BEIJING — In a hotel room in the Yangtze River port of Wuhan, a dozen elderly Chinese men fight back tears to sing a song written almost 50 years ago in a U.S. prisoner-of-war camp in South Korea. At the end of the song, their tears flow freely, for friends lost in the conflict and for their own harsh treatment by the country that sent them to war.

At the place beyond the reach of sunlight, during those hard days, Your blood dyed red the foreign land; To pursue the truth, you’d rather die than submit. People from the motherland will never forget your courage.

Veteran Zhang Zeshi wrote those words for a friend killed in the camp. Five decades later, he concedes that the Chinese people did forget. “All of us who returned to China had fought bravely, but we were all forgotten,” he says. “Worse still, we were treated as traitors rather than heroes.” Their crime: failure to die for the motherland in battle against the U.S. aggressors.

Yet these were the patriots. Zhang and the rest of the aging chorus in Wuhan last month were among some 6,000 captured Chinese soldiers who insisted on returning home; over 14,000 fellow POWs preferred exile in Taiwan. The POW dilemma deadlocked peace negotiations that began in July 1951. The protagonists finally signed an armistice in July 1953, though a peace treaty still eludes the divided peninsula.

“Because of us, the war dragged on for two more years, during which many more soldiers died,” said Zhao Zuoduan, a committed communist who persuaded many POWs to return. “It looked like our government loved us so much they wouldn’t give us up, but why weren’t we loved after we did come back?”

Far from being loved, the former POWs became social outcasts. Their patriotism had earned them only a pariah status that guaranteed trouble in every mass movement Chairman Mao Zedong let loose on China. Now, after a lifetime of suffering, the POWs are fighting their last campaign.

“All of us are 70 or 80 years old. It is not easy to get together, so this might be the last time,” says Zhang of their Wuhan meeting, scheduled ahead of the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of war on June 25. “It was a very emotional occasion. I kept telling them, we must keep going, keep fighting for the interests of POWs.”

Through letters, petitions and books, even an album of POW camp songs Zhang hopes to publish, the veterans are lobbying the Chinese government and public to recognize their sacrifice.

Their story mirrors China’s own descent from the initial euphoria of “Liberation” in 1949, to the vicious cycle of witch hunts and political struggles that slowed only after Mao’s death in 1976. Even today, the Chinese Communist Party is reluctant to open up old wounds, even as the POWs themselves are challenging the very reasons China fought in the war, a watershed event that shaped the course of East Asian history.

Communist orthodoxy maintains that North Korean leader Kim Il Sung’s lightning offensive on June 25, 1950 came in response to a U.S. and South Korean invasion of the North. When Gen. Douglas MacArthur later crossed the 38th Parallel, aimed straight for China’s industrial heartland, Beijing scrambled to raise a “volunteer” army of 1.2 million men. Every one of them would be needed: Casualties soared up to a million dead and wounded, the worst losses of any combatant country. Mao’s son Anying was among the victims.

Zhang Da was just 17 when he eagerly responded to the nationwide campaign “Resist America, Aid Korea.” Despite the initial success of Beijing’s “human wave” tactics, U.N. air power left thousands of Chinese soldiers stranded. In May 1951, Zhang stumbled starving and alone into a peasant cottage, begging for help from the people he had come to liberate. He was astonished when the farmer’s wife betrayed him to the enemy. “At that moment, my whole world collapsed,” Zhang admits. “I had thought I might die heroically on the battlefield, or return to my homeland in triumph. I had never contemplated a third possibility.”

The unthinkable proved just as brutal as the real conflict. Zhang’s POW camp, In Cheju Island, was riven by Cold War hostilities. “My time in prison was by far the worst I experienced during the Korean War,” Zhang Da says. China demanded the return of all POWs, but the United States refused to repatriate anyone who was unwilling to return. China ultimately accepted a proposal to screen every inmate. “But the process was neither free nor fair,” says Zhang. “We were under terrible pressure to choose Taiwan. Those who dared to declare openly their wish to return to China were persecuted, even killed. The Americans knew what was going on and encouraged it.”

“The American camps were dominated by pro-Taiwanese prison officers who exercised white terror,” adds Zhao Zuoduan. “We communists who wanted to return had to form underground groups.”

Zhao’s “Communism United Association” led thousands of inmates in a commemoration of the People’s Republic of China’s third national day, on Oct. 1, 1952. When riots followed attempts to raise makeshift Chinese flags dyed red with blood, U.S. troops shot dead over 50 POWs.

“We were used as pawns,” says Zhang Zeshi. “The Americans wanted a ‘free choice,’ not because they cared for us or human rights, but because they just wanted to make a point: Look how many of them wanted to come to the free world.” As for the Chinese side, “I don’t think they cared about our individual interests. It would just look bad if so many POWs did not come back.”

