More than fifty years after it started, China’s Cultural Revolution continues to influence events in China. China’s President Xi Jinping, whose own father (a leader of the Communist Revolution) was jailed for 16 years, has refused to admit the evilness of that phenomenon. The refusal of the Chinese government to condemn this tragic period will have lasting consequences in the country’s political and cultural life.
When in May 1966 Mao launched that socio-political movement called Cultural Revolution -which lasted 10 years- he unleashed the persecution of millions of people accused of undermining the communist regime. In addition to millions of people who were persecuted, abused and killed, millions more were forcibly displaced from the cities to rural areas in what came to be known as Down to the Countryside Movement.
China’s youth responded to Mao’s call by forming Red Guard groups throughout the country. The resulting purge affected not only people in the lower ranks but also senior officials, who were accused of taking the “capitalist road.” One of the most famous cases involved Deng Pufang, Deng Xiaoping’ son, who tried to jump out of a building after being brutally interrogated by the Red Guards. The death toll between 1966 and 1969 has been estimated from various sources at about 500,000 to one million people.
One of the testimonies of the abuses carried out during one of that country’s darkest times was that of Ms. Song Binbin, daughter of Song Renqiong, one of China’s leaders known as the Eight Immortals. In 2014, Song Binbin publicly repented for her participation in the attacks against a former teacher, Bian Zhongyun, at the time deputy headmaster at the school. The attacks culminated in the mob beating to death Ms. Bian, who was at the time the school head.
Appearing at the school affiliated with Beijing Normal University, Song Binbin said, “Please allow me to express my everlasting solicitude and apologies to Principal Bian. I failed to protect the school leaders, and this has been a lifelong source of anguish and remorse”.
Ms. Song Binbin’s testimony didn’t appease Mr. Wang Jingyao, Ms. Bian Zhongyun’s widower, who, since his wife’s death has tried to keep his wife memory alive and to obtain an honest apology for the perpetrators of his wife’s assassination. “She [Song Binbin] is a bad person for what she did,” he declared. And he added, “The entire Communist Party and Mao Zedong are also responsible.”
Ms. Song’s testimony, and the testimony of Zhang Hongbing, a lawyer who, with his father, denounced his mother, Fang Zhongmou, and made her a target of a brutal killing, are important milestones to reflect on the madness of crowds because of political beliefs. At the time of his mother’s death Mr. Zhang was only 16-years-old.
What makes this case particularly painful are the circumstances of Mrs. Fang’s death. “They beat her, bound her and led her from home. She knelt before the crowds as they denounced her. Then they loaded her on to a truck, drove her to the outskirts of town and shot her,” described Tania Branigan in The Guardian. “My mother, father and I were devoured by the Cultural Revolution,” declared Mr. Zhang. “It was a catastrophe suffered by the Chinese nation” he added.
Mr. Zhang’s testimony shows to what extent a person’s mind can change to consider his own mother as an enemy. He tells of saying to her mother at the time, “If you go against our dear Chairman Mao, I will smash your dog’s head,” he told her. And he added, “I felt this wasn’t my mother. This wasn’t a person. She suddenly became a monster…She had become a class enemy and opened her bloody mouth.” The last time he saw her mother was when she knelt on a stage hours before her death.
More than four decades after his mother’s death, Mr. Zhang is trying to atone his unrelenting sense of guilt not only by telling the circumstances of her death but by also calling for the preservation of her grave in their home town of Guzhen, in Anhui province.
The cases just described are just a few specific examples of a special moment in China’s recent history. As President Xi tightens his grip over the country’s media and non-governmental organizations that are involved with human rights and public health issues, many observers draw comparisons with that dark period of the country’s history.
Although China’s Communist Party officially condemns the Cultural Revolution, public discussion of this period is still relatively limited in China, and news organizations are not free to mention the details of what happened during that time. However, as Ms. Song Binbin declared, “How a country faces the future depends in large part on how it faces its past.”
Dr. César Chelala is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and two national awards on journalism from Argentina.