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Asia: Dictators, Authoritarian Governments, and Human Rights

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Asia: Dictators, Authoritarian Governments, and Human Rights

Photograph of people walking between large furnaces that protrude out of the ground.
Backyard furnaces used to produce steel in China during the Great Leap Forward. Millions of farmers in communes were ordered to create massive numbers of these ineffective furnaces. This diversion of labor from agricultural production and other Great Leap Forward policies helped to cause the Great Chinese Famine, widely regarded as one of the deadliest famines in world history with an estimated death toll of approximately 30 million people. Source: Wikipedia at

When confronted by dictators and authoritarian governments, fighting for human rights such as democracy and freedom of thought anywhere is risky at best. Hopefully, these selections from the EAA archives will serve to educate students about individual action in response to authoritarian governments, as well as the human tragedies faced by common people who experience oppressive governments.

In “Kim Dae-jung’s Role in the Democratization of South Korea” (Spring 2014, Volume 19, Number 1), Edward Baker, who lived in the Republic of Korea (ROK), worked as a US House of Representatives staff member on Korean–American relations in the late 1970s, and came to know Kim Dae-jung and his wife well during their 1980s time of self-exile at Harvard, offers an excellent biography of this crusader for a democratic South Korea. Former Ambassador to the ROK Donald Gregg, who served as CIA Chief of Station in Korea (1973–1975) and later National Security Advisor for George H. W. Bush, recounts in “Korea’s Rough Road to Democracy” (Spring 2014, Volume 19, Number 1) his efforts to oppose authoritarian ROK excesses that led him for the first—and only—time in a long career in the CIA to disobey CIA orders. Some EAA readers are already familiar with the anonymous author of “Leaving North Korea: My Story” (Fall 2018, Volume 23, Number 2), but this short, yet compelling account of a millennial’s escape from North Korea should be required reading for all high school and beginning college and university students everywhere.

David Gordon in “A Tale of Two Diplomats: Ho Fengshan, Sugihara Chiune, and Jewish Efforts to Flee Nazi Europe” (Fall 2015, Volume 20, Number 2) tells the remarkable story of how, independently of each other during World War II, a Republic of China diplomat and a diplomat representing Imperial Japan managed to surreptitiously keep significant numbers of Jews out of Nazi death camps. In the 20th century, Mao Zedong holds the record for intentionally or unintentionally causing more civilian deaths in his own country than his major rivals Stalin or Hitler. Clayton Brown’s “China’s Great Leap Forward” (Winter 2012, Volume 17, Number 3) remains the best introductory article on this cataclysmic event I’ve ever read. Brown also reviewed Yang Jisheng’s poignant and definitive book, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962 (Fall 2014, Volume 19, Number 2), in which the author recounts his own experience as a teenager burying his father, but only years later as a PRC-approved journalist slowly, but surely learned what actually happened in the Great Leap Forward.

Other Teaching Resources: The Revolutionary

poster for "The Revolutionary" written in large red letters, with an image of a man speaking into a microphone holding a card.
Poster for The Revolutionary from the film’s main website at

Stourwater Pictures’ remarkable award-winning 2012 documentary The Revolutionary is the incredible story of a former “true believer,” the late Sidney Rittenberg (the subject of the documentary tells his story in his own words), an exceptionally talented and completely committed communist who moved to China. Despite being accused by Stalin as being part of an international spy ring and subsequently sentenced by the PRC to six years in solitary confinement, he remained in China when his term ended and was an active speaker and supporter of the Cultural Revolution who rose to a powerful position in broadcasting. He later ran afoul of Mao’s widow and the Gang of Four and was sent to solitary confinement for ten more years. In 1980, Rittenberg returned to the US with his Chinese family and eventually became a successful liaison between American and Chinese businesses.

The film with its matter-of-fact account of Rittenberg provides an incredibly unique perspective on not only the Mao years, but his own belief system that compelled him to make his radical life choices. The film is available for purchase at Stourwater’s website and can be streamed through Amazon Prime Video. Educators are encouraged to explore other Asia-related Stourwater documentaries.

This article was published as part of the March 2021 EAA Digest.