Despite enduring repeated torture in the camps — Zhang Da’s nails were hammered and he was burned with irons and cigarettes — the young soldier from Sichuan Province refused to bend. “I can’t remember how many times I passed out. Once when I was unconscious, I was tied to a pole and they put a tattoo on my left arm — ‘Oppose communism and fight the Soviet Union.’ After I was released a few months later, I scraped it off with a razor. It was very painful. But it would be more painful to leave such a permanent humiliation.”

The POWs finally came home in late 1953. “I was so happy when we first returned to the country,” says Zhang Zeshi. “We were welcomed with slogans, flowers and good food.” But China had changed in their absence. The tolerance promised by Mao’s “New Democracy” had given way to a more radical agenda as the Communist Party pursued its domestic enemies, real and imagined. “Soon, we had to write a confession,” Zhang recalls. “At the end of the interrogation, I was deprived of my party membership as well as my military status. I was completely shocked! I didn’t do anything wrong, so how could I be treated like this?”

That was just a first taste of the humiliations to come. After returning to Beijing, Zhang was refused work, even removing night soil. Unknown to him, whenever a potential employer opened the personnel file of a returned POW, he saw the devastating remark: “Wai Gui Nei Kong” (returned from abroad, to be controlled in use). “Although I was bitter about my lot, I was still keen to make a contribution to the motherland,” Zhang says now. “How could I know there was this black mark in my file that has lain like a heavy mountain on our backs for all these years? So many times, I applied to rejoin the party. What an illusion! We were no longer regarded as trustworthy people.”

Zhang Zeshi eventually found a job as an English teacher — educated at church schools prior to Liberation, Zhang had compounded his failure to die in Korea by being pressed into service as camp interpreter — until he was dismissed as a rightist during the “Hundred Flowers” movement in the late ’50s. His long-suffering wife, Yang Yi, saved his life when he fell ill performing hard labor. The Cultural Revolution (1966-76) brought further persecution at public struggle sessions. Zhang was forced to wear a heavy board around his neck that bore the characters “big traitor.”

All Zhang Da could find was piecemeal work as a boat tracker, pulling loads along Sichuan’s Minjiang River. The 1964 “Four Clear” campaign cut short subsequent employment as a teacher. The Cultural Revolution reached him even in distant western Yunnan, where he was toiling as a road worker. “No matter how far away, everywhere in China had to follow the movement. I was struggled against daily. One old guy could not think of anything to say against me, and he had a hard time because of it. One day, he stood up — my crime was that I always turned off my radio at the end of the news before ‘The Internationale’ was played — I did it to save my battery!”

In 1967, Zhang Da fled house arrest to clear his name in Beijing. While he thought he had won a reprieve, he was again struggled against, escaped once more, and became a wanted criminal — a circular was issued nationwide, with one even being posted in his village. “My home was searched and my mother and wife roughly treated. Worst of all, my baby son, less than a month old, died in the commotion. He would had been 32 years old now, with his own child,” Zhang says sadly.

A year after Mao’s death and the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976, Zhang Zeshi began to appeal to China’s higher authorities against his harsh treatment. Soon he was joined by other POWs, including influential figures such as Zhao Zuoduan, leader of the communist underground. Together, they wrote letter after letter to the central government, explaining how they were captured, why they had wanted to return and what they had suffered since. They demanded an end to discrimination and the restoration of party membership.

For the next few years, Zhang Zeshi’s modest Beijing home became a free reception center for POWs from all over China who came to appeal their cases in the capital. “We must have put up over 100 POWs,” says Zhang. “Every one of them had a heartbreaking story to tell.”

Finally, in 1980, the Chinese government issued a decree ordering the rehabilitation of the POWs. A year later, Zhang Zeshi regained his party and military status. But “I was not too excited,” he says. “It was like someone who has lost his appetite after being starved for too long.”

Rehabilitation came too late for Zhang Da: “My poor old mother, who suffered so much because of her nationalist husband and her POW son, died without seeing my name cleared. I also regained membership of the Youth League — a bit of joke, since I was so old.”

The injustices continued in any case. Zhang Da decided to come to Beijing to open a Sichuan restaurant and be near his POW friends. “When I applied for permission from my hometown, Meishan, the county head refused to see me as he was too busy with another Korean War POW, also from Meishan. The man had made a fortune after going to Taiwan. Now that he had come back to invest, he was being treated as an honored guest of the state. I had returned to the mainland (after the war) because I was patriotic, but I was treated like dirt!”

