute to the father's brave participation in "guerrilla warfare operations against the Japanese troops." The Web page gave a few links to other sites related to SACO personnel, where I saw the same pride manifest.

By that time, I had gotten used to the information disparity on both sides of the Pacific. Still, the two irreconcilable images of SACO were unsettling at a personal level. Did either of us, the descendants of the SACO men or Chinese like me, see the full picture? 

It isn't easy to reject a certain notion when one has been accustomed to it from a young age, much like one's taste for food. Nonetheless I began to research, at first aimed at finding evidence of SACO's involvement in the Refuse Pit and Bai Mansion prisons, depending mainly on English resources. I searched library catalogues and the Internet extensively.  I read whatever I could get hold on SACO.  Among the books I have read, three are especially worth noting.  I won't be giving a detailed review of each, just note a few things of particularly relevance to my subject.

Miles was a Vice Admiral and SACO's co-director. In the memoir, he did not hide his hatred toward the Chinese Communists. I got the impression that, if it were up to him, he wouldn't have minded lumping them with his Japanese enemies. The book claims that "SACO had no personnel that was employed against the Communists, and that no equipment had been supplied for use against them except in certain already reported instances when they themselves had attacked our Chinese troops." I doubt the veracity of such a claim, but Miles might well have believed it. I found his unconditional trust in Dai Li quite naïve, but the book did give me the impression that Miles was genuinely unaware of the prisons at his "Happy Valley" headquarters. This was baffling.

A SACO researcher in Chongqing, Sun Dannian, told me recently that Miles' book is unavailable in mainland China, and there has been no Chinese translation of it published there, though she had read a Taiwan-published translation. Her impression of Miles from that translation was "he was an excellent naval officer doing a great job."

This was the only foreign book quoted (not sure since when; in any case won't be earlier than 1979) at Chongqing's SACO museum, apparently for its favorableness, and the author was respectfully addressed as "America's China expert." I took a photo of the quote, which was in Chinese translation, during my 2002 visit to the museum. Some time later I bought a copy of the book. That quote's original English text, as I found in a chapter titled "SACO: The Counter-Revolution in Action," reads as follows:

 Amidst the highly unstable political and military situation in wartime China, the politicized personnel of SACO played a pivotal role in affecting both the current policies and future expectations of the two contending Chinese factions. SACO's direct involvement in China, its willingness to become a conduit for secret military programs, and its dedication to the destruction of revolutionary movements all gave it a disproportionately large impact on Chinese-American relations. ... SACO's essential policy had been to help prepare the KMT for civil war.
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The chapter cites activities of SACO that supports the above charge. At one point, it refers to a source's accusation "Miles's personal participation in mass trials conducted by Tai Li, after which political prisoners were buried alive." However, no specifics such as time and location are given. There is also an indirect allegation appearing at the end of the same chapter, which mentions that, in 1974, "the Chinese press carried gruesome reports on the mangled human remains which had been unearthed at SACO's 'Happy Valley' headquarters near Chungking." ("Chungking" was the 1940s transliteration of Chongqing.) The bodies referred to here must have been those from the same photo I had seen in my childhood, because nothing new was unearthed in 1974, the year I graduated from high school.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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