Cultural Revolution

Remorse over Cultural Revolution sparks media debate

Remorse of former Red Guards met with general approval, as an opportunity to learn from mistakes of Cultural Revolution

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 May, 2016, 3:37pm

Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Soviet Union, once said that to forget the past was tantamount to a betrayal.

In the past few months, a number of Red Guards from the Cultural Revolution have decided to betray their consciences no longer, by publicly expressing remorse for their actions during the decade-long paramilitary movement launched by Mao Zedong in 1966.

A heated discussion emerged in the media last week over how the public should interpret such acts of contrition, and what younger generations can learn from that tragic chapter.

Liu Boqin, a retired cultural-relics official from Shandong province, took out a quarter-page advertisement in the monthly magazine Yanghuang Chunqiu in June in which he admitted beating and spitting on teachers, and terrorising local families to show his allegiance to chairman Mao.

"This is how deeply I feel the sorrow as I grow old - I cannot forget the evil things I should be held responsible for, that I was somehow coerced into doing during the Cultural Revolution," Liu wrote.

Mao launched the Cultural Revolution to purge dissent within the party, but the movement spiralled out of control, plunging the country into anarchy. People turned against each other at school, at work and even at home with no regard to the rule of law or even basic humanity.

Beijing lawyer Zhang Hongbing, 59, expressed his deep remorse over the execution of his mother by Red Guards in 1970 during an interview with The Beijing News this month.

Zhang and his father tipped off the Red Guards over "counter-revolutionary" remarks his mother made over dinner in February of that year, which resulted in her arrest and execution two months later.

The spate of Red Guard apologies also comes at a time when Mao-loyalist leftists trade verbal blows with liberal rightists over the direction of political and legal reform.

Against a background of greater economic and political uncertainty than has been seen in many years, the party under the new leadership of Xi Jinping is also gearing up to celebrate Mao's 120th birthday in December. But while the remorseful Red Guards have received widespread exposure, some have questioned their motives and even sincerity. The China Youth Daily reported last Wednesday that Liu Boqin was questioned by his own son, who sarcastically referred to his father as "a celebrity" following the overwhelming response to his published letter. And, in Beijing, Zhang's family, including his wife, castigated him for bringing up the past.

Most commentaries, however, said the apologies were worthy of deeper reflection. The Southern Metropolis Daily said the debate should not just dwell on the substance of the apologies, but why it was important they be made.

"These apologies are not meant to sprinkle salt in old wounds, but to try to heal our national conscience," it said.

Quoting the novelist Li Yaotang (pen name Ba Jin), who himself was persecuted by Red Guards, the paper said acts of mass madness like the Cultural Revolution could only be prevented by remembering, not suppressing, what happened.

"These elderly people deserve to be commended for helping our community, the country and entire nation get rid of sinful roots."

The Changjiang Times noted that the younger generation might find it hard to comprehend how distorted humanity became in the Cultural Revolution.

That era is often portrayed as a collective malaise, with little reflection on the role of the individual in the fraught period.

"The apologies of Red Guards can be viewed as the awakening of humanity from the viewpoint of the individual," it said. "As members of modern civil society, it's our responsibility to learn such lessons from history to nurture independent thinking."