Interview: 'Dear Chairman Mao, Please Think About What You Are Doing'

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china-cultrev-05162016.jpg Wang Rongfen in undated photo.

In September 1966, four months after late supreme leader Mao Zedong unleashed the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) on China, plunging the nation into a decade of political violence and social turmoil, a foreign language university student named Wang Rongfen wrote him a letter. "Dear Chairman Mao Zedong," the letter said. "The Cultural Revolution is no mass movement. It consists of a single man holding a gun to the heads of the people." Before announcing her resignation -- almost unthinkable in the China of the day -- from the Communist Party's youth league, Wang urged Mao: "As a member of the Communist Party, please think about what you are doing." Wang, then a final-year student of German at what is now the Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU), was jailed for life for her audacity. Now retired and living in Germany, she spoke to RFA's Mandarin Service about her experiences, 50 years after the Cultural Revolution began:

RFA: So how did you come to write that letter to Mao?

Wang Rongfen: When the Cultural Revolution started, a month after the May 16 directive [published on the front page of the People's Daily], we were asked to offer suggestions to our leaders. I was class captain at the time, so it fell to me to send the suggestions and to write the big-character posters about what we felt wasn't right at the time, mostly with the quality of our teaching and that sort of thing. But a delegation from the foreign ministry came to our university a few days later and students like me were singled out for political study sessions, as counterrevolutionaries. So I went from being a student invited to offer my suggestions to the Communist Party to somebody who was reviled as a bookworm with no interest in politics. Basically, anyone who got good grades and whose political pedigree wasn't ideal was in trouble. The Cultural Revolution had arrived. Later on, the delegation, which had been sent by [then president Liu Shaoqi], dispersed, apparently caught up in all the power struggles that rocked the party at the time.

RFA: What was your motivation as a mere college student, to write to Mao Zedong?

Wang Rongfen: Some reports said I was on the podium when Mao Zedong rallied the Red Guards on Tiananmen Square on Aug. 18, 2016, but that's rubbish. I was sent to Tiananmen Square as a student delegate to represent the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute, just around the time that the foreign ministry delegation left campus. By then, everything had been turned on its head, and people like me who'd been struggled against [by Liu Shaoqi's faction] were the heroes of the hour. So I was brought in to make up the numbers, by a strange twist of fate.

RFA: So you were able, at the time you wrote that letter, to see just how disastrously wrong Mao was?

Wang Rongfen: To start with, everyone there was full of warmth and tears of gratitude for our great leader, because he was the one who had changed our status from counterrevolutionary students to progressive intellectuals. But the struggle sessions continued, on the streets, in the college campuses. People would disappear in the blink of an eye, their lives obliterated like ants. They would beat them with clubs, poles, drive belts with nails attached into their flesh.

RFA: How did you find the courage, the anger, to do what you did? I mean, you were just a student of German, right?

Wang Rongfen: Actually that was rather relevant, because back then, we had no diplomatic ties with West Germany. All of our foreign teachers were from East Germany. But we put on a play, Professor Mamlock, which was about the Nazi persecution of the Jews. And yet the things we saw happen before our very eyes were far, far worse than the things we saw in the play, where all they did was put a guy on train and take him away to a concentration camp, or wherever, we didn't know. We would see people paraded on the streets, bereft of all dignity, their heads stuck all over with used toilet paper and excrement.

RFA: So what happened when you sent the letter?

Wang Rongfen: I wrote four letters to Mao Zedong, all of them saying the same thing, as a formal suggestion made to a party leader. Then I said goodbye to my mother, to the foreign ministry and to my college, and I went to a night-time pharmacy on Wangfujing and bought a small bottle of the insecticide Dichlorvos, which was pretty strong, and hid it in my pocket. From there I went to Tiananmen Square, and then to the Soviet Embassy in Dongzhimenwai. Just before I got to the embassy, I drank the whole thing down in a few glugs. Then I passed out.

RFA: Didn't you want to wait for a response?

Wang Rongfen: I knew there wouldn't be a reply. I knew from that time on Aug. 18, 1966, when (Mao) appeared before the Red Guards. I'd seen through him, and I was in utter despair for my country. Otherwise I would never have written that letter.

RFA: What did you see when you regained consciousness?

Wang Rongfen: I was surrounded by police officers in a police-run hospital. I had been out for a day and two nights, and I'd been arrested. I was locked up in the jail on Gongdelin Street. When I arrived, they strip-searched me and tried to have me sign something admitting that I was the counterrevolutionary, traitor and enemy of the people Wang Rongfen. I refused. I told them to get me a pen and paper and I'd write a big-character poster denouncing them. Then they locked me up in my cell. Actually, I wouldn't have lived long on the outside.

RFA: Were you mistreated in jail?

Wang Rongfen: Actually, the prison guards were very civilized, and the manacles we had to wear weren't too bad in Beijing. They were imported from the Soviet Union, and they were called wolf's teeth manacles. The more you fought against them, the tighter they bit into your flesh. But it still wasn't too bad.

RFA: So, you were sentenced in 1976?

Wang Rongfen: After I was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1976, I was taken to a labor camp.  When I was transferred to Shanxi, they didn't beat me up or yell at me, and I had smaller manacles, which bit into my flesh and had a huge lock attached to them. Three hours later, I was taken ill, because they stopped me from standing up, and my heart gave out. They still didn't take the manacles off until they took me to a prison doctor, who said I was about to die, and that it couldn't go on. It took an eternity to get them off me because the steel was embedded in my flesh, which was growing around it. They took my flesh off with it, and when they threw it in the fire, it made a hissing sound like a barbecue. That was my own flesh and my own blood cooking there.

RFA: How did you manage to eat, go to the toilet?

Wang Rongfen: What toilet? When we ate, we were on the floor like beasts, and they didn't have toilets. When my period came it just went into my trousers. You'd have thought that when Mao died, they'd let up a bit, but actually the killing was at its worst in the immediate aftermath of Mao's death. Anyone who so much as smiled, or suggested eating something was treated as a criminal on the day he died, as if they were celebrating his death. They treated livestock better than they treated us.

RFA: How long were you in there for?

Wang Rongfen: Nearly three years. Two women came from Beijing, out of the blue, and read out a judgement, which declared that I was not guilty. I was released that same day. I had no idea what was happening. I was pronounced not guilty and released on March 11, 1979. I had been locked up for 12 and a half years. My mother came to pick me up. Then the two women went off to other prisons, rehabilitating people as they went. The Beijing Intermediate People's Court was pretty busy in those day. I later learned that this was the work of Deng Xiaoping and Hu Yaobang, who were overturning these miscarriages of justice. They started with the bigger cases, which was anyone who had been sentenced to more than 20 years.

Reported by Zhang Min for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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