I first started hearing detailed accounts from Chinese friends about violence resulting from Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in 1973 when I was based in Hong Kong.
As an American news agency reporter I couldn’t get into China to verify the unconfirmed reports of chaos and factional battles from Chinese I knew who had relatives inside China.
Only years later was I able to confirm that their reports were fairly accurate.
I decided to focus on covering the Vietnam War and to give up trying to cover the CR, as we called it, from Hong Kong.
More than two decades later, in 1994, after I’d completed a more than five-year-long tour in China, The Washington Post assigned me to go back to China to try to determine how many people had died in more than a dozen repressive political campaigns unleashed by Mao Zedong between 1950 and 1976.
I was fortunate enough to go back when both Chinese and Western scholars were unearthing new material about the Cultural Revolution and when numerous survivors of Mao’s campaigns were willing to talk with me.
Killings outside Beijing
One of my first trips out of Beijing was to Daxing County, located just south of the capital and famous for its watermelons. It was also known as a killing field for fanatical militants who had pledged loyalty to Mao Zedong.
Fairly early in the Cultural Revolution, from Aug. 27 until Sept. 1, 1966, these militants, including local militiamen and Party activists, killed 325 people in the county, according to scholars Wang Nianyi, Yan Jiaqi, and Song Yongyi.
One of my sources was a former police officer who told me that under orders from Public Security Minister Xie Fuzhi, the local police had released lists of “five types of bad elements” or “black elements” targeted for execution in certain villages in the county.
These included “landlords, rich farmers, counterrevolutionaries, bad elements, and rightists.”
My first interview was with Fu Yueying, a 64-year-old woman who told me how men, women, and children, ranging from infants to an old man, had been killed through beatings or strangulation. Other villagers said that some of the babies were buried alive.
Among the victims, the oldest to die was 80 years of age and the youngest only 32 days old, according to Song Yongyi.
On May 18, 1966, Mao’s designated successor, Lin Biao, had given a speech indicating that violence would be justified in seizing sources of production from “landlords,” even though the state had years before supposedly confiscated and redistributed private farmland.
Discovering a higher toll
I went on from Daxing to discover that the number of people who died in more than a dozen repressive political campaigns from 1950 and 1976 launched by Mao Zedong was millions higher than previously thought.
Meticulous research done by Andrew G. Walder, a sociologist at Stanford University, shows that during the Cultural Revolution alone the numbers of people all over China who were “harmed in some way without actually being killed is enormous—many tens of millions.”
Walder’s estimate of the death toll during the Cultural Revolution is relatively conservative—between 1.1 million and 1.6 million, based on county and city annals.
Against this backdrop it is easy to understand why the Communist Party would not allow any public in-depth discussion of or debate over the Cultural Revolution on its 50th anniversary.
Communist Party leaders have been concerned ever since Mao’s death in 1976 that any public discussion of China’s dark decade might irrevocably damage the reputation of Mao Zedong, the founder of the communist state.
The Party’s control over information and debate regarding that chaotic period is fairly easy to understand. But understanding those Chinese who still admire Mao might take more effort.
In the absence of officially organized events, scattered pro-Mao appearances by Chinese who feel left out in the midst of China’s rapid economic growth have occurred in recent days.
In the northeastern city of Dalian, some thousands of demonstrators paraded with portraits of Mao on May 14, while in Luoyang, several hundred miles to the southwest of Dalian, the Associated Press reported on May 15 that “Maoists” are still a force 40 years after Mao’s death.
The AP reported that in Luoyang “the old, the poor and the marginalized gather daily in the main public square to profess nostalgia for the decade-long political movement, downplaying that period’s violent excesses.”
Maoist nostalgia among some older Chinese appears to be based on the view that China’s growing economy has created widening class differences that didn’t exist during the Cultural Revolution.
While China now has more billionaires than any other country, it also ranks as one of the countries showing a high level of social inequality.
“Maoists,” said the AP, “long for China to reverse its path toward market capitalism…they have largely embraced President Xi Jinping as one of their own, though he has never endorsed their views outright.”
Despite controls research continues
Government censorship and controls over research have limited the efforts of Chinese historians, inside China at least, to publish major works on the Cultural Revolution. Recent Chinese history is obviously a highly sensitive subject and even off limits at some of the most prestigious Chinese universities.
But scholars continue to do research on the subject, even inside China.
As Ian Johnson noted in late 2014 in The New York Review of Books, a brave underground magazine titled Remembrance has published roundtable discussions of the Cultural Revolution and apologies issued by several perpetrators of the terror and violence.
But what had appeared to be developing into a wave of remorse apparently unnerved the Chinese government, which has squelched public discussion of the statements.
As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution this week, few apologies have been seen so far, at least in the public domain.
Meanwhile, both Chinese and foreign scholars continue to study the subject.
One example is historian Frank DiKotter’s recently published book The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976, which draws on previously classified Party documents.
Stanford’s Andrew Walder and Song Yongyi, an historian at California State University in Los Angeles, maintain Cultural Revolution databases.
Song was jailed twice in China, once for five years during the Cultural Revolution for belonging to a “counterrevolutionary clique” and a second time when he returned to China as a scholar from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania to gather more material for his database.
A personal note
After reviewing my own stories written in 1994 on the Cultural Revolution and other Maoist political movements, I’m struck most by the personal stories told to me by ordinary Chinese who survived torture, persecution, imprisonment, and the loss of relatives to killing, suicide, or forced separations.
The voice of one woman, Fu Yueying, whom I interviewed in Daxing County just outside Beijing, will stay with me. While most of her immediate and extended family members were killed in the early stages of the Cultural Revolution, one of her children, a 13-year-old boy, escaped into the fields.
Someone later glimpsed the boy in a town some miles away.
“He would be 41 years old today,” said Fu. “He may think that I’m dead. Please help me to find him…He was a good boy.”
I felt that I could do nothing to help. But I can better understand now what it must have been like to lose a child and somehow hope that he or she might still be alive.
Dan Southerland is RFA’s executive editor.