There is a moving essay in yesterday’s NY Times by author Yu Hua about growing up during the Cultural Revolution. It starts with the story of teenage man and his father turning over their mother/wife to the police for an anti-Mao remark she made. After being tortured, she was shot to death. Last year the Chinese media told the son’s story, and he related a dream he kept having of seeing his mother and begging for forgiveness, but she remains silent. Yu Hua comments,
Why, in those dreams, does Ms. Fang never say a word to her son? It’s not, I think, that she wants to punish him, for she knows that the true blame lies with others — with those who were in power at the time. She — like the souls of all who perished during the Cultural Revolution — is awaiting their apology. She has been waiting for 44 years.
Yu Hua notes how the government has forgiven itself for the horrors of the CR but has never sought the forgiveness of the Chinese people. Instead, memories of the disastrous social experiment have largely been scrubbed away, and it is even romanticized, with CR memorabilia for sale and models dressed up in Red Guard outfits beckoning customers on billboards. The Chinese people are practically obsessed with Japan’s reluctance to offer an adequate apology for its crimes against the Chinese people, yet the government shies away from acknowledging the nightmare Mao ushered in ten years later that resulted in millions of lives lost.
The attitude of the Japanese government toward its nation’s history infuriates Chinese people. But the Chinese government also needs to reflect on its own record. We keep warning Japan that it runs the risk of repeating its mistakes if it will not face up to its history of aggression. Surely there is a lesson for us to learn, as well.
I just want to go back to the beginning of this story to offer a brief footnote. I was reminded as I read it of a recent lengthy post on another web site that claimed the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution came about largely because people were given total freedom of speech. The implication is that give people too much freedom of speech and the result will be violence. But the opening story of this column belies such simplistic thinking.
In 1970, when China was in the grip of the Cultural Revolution, Zhang Hongbing, a 16-year-old in Guzhen, a county in Anhui Province, made a fateful decision. During a family debate that year, his mother, Fang Zhongmou, had criticized Mao Zedong for his cult of personality. Her son and his father, believing her views to be counterrevolutionary, decided to inform on her. She was arrested that same day.
Mr. Zhang still recalls how his mother’s shoulder joints gave a grating creak as her captors pulled the cord tight. Two months later, she was shot to death.
A form of “free speech” was indeed a part of the Cultural Revolution — but only free speech that remained within the accepted Party discourse. You had no free speech to criticize Mao and his henchmen. To do so meant death. People were punished, even killed, for remarks they had made long ago. So the argument that the CR’s bloodshed was caused by “too much free speech” is spectacularly ludicrous. Just ask Fang Zhongmou, above, about the delights of freedom of speech during the CR. (Sorry for going off on that tangent, but the post in question really bothered me.)
China, so insistent on apologies being made to them, needs to look in the mirror and tell the truth to its people and apologize for one of the ugliest chapters in its modern history. I realize that’s as likely as China releasing all its documents about the student crackdown in 1989, but it would be the right thing to do. Please read the entire essay.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.