In remote areas, some POWs were unaware of the policy change. Zhang Zeshi relates the case of Li Zhenhua in Sichuan. In the early ’80s, an officer from the local county visited his home to relay the good news of his rehabilitation. Li was not home, but when he returned and learned that an officer had been to see him, he hanged himself.

Zhao Zuoduan was among the few party men from the camps to retain his membership and get off with only a disciplinary warning. “It was a small blow compared to my own sense of guilt,” he says. “I felt I had let people down.” Now 83 and in declining health, he has questions: “I brought back over 600 soldiers, and 95 percent of them suffered badly. Did I do a good thing for them or not?”

Zhao’s close friend and fellow POW Wei Guangming worked in the same city during the Cultural Revolution. Accused of being counter-revolutionaries, both were asked to confess how they had surrendered to the enemy and sold out the People’s Volunteers. On a rainy June day in 1968, the “traitors” were paraded in a truck around the city. The same afternoon, Wei’s family was informed that he had committed suicide. When the family found him, his whole body was bruised — he had been beaten to death.

Zhao has long felt bitter about the authorities’ decision not to recognize the Communism United Association. He now plans to write to Chinese President Jiang Zemin to demand recognition of his organization. “That’s my biggest wish before I die,” he says.

But it will be an uphill struggle. So paranoid is the party’s fear of alternative organizations that the graying veterans are even forbidden to run a formal POW network.

Former CUA members meet intermittently at gatherings like the one in Wuhan last month. Only two attendees were not former prisoners. One of them, independent filmmaker Gao Yansai, is shooting a documentary about the returned POWs. Gao is impressed by the lack of regret they feel over the path they chose, and sees his film as the last chance to record their stories.

The other non-POW at Wuhan is struggling to exorcise his guilt. Hubei Political Commissar He Ming was a senior member of the “explanation teams” Beijing dispatched to the camps to persuade prisoners to come home. “Communists should be the most honest of people, who keep their promises, but obviously we did not,” he says. “I feel very angry. I am a very old Communist Party member. How could I remain silent about the injustices I discovered?”

He hasn’t, producing two books: “Bloody Human Rights Debt,” on the work of the explanation teams, and “Loyalty,” the result of seven years research into the experiences of China’s Korean War POWs. He is currently at work on a third book, questioning the feudal attitude toward POWs in China.

The POWs themselves are asking searching questions about the war. Zhang Zeshi, who wrote “Diary of a POW” in 1993, is planning another book, “The War That Shall Not Be Forgotten,” to discuss why China ever got involved at all. “China was tricked into it!” he shouts. “It was not a war of great victory as we always claimed; it was a mistake, a wasted war, a wrong war.”

As information becomes more accessible, more Chinese are learning that North Korea precipitated the conflict, not the other way around. Two years ago, an article printed in a liberal magazine first suggested that China was tricked into participating by Josef Stalin himself. The author, pen-named “Qingshi” (clearing history), used newly opened archives from the former Soviet Union. Afterward, the magazine was shut down partly because of the sensitive subject matter broached in this article.

Today, more scholars are daring to speak out. “The Korean War was wrong,” concludes Li Shenzhi, a prodemocracy scholar formerly of China’s Academy of Social Sciences. As the head of Xinhua News Agency’s international department, Li was another member of the explanation team. “Mao was tricked by Stalin and Kim Il Sung, and Mao wanted to be a hero,” is the explanation he offers today.

The trick had profound implications for China and East Asia. Mao was convinced of the need to “lean to one side,” thus deepening China’s isolation from the West, while the U.S. became convinced of the need for containment — and active involvement wherever communism threatened to infiltrate a neutral country. “Without the war, the Taiwan issue would have been solved long ago,” argues Li. “Second, China and the U.S. would have enjoyed a better relationship.” He also highlights another important side effect of the war: “It increased Mao’s arrogance. He thought he could do anything after the war. That was one of the reasons he launched the Great Leap Forward.”

Zhang Da visited his old POW camp in South Korea last year. “I still don’t understand why China decided to get involved in the Korean War,” he says now. “What a worthless, meaningless war. So many lives lost — and suffering that has gone on nearly half a century.”

Encouraged by the recent summit between South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, Zhang hopes the Taiwan crisis can also be resolved peacefully. “If South and North Korea can meet, why not the leaders across the strait? We should all learn to be tolerant and accommodating, avoiding war at all costs. As a victim of the Korean War, I want to call for peace, no more war!”

In the South Korean capital of Seoul last Sunday, several thousand veterans of the U.N. forces gathered for 50th-anniversary ceremonies — and to remind the West of a war long overshadowed by other conflicts. In China, where no memorial events were held, former POWs still remember no less deeply, driven by the conviction that they and future generations deserve better.

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