BEIJING — As a teenager during China’s Cultural Revolution, Zhang Hongbing provided the tip that led to his own mother’s execution.
Mr Zhang remembers the events well. It was the evening of February 13th 1970. His mother had expressed private doubts about Mao Zedong’s leadership and voiced support for purged officials. Outraged, Mr Zhang left the house alongside his father to inform on her. The pair returned to discover his mother ripping posters of Mao from the wall. Mr Zhang beat her and his father asked him to tie her up with rope before authorities arrived to arrest her. In a report Mr Zhang personally recommended that she receive the death penalty. His mother was later shot at a public trial.
The 15-year-old boy was commended as a model Red Guard. More than four decades later Mr Zhang says he felt no remorse at the time but now admits to “painful, suicidal” feelings. He is lobbying the government, through the law courts, to make his mother’s tomb a cultural relic. He implores: “I call on the people to say: ‘Let’s not forget’”.
In February, in his hometown of Bengbu, in eastern Anhui province, authorities rejected Mr Zhang’s latest proposal. The move is unsurprising. In 1981 the Chinese Communist Party officially repudiated the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when Mao mobilised young Red Guards to rebel against their parents, teachers and intellectuals, leading to the deaths, torture and humiliation of millions. But public discussion of this chaotic time has been discouraged. The party worries that exhuming the ghosts of the past could undermine its legitimacy.
There are signs this may be changing. Zhang Ming, a professor at Beijing’s Renmin University, published an op-ed February 20th in the state-run China Youth Daily arguing that the only way for China to recover its humanity is to re-examine the Cultural Revolution—a tragedy he compares in its horror and scope to events in Nazi Germany—openly. But whereas Europe has commemorations and memorials, China has no such thing. Mr Zhang draws on the symbol of cannibalism—the ritualistic eating of enemies’ hearts and livers was reported during the period. Unless China confronts its past it will remain a “den of cannibals”, Mr Zhang writes. Within five days of publication one version of the article reposted online received more than 300,000 hits.
That the article was allowed to run at all is significant. In 2006 censors banned all commemorative features of the 40th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution. Its publication follows a moderate loosening of political taboos. In 2012, the outgoing premier, Wen Jiabao, warned that without reform, tragedies like the Cultural Revolution might happen again.
Mr Wen’s reference to the Cultural Revolution’s “evil legacy” marked a dig at a disgraced former official, Bo Xilai, who, while serving as the top Communist Party official in the south-western city of Chongqing, had tapped into Maoist nostalgia. But by breaking the silence previous leaders had kept, Mr Wen also prompted discussion among the populace.
In February, this reached boiling point over news that a man in his 80s was to stand trial in Rui’an, in eastern Zhejiang province, for a murder that allegedly happened in 1967. The defendant, identified as Qiu Riren, is accused of strangling and dismembering a doctor who was suspected of being a spy. Charges were filed in the 1980s but Mr Qiu had been on the run for decades, according to state media.
Though a verdict has yet to be made public the case has caught public attention. In social media, debate about how to assess culpability for the Cultural Revolution has risen to levels seldom seen before.
Reactions are split. Some say Mr Qiu has had his comeuppance; others view him as a helpless scapegoat. “What is the point of the trial! The ultimate culprit is still standing on the square being worshipped by tens of thousands of people,” wrote one user on the microblog Sina Weibo, referring to Mao’s portrait which still hangs over Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Most are perplexed as to why the trial is happening now, 46 years after the event. Was it an accident that this case made it to the courts, or is it a real turning point?
Frank Dikötter, an historian who is researching a book on the Cultural Revolution, believes the trial is unlikely to open the floodgates to further accusations of blame. To do so would spell disaster for the party, he says. Most of its members aged over 60 lived through the era. Few have clean hands.
Mr Dikötter surmises that the case might be more localised, and perhaps even a vendetta in which the alleged Cultural Revolution murder serves merely as a convenient excuse to exact revenge for something else. Local politics is likely to have shaped the decision, agrees Ding Xueliang, an expert on the era who teaches at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Local officials who were instigators of Cultural Revolution violence would have little incentive to allow such a trial; but officials from persecuted families might be more lax, explains Mr Ding.
Mr Qiu’s trial may also simply be an anomaly. The Global Times reported that the statute of limitations for grievous crimes in China is 20 years; it was in the 1980s that Mr Qiu was first charged.
One thing is certain. The stakes are high. If it allows the gates to open too widely in attributing blame for the Cultural Revolution, the party risks sullying its own reputation, perhaps beyond repair. But keeping them firmly shut risks nurturing a nostalgia for the disastrous era, borne of frustration with the current leadership and a lack of information about the past.
To Mr Zhang, avoiding the latter is paramount. For that he is willing to turn to the people to disclose the truth about his own past. “I volunteer to present the facts of this case to the public for judgment,” he says. “I think the right moment to discuss the Cultural Revolution is now.”