HONG KONG – More than 45 years ago, Chairman Mao Zedong launched the tumultuous Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which led to the destruction of millions of Chinese lives. It was a tragedy of unparalleled proportions, and yet the Communist Party continues to honor Mao and refuses to allow in-depth study of the Cultural Revolution.
A new book, “Forged in Purgatory,” by Wang Zhongfang, sheds light on just how the Cultural Revolution affected not just the main targets of the power struggle but countless incidental figures. Wang was at one time the political secretary of Luo Ruiqing, a leading general and one of the main targets of the Cultural Revolution.
This is a remarkable book, a labor of love which was first written in Chinese, translated by members of the Pamir Law Group in Taiwan, then edited and published by the group’s managing partner, Nicholas V. Chen, who became a friend of Wang.
Luo was the first minister of public security after the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949 and the author served as his political secretary for 10 years. But by the time of the Cultural Revolution, the two men had not worked together for many years.
In fact, by then Wang had become an important figure in his own right, being effectively in charge of all political and judicial matters in Qinghai Province, in northwestern China. Wang ended up spending more than five years in prison while undergoing “investigation.”
After Mao’s death and the Cultural Revolution ended, Wang was fully vindicated. The final decision on his case, rendered by the new Qinghai provincial party authorities, concluded: “When Lin Biao and the Gang of Four enjoyed tyrannical power, Comrade Wang Zhongfang was subjected to terrible repression, arrested and placed under an investigation that lasted over five years despite his innocence.”
The Wang case is a microcosm of how people in China suffered during the Cultural Revolution. He was innocent of any wrongdoing (as was Luo Ruiqing), but Mao purged Luo along with countless other senior officials, including the head of state, Liu Shaoqi, and the party’s secretary general Deng Xiaoping. In the process, Mao made use of people he trusted at various times, including Marshal Lin Biao and Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, and her political associates, who subsequently were dubbed the “Gang of Four.”
But Wang was not the only one persecuted because of his connection with Luo. Wang’s father, an 84-year-old professor, was forced to move out of Ministry of Public Security quarters in Beijing and then hounded as he sought refuge in one place after another. In the end, the old man died of starvation.
Wang’s brother, too, was persecuted so severely that he hanged himself. Both of Wang’s sons were also victims.
So three generations of the family went through hell for no wrongdoing on their part. Multiply that by the countless targets of the Cultural Revolution — in the central government and the provinces, in the military as well as the party and government — along with their associates, friends and family members and you get a picture of what the country went through.
Of course, it is difficult these days to imagine the emergence of another megalomaniacal dictator like Mao who was worshipped like a god. In fact, so successful was the Mao cult that his victims continued to deify him, believing that if only Mao knew about their sufferings, he would stop their torment.
Thus, Luo Ruiqing, in a perverse manifestation of the Stockholm syndrome, insisted on going to Mao’s funeral in his wheelchair and cried his eyes out at the death of the man who had persecuted him beyond human endurance.
On one level, this book is about a remarkable, resourceful and ingenious person with an indomitable spirit who survived against all odds.
But on a deeper level, this is about a country torn apart by the madness of a single person, who was worshipped by his people as a great leader, great teacher, great supreme commander and great helmsman but who cared more for himself than for his people.
Ultimately, Mao became a god-like figure because the party allowed it to happen. And so, any criticism of Mao and of the Cultural Revolution is really a criticism of the Communist Party.
Thus it is interesting to note that the party, in its resolution in 1981 holding Mao responsible for the “error” of the Cultural Revolution, said it was “after all the error of a great proletarian revolutionary,” as though somehow that made it acceptable, even admirable.
Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator based in Hong Kong. (Frank.firstname.lastname@example.org)