Growing up, my mother often shared stories of her escape from communist China after the Chinese civil war. The year was 1950 and the communists already claimed victory on the mainland, with the defeated Nationalists retreating to Taiwan, which was renamed the Republic of China. My mother's first husband had refused to leave China as other families with means were evacuating.
Not too long after the communists' victory, an era of fear and persecution emerged under the leadership of Mao Zedong. For the new China, the old ways must be purged, Mao insisted. As my mother's family were wealthy factory owners, they were immediately branded enemies of the people.
Neighbors turned against neighbors during that era of purging, publicly outing those who were thought to be exploiting workers. My mother's husband was publicly paraded, saved from execution only after his employees vouched for him. He was locked in an outhouse with his hands tied behind his back and shamed for being a class enemy. He had to answer to accusations of being a traitor.
The unbelievable scenes of unruly mobs storming the United States Capitol prompted me to reflect on my own family's journey to America to escape persecution by a cult-like leader. For my mother, it was Mao, who controlled the actions and thoughts of Chinese under his rule for more than a quarter century.
Fully understanding the dangers of a regime adept at incitement, my mother fled with three of her five children, leaving her eldest two sons behind with relatives. She would never see them again. For the other three, each escape required a separate trip, with bribes paid and children snuck into a ship's cargo hold. Her husband left separately before they reunited. First to Hong Kong, then to Taiwan to settle into a new life.
The fear of living in a state ruled by a cult figure remained a boogeyman throughout my mother's life. So much so that when former U.S. president Richard Nixon traveled to China to meet Mao Zedong in 1972, my parents in Taiwan started making plans to emigrate to America. Once you've been the target of a bloodthirsty mob at the behest of a dictator, you take no chances.
Nixon’s historic visit sent shock waves through Chinese Nationalists who had relocated to Taiwan after the civil war. The U.S. had been the Republic of China’s staunchest ally and any wavering of support put the small Pacific island at risk. My family had been among the last to leave China and paid a dear price, nearly executed for being capitalists. This time, they would be the first to leave as they had the rare opportunity to head to America.
Chairman Mao would exert mind-control-like influence on the Chinese citizenry from 1949 until his death in 1976. State media and propaganda elevated his status to that of a God-like hero.
Consider what happened on the mainland in the decades after my mother made her stowaway journeys out of the country:
According to "The Black Book of Communism," a 1997 review of political repression in communist regimes, over 65 million Chinese died due to Mao’s vision of a socialist utopia. People who spoke out were executed, imprisoned or starved to death. Many lost their lives during the Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1962, when villages were turned into communes, according to "Mao's Great Famine" by historian Frank Dikötter. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, an anti-intellectual fervor ensued, with scholars buried alive and books burned.
We need a backup plan: The Capitol attack could have crippled America's government.
In July 1974, my family arrived in New York, just weeks before Nixon would resign office. Our first attempt at immigration didn’t last long. We returned to Taiwan just a few months later. My parents missed their more-than-comfortable world in Taiwan — a life of opulence with live-in servants, elaborate parties and friends and close relatives. Life as non-English speaking immigrants without the pedestal of wealth and influence meant that my parents were invisible in the U.S.
But uncertain of whether China would make good on threats to take back the country, our family migrated to the United States once again in 1976, this time for good. Our resident-alien status in the U.S., the golden ticket, was due to expire. And the fear of being persecuted by a mob lay heavily on my parents' minds, should things go awry in Asia. Imagine the fear of the boogeyman being so great that you are willing to give up everything you know and worked for to jump into the unknown.
History would prove they made a bad gamble, as China never did attempt a takeover of Taiwan. My family still feared an invasion. But China had been weakened militarily after decades of communist rule that included a devastating Korean War and a disastrous Great Leap Forward that left millions starving.
At 21, I relinquished my citizenship to the Republic of China to pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America as a naturalized citizen. As an immigrant, the chaos at the Capitol was heartbreaking to watch. My parents left their affluent lives in Taiwan fearing that a cult-like figure would destroy not just freedom and the economy, but basic decency. Mao's groupthink meant if you did not follow the leader's orders, you were to be eradicated.
My mother died just after Election Day in 2016 and rests in eternal peace in her adopted home of Queens. She would never see the rise of an American president trading on nationalism.
As a nation of immigrants, we all share a common bond of seeing America as the standard bearer for the world's democracy. The storming of the U.S. Capitol is a wake- up call that charismatic leaders can take even the world's greatest nation down a dangerous, unthinkable path. Let this incident be a teaching moment.
Mary Chao 趙 慶 華 covers the Asian community, real estate and small business for NorthJersey.com, where this column originally appeared.
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This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Capitol riots remind me of Chinese terror my family fled