Cultural Revolution

Can China's new leaders finally lay to rest ghosts of the Cultural Revolution?

Lijia Zhang welcomes the debate sparked by the recent trial of a man suspected of a 1967 killing

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 May, 2016, 3:38pm

Once again, the term wen ge - short for the Cultural Revolution - is buzzing around China's web. This time, discussion was sparked by the trial last month of a man for an alleged murder in 1967, at the height of the Cultural Revolution.

In 1966, Mao Zedong had launched the mass political movement, intending to remove "capitalists" who had infiltrated the party. In reality, the enemies of the state existed nowhere but in the confused mind of the "Great Helmsman". In the name of the revolution, factional wars were fought; leaders at all levels were overthrown; and many intellectuals and other so-called "bad elements" were persecuted, tortured and killed, often for imaginary crimes.

According to China News Service, the accused, Qiu, a pensioner in his 80s from Zhejiang province, strangled a doctor named Hong with a rope. He said he was instructed to kill Hong by a civilian militia group which had accused the doctor of spying. After the killing, Qiu supposedly hacked off the doctor's legs to make burial easier.

Such atrocities were common during the decade of revolution. It seems surprising and random that a man of no importance should be brought to account after 46 years.

In the wake of the trial, a heated debate broke out on weibo, China's microblogging platform. Some asked why bigger criminals haven't been punished; others felt it was a move in the right direction.

The news also inspired others to tell harrowing tales from the dark period. I was particularly struck by the story of a young actress who was arrested and tortured after she accidentally broke a bust of Chairman Mao. In the end, she committed suicide. She was only 19.

Also last week, another Cultural Revolution story, this time from the neighbouring Anhui province, made the headlines.

A 60-year-old lawyer, Zhang Hongbing, has been trying for years to have his mother's tomb recognised as a historical relic. Zhang's mother, a doctor, was executed in 1970 after a tip-off from Zhang himself that she had burnt a picture of Mao - an act of unspeakable sacrilege at the time.

The lawyer, who described his life as full of regret, hopes the tomb can serve as a witness to the years of madness. On February 20, however, a court in Bengbu city refused to honour his wish.

The court's decision didn't come as a surprise. Unlike Zhang, our authorities seem not to want reminders from the past. In 1978, the party declared the Cultural Revolution a major disaster and then more or less hoped that the nightmare would fade from popular memory.

Literary works and films that depict the excesses of the political movement are still strictly censored; despite repeated calls by leading writers and intellectuals such as Ba Jin and Feng Jicai, there is still no museum to commemorate one of the most tragic and violent eras of modern Chinese history.

History texts at school only scantly mention the events of the turbulent decade. As a result, the raw truth of it is so poorly understood that some even see it in a glowing light, maintaining that people were more equal back then and there was little corruption.

Last year, I gave a talk about my 1980s coming-of-age memoir to a group of university students, both Chinese and Westerners. Afterwards, a 20-year-old Chinese student came up to me and asked if the tragic stories he had heard about the Cultural Revolution were true or if they had been fabricated by the West. I shook my head in dismay.

I blame the student for his ignorance. But I put more blame on the government for its unwillingness to confront its own history.

Our leaders are probably worried that the shameful past may damage the regime's credibility.

Perhaps inspired by the ongoing debate, scholar Wang Lixiong published a piece last month in Aisixiang, a leading intellectual website, titled "What has the Cultural Revolution brought to China?"

He argues that no matter how powerful a movement might be - even one that "shook Heaven and Earth" like the Cultural Revolution - if change merely involves changing one group of bureaucrats for another, without genuine reform of the dictatorial system itself, then there will be no political progress.

I am delighted by the outpouring of opinions from both ordinary netizens and prominent intellectuals such as Wang.

This month, a new generation of leaders led by Xi Jinping will take the reins of power at the 12th National People's Congress.

My hope is that they'll listen to such voices, squarely confront the legacy of the Cultural Revolution, and then draw lessons from it. This means enacting genuine political reform, rule of law and relaxing media control - the best way to prevent the Cultural Revolution from happening again.

Otherwise, the ghosts of the past will always haunt China.

Lijia Zhang is a Beijing-based writer, commentator and author of Socialism is Great! A Worker's Memoir of the New China