Apologies for a Horrific Past

The Cultural Revolution Haunts the Present

On October 9, a farmer named Zhang Jinying appeared on the television show Please Forgive Me, a program usually dedicated to public apologies by unfaithful husbands and wayward sons. But the sixty-one-year-old Zhang’s apology had a depth and a historical weight rarely seen on that program. In 1969, Zhang had denounced one of his teachers as a “rightist,” a traitor to China’s Communist revolution and to then-Chairman Mao Zedong. Delivered near the height of the country’s Cultural Revolution, that charge led to the teacher’s public humiliation, physical abuse, and firing.

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A Chinese performer, dressed in a Communist Revolutionary Red Guard uniform, points a mock gun at a statue of a prisoner wearing a placard that reads “Beat down the landlord group” at a theme village depicting a Cultural Revolution rehabilitation camp, in Yinchuan, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, October 24, 2009.

“In Eighth grade, I made the most shameful and humiliating mistake,” Zhang said on air. “My goal in coming here is to give young people a foundation. In order to educate our kids, we have to get rid of this stain.” Lasting from 1966 until Mao’s death in 1976, the Cultural Revolution was Mao’s last grand experiment in social engineering. Calling on China’s youth to perpetuate the revolution by rebelling against all authority—except his own—Mao embroiled the country in chaos. Fanatic youths formed brigades, calling themselves Red Guards for their defense of Mao’s red policies, and publicly criticized, tortured, and even murdered those deemed insufficiently revolutionary.

Since August, the apologies of a handful of Chinese who came of age during the Cultural Revolution have found a particularly large audience. Perhaps it is because grisly stories of public torture and mass hysteria appear so distant from the present-day China of high-speed trains, expensive shopping malls, and a growing urban middle class (which the consultancy McKinsey now estimates at over 400 million people). But for decades after Mao’s death, while the Communist Party officially declared the Cultural Revolution a “mistake,” there has been little public reckoning with that shameful period and officials have steered clear of any detailed accounting of responsibility for the crimes engendered. President Xi Jinping has warned that a full repudiation of Mao-era policies could lead to “great chaos under the heavens,” and Xi’s revival of self-criticism sessions, in which Party officials detail how they have failed to serve the people, have incited comparisons to Mao’s campaign-based politics.

While the Party has chosen to selectively forget the most gruesome excesses of the Cultural Revolution, some ordinary Chinese are pushing to reveal the gruesome and extremely personal cost of the Cultural Revolution. Using blogs, paid advertisements, and television appearances, some participants in the horrific crimes of the era have begun publicly apologizing to their victims and calling on their countrymen to do the same.

The most shocking story to emerge during the recent wave of apologies came from lawyer Zhang Hongbing. In 1966, at the age of thirteen, Zhang joined his school’s Red Guard unit, making him a footsoldier in the struggle to persecute those who deviated from Maoist orthodoxy. In 1970, Zhang publicly denounced his mother, Fang Zhongmou, for slandering Mao during an argument with Zhang’s father. In a letter titled “Exposing the Heinous Crimes of Counter-Revolutionary Fang Zhongmou,” Zhang demanded his mother be shot. Several weeks later, she was publicly executed.

Beset by grief, since 2009 Zhang has waged a public campaign to have his mother’s grave protected as a historical relic, and has repeatedly discussed the regrets and nightmares that he says have haunted him for decades. “I’m proud of having a mother with the spirit of independent thought. I’m willing to dissect my own humble soul out in the open in front of everyone, and to repent openly for my mother, whom I denounced and sent to her wrongful death,” Zhang told Xinmin Weekly, a magazine that covers politics, in September. “I want to make people reflect: Why is it that in Mainland China we saw the tragedy of husbands denouncing their wives, of children turning their mothers in to die horrible deaths? How can we make sure this tragedy never happens again?”

As Zhang reflected on that question, additional high-profile apologies emerged in print and on the web. In August, Chen Xiaolu, son of Chinese revolutionary general Chen Yi, apologized publicly and in person to teachers at his Beijing middle school whom he had subjected to “struggle sessions,” a form of humiliation popular during Mao’s rule that generally involved intense public shaming and beatings. In October, Chen even organized a class dinner so that he and fourteen other students could apologize to a large group of teachers and administrators.

Other former Red Guards have used paid print advertisements to detail their crimes and express remorse. This summer Liu Boqin, a cultural affairs official from Shandong, published his apology for subjecting teachers to struggle sessions in Yanhuang Chunqiu, a monthly magazine. “With age has come deep and painful reflection,” Liu wrote. “Despite the influence exerted by the environment of the Cultural Revolution, when one participates in evil they bear a responsibility that can’t just disappear.”

These acts of public repentance have incited heated online debate over the historical legacy of the Cultural Revolution. Defenders of Mao’s legacy have slathered online message boards with Cultural Revolution-era slogans like, “Whoever opposes Mao Zedong is an enemy of the Chinese people!” Others have claimed that the Red Guards’ fanaticism maintained the ideological and ethical purity of officials, in contrast to the rampant corruption now endemic in China. One commenter wrote: “It was precisely because of the Cultural Revolution that no one dared to be corrupt, and it’s precisely because of the complete negation of the Cultural Revolution that corruption has sprung up like bamboo in spring.”

But these calls for a rethinking of the era have opened old wounds for victims of persecution. Some find justifications for the movement offensive: One commenter wrote, “My father was persecuted until his death during the Cultural Revolution, and I’ve been an orphan ever since. What more do I need to understand?”

The public debate about the Cultural Revolution’s legacy is only likely to escalate as China prepares to celebrate the 120th anniversary of Mao’s birth on December 26. Even for individuals merely hoping to unburden their consciences, solace can be difficult to find in a culture that prefers to bury its past. On the television show Please Forgive Me, Zhang paid a personal visit to the teacher he had once denounced. And at that meeting, Zhang finally had the chance to apologize in person.

“I’ve forgotten it all,” Zhang’s teacher replied. “I don’t remember those things.”