Chinese active in Cultural Revolution speak against past deeds

December 24, 2013

By NOZOMU HAYASHI/ Correspondent

BEIJING--A generation of older Chinese like Zhang Hongbing, who informed on his mother during the Cultural Revolution, are speaking out against the growing nostalgia for the movement, led by Mao Tse-tung, as China marks the 120th anniversary of his birth on Dec. 26.

Zhang, a lawyer in Bengbu, Anhui province, caused significant ripples this year when he recounted his experiences in a Chinese magazine of informing on his mother.

His mother was executed after he accused her of treating Mao with contempt 43 years ago at the height of the revolution.

“What I saw back then was not my mother, but a class enemy,” Zhang, 60, said.

Chinese who were left behind in China’s booming prosperity of recent years have begun to look back fondly on the movement and on Mao with admiration.

But Zhang and other critics say China should face up to the fact that the 1966-76 political movement took an enormous toll on the nation, with the widespread persecution and purges of intellectuals and former wealthy families, resulting in millions killed, as well as splitting families apart.

Zhang, then 16, was enraged in February 1970 when his mother told him that Mao was merely quoting others, referring to his maxim printed in a health pocket book distributed to each household.

Feeling that he should not ignore a counter-revolutionary act by his mother, Zhang produced a document accusing her and tossed it into a residence of a high-ranking military official in the neighborhood.

After his mother was detained, she was hauled out before a crowd several times to face public criticism. She was executed two months later by a firing squad. Ever since, Zhang had remained quiet about his past.

Then he had a change of heart in 2009, when he learned that the campaign in Chongqing of then rising Communist Party star Bo Xilai was reminiscent of ones waged during the Cultural Revolution, invoking an anti-corruption spiel against his political enemies.

Zhang was appalled to know that a large number of citizens hailed Bo’s initiative and many intellectuals his political savvy.

In the revolution, Mao organized the nation's youth as his “Red Guards” and brought down leaders of the Chinese Communist Party who sought to rebuild the war-torn economy. They were accused of wanting to lead the nation on the road to capitalism.

The Chinese Communist Party adopted a resolution in 1981, condemning the Cultural Revolution as internal strife that resulted in a tremendous national disaster.

But what was happening under Bo’s leadership led Zhang to have doubts about the legacy of the Cultural Revolution. “Wasn’t it completely denounced?” he thought.

Zhang felt that he and others who experienced the horrors of the Cultural Revolution were to blame because they failed to do serious soul-searching about their pasts.

So he was determined to make public his personal account.

“Am I the only one who was entirely responsible for the tragedy of my family?” he said. “What kind of society created such a tragedy? I think that many Chinese should ponder that.”

Bo is now serving a life term in prison after being found guilty of corruption and abuse of power.

Zhang’s confession about his past prompted others who survived the tumultuous era to follow in his steps.

In August, a group of people who graduated from the elite Beijing No. 8 Middle School embarked on a tour to visit their former teachers at the school. Children of high-ranking officials with the Chinese Communist Party attended the school.

They want to apologize to the teachers for denouncing them in public when the revolution was at its peak.

“We, as well as our teachers, are now aged,” said Chen Xiaolu, leader of the group and a son of Chen Yi, a military commander who led the fighting against Japanese troops and the Kuomintang of China, and is revered as one of the nation's 10 most prominent military commanders. “We are hoping to cleanse our lives.”

But that is not the only reason behind their effort, according to Chen.

Massive, and often violent anti-Japan demonstrations that erupted in many Chinese cities in autumn 2012 were a bitter reminder of what transpired during the Cultural Revolution.

Many Chinese took to the streets to protest the Japanese government’s decision to place the disputed Senkaku Islands under state control through a purchase from their private ownership.

China claims the islets in the East China Sea, calling them the Diaoyu Islands.

“(Demonstrators) destroyed Japanese cars and went as far as to assault their owners,” Chen said. “That is exactly what happened during the revolution, paying no respect to the rule of law and human rights. I am afraid that Chinese society still has the DNA for a recurrence of the Cultural Revolution.”

Many protesters in anti-Japan rallies across the nation held up portraits of Mao.

Historian Zhang Lifan said the founding father of the People's Republic of China is a strong magnet for those who were marginalized during China’s economic buildup and cannot find a venue to vent their pent-up frustrations.

“They tend to have blind enthusiasm for Mao,” he said.

Zhang said it takes courage for those who played a part in the Cultural Revolution to publicly acknowledge their past actions.

“But we have no choice but to tell all the facts to avoid repeating the same mistakes,” he said.

By NOZOMU HAYASHI/ Correspondent
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In this picture of Zhang Hongbing’s family, Zhang is second from the right and his mother, third from the left. (Provided by Zhang Hongbing)

In this picture of Zhang Hongbing’s family, Zhang is second from the right and his mother, third from the left. (Provided by Zhang Hongbing)

  • In this picture of Zhang Hongbing’s family, Zhang is second from the right and his mother, third from the left. (Provided by Zhang Hongbing)
  • Zhang Hongbing discusses his role behind the execution of his mother at his home in Bengbu, Anhui province, in October. (Nozomu Hayashi)
  • Chen Xiaolu talks about the ramifications of the Cultural Revolution on China at his home in Beijing in October. (Nozumu Hayashi)

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