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The dark shadow of China’s Cultural Revolution

It was the last, but far from the only, denunciation of abuses that happened during China’s Cultural Revolution. It was also necessary testimony to ponder with regard to the widespread abuses of Chinese citizens by Chinese citizens during one of that country’s darkest times.

Song Binbin, daughter of Gen. Song Renqiong — a member of the group of Chinese Communist Party leaders known as The Eight Immortals — recently repented for her participation in the attacks against a former teacher, Bian Zhongyun, deputy headmaster at the school. The attacks culminated in the mob beating and the death of Bian, who was acting as head of the school at the time.

Appearing at the school affiliated with Beijing Normal University, Song 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,” according to The Beijing News.

Song’s testimony didn’t appease Wang Jingyao, the widower of Bian, who, ever since his wife’s death in 1966, has tried to keep her memory alive and tried to obtain an honest apology from the perpetrators of his wife’s assassination.

“She is a bad person for what she did,” he declared. And he added, “The entire Communist Party and Mao Zedong are also responsible.”

Song’s testimony, and last March’s 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, Zhang was only 16 years old.

What makes this case particularly painful are the circumstances of 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 onto a truck, drove her to the outskirts of town and shot her,” Zhang relates to Tania Branigan in The Guardian.

“My mother, father and I were devoured by the Cultural Revolution,” Zhang added. “It was a catastrophe suffered by the Chinese nation.”

Zhang’s testimony shows to what extent a person’s mind can turn against his own mother. He recalls telling his mother at the time, “If you go against our dear Chairman Mao, I will smash your dog’s head.”

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, Zhang is trying to atone for his unrelenting sense of guilt not only by telling the circumstances of her death but also by calling for the preservation of her grave in their home town of Guzhen, Anhui province.

The cases just described are just two examples of events in a special moment of China’s recent history. When, in May 1966, Mao launched that socio-political movement called the Cultural Revolution, he unleashed the persecution of millions of people accused of aiming to restore capitalism. In addition to the 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’s 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 1 million people.

Although China’s Communist Party officially condemns the Cultural Revolution, public discussion of it is still relatively limited in China, and news organizations are not free to mention the details of what happened during this period.

As Song aptly puts it, “How a country faces the future depends in large part on how it faces its past.”

Cesar Chelala. M.D. and Ph.D., is a co-winner of the Overseas Press Club of America award.