Commentary Magazine


Pasqualini, Out of Print

Almost a decade ago, in October 1997, the human rights activist Jean Pasqualini died in Paris at 71. Born in Beijing to a French Corsican father and Chinese mother, Jean worked as a translator for the U.S. military and the British Embassy in Beijing until he was arrested in 1957, charged with counterrevolutionary activity, and sentenced to the nefarious Laogai system of penal colonies, also known as China’s “Gulag.” In 1964, thanks to his French background, Jean was released by Mao after France recognized China, whereupon he was exiled to France; there, some years later, I had the pleasure of getting to know him.

Jean’s 1973 book Prisoner of Mao, about his seven years in the Laogai, is a pioneering classic, although, sadly, Penguin has allowed it to go out of print. The ever-timely Prisoner of Mao should be reprinted immediately, especially as even out-of-print copies available from and Barnes & are challenging to find, detectable only by Jean’s Chinese name, Bao Ruo-Wang. An author search for “Jean Pasqualini” on both sites confusingly brings up the French edition of his book (which remains available from Gallimard).

In a 1978 essay, the Belgian sinologist Pierre Ryckmans (born in 1935, who publishes under the name Simon Leys) called Prisoner of Mao the “most fundamental document on the Maoist ‘Gulag’ and, as such, the most studiously ignored by the lobby that maintains that there is no human-rights problem in the People’s Republic.” There, as Jean later revealed, brainwashed prisoners were forced to “reconstruct socialism with their two hands,” in order to “reform themselves.” Once safely in France, Jean remained an ardent supporter of human rights in China, despite a catastrophic series of ailments, including cancer and diabetes, caused by his imprisonment. In 1992 he co-founded the Laogai Research Foundation with the activist Harry Wu (Wu Hongda), author of the definitive Bitter Winds: A Memoir of My Years in China’s Gulag and the equally essential Troublemaker: One Man’s Crusade Against China’s Cruelty.

Jean radiated charm and humor, key tools for survival. His appetite for joy was reflected in his humorous anecdotes about how he worked for Columbia Pictures’ distribution branch in postwar China. Jean delighted in the most overblown Hollywood screen musicals, from The Jolson Story to Hello Dolly, as well as jokes about Columbia’s comic-villain studio boss Harry Cohn. At serious moments, Jean would confide that even after years away from the Laogai, Mao remained the most important person in ex-prisoners’ lives. As part of the “re-education” process, prisoners were driven to such mental anguish and self-recrimination for their “crimes against society” that one fellow prisoner—imprisoned for alleged sex crimes—was driven to self-mutilation as penance for his supposed offense. A brave, noble survivor whose humanity and sense of humor miraculously survived his ordeals, Jean Pasqualini deserves a better fate than to languish out of print.