Facing the Truth in China

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Gail Pellett is a Bill Moyers veteran, a producer, director and co-writer who over 13 years worked on a variety of projects with Bill, including including Close to Home: Moyers on Addiction, On Our Own Terms: Moyers on Dying, God & Politics and The Public Mind. The following essay draws on her experiences working with Bill on the documentary special Facing the Truth, about the South African Truth & Reconciliation Commission, and the year she spent in China as the first American broadcast journalist ever hired by Radio Beijing, about which she currently is writing a book.

A man cycles past old portraits of late communist leader Mao Zedong on the wall of an alley in Shanghai, China. Worn out portraits and slogans from the 1960s and 1970s, when Mao's cult of personality was at its peak, can still be found across China. (AP Photo)
A man cycles past old portraits of late communist leader Mao Zedong on the wall of an alley in Shanghai, China. Worn out portraits and slogans from the 1960s and 1970s, when Mao's cult of personality was at its peak, can still be found across China. (AP Photo)

The blogosphere reporting news from China is abuzz this week with the story of the former Red Guard – now in her 60s – apologizing for her behavior and expressing remorse for what occurred at her elite Beijing high school during the first months of the Cultural Revolution.

Coming to terms with what really happened during the Cultural Revolution is still controversial.
As reported by Chris Buckley in both Toronto’s The Globe & Mail and The New York Times, Song Binbin, the daughter of a veteran revolutionary general, Song Renqiong, returned to the school where she was a student Red Guard leader in 1966 during the opening salvos of the decade long Cultural Revolution. That’s where she had encouraged a confrontation with Principal Bian, the school’s administrator. According to Chinese news sources, Bian died from the beating she endured from Red Guards. It was, apparently, the first killing of a teacher or school administrator in Beijing – August 5, 1966 — as Mao’s new anti-authoritarian revolution took off. Within the first month of that complicated and cataclysmic movement, in Beijing alone there would be more than 1700 murders of teachers and administrators.

The Beijing News reported the story earlier this week and the Chinese media and blogosphere have posted responses to Song Binbin’s act of contrition. According to these reports, some are pleased with her expressions of remorse, but not everyone is satisfied with her apology. Particularly Wang Jingyao, the widower husband of Principal Bian, who has tried to keep his wife’s story alive for almost 50 years. He thinks Song Binbin did not go far enough in claiming responsibility for the murder of his wife.

Coming to terms with what really happened during the Cultural Revolution is still controversial. Because ultimately it leads to questioning the culpability of not only Mao but the Communist Party. So the Cultural Revolution is still a censored and delicate subject. It is especially meaningful to me.

With placards hanging around their necks, two Chinese men, so-called anti-revolutionary elements, are driven through the streets of Bejing by members of the Red Guard, on January 8, 1967, during the early days of the Cultural Revolution launched by Mao Zedong. The photo was taken by a Japanese businessman from the window of his passing taxi. According to the photographer, there were about twenty more trucks loaded with prisoners following in this public display of punishment. (AP Photo)

With placards hanging around their necks, two Chinese men, so-called anti-revolutionary elements, are driven through the streets of Bejing by members of the Red Guard, on January 8, 1967. According to the photographer, there were about 20 more trucks loaded with prisoners following in this public display of punishment. (AP Photo) Click to zoom images.

In the summer of 1980, I arrived in Beijing to work as a “foreign expert,” the first American broadcast journalist to be hired by the English Department at Radio Beijing, the Chinese equivalent of Voice of America. Just then, four years after the official end of the Cultural Revolution and the death of Mao, stories of the pain and suffering of that chaotic political and social movement were starting to ooze out in new movies and short stories – called Scar literature. Mostly they were stories of family separation when young people or parents were sent off to rural areas. The horrible crimes of beatings, maiming and murders were not being addressed. In our scripts at Radio Beijing the nomenclature for what started as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was now reduced to “those ten years of turmoil.” There was a sense that the upcoming Trial of the Gang of Four would somehow be a reckoning for all that went wrong. A public exorcism.

I proceeded to edit scripts, and to teach broadcast journalism and classes in American popular culture. In a way I was a Deng Xiao Ping hire, the result of the Chinese leader’s Four Modernizations policy. Engaged in gearing up China for economic reforms, as well as a little political reform, he wanted to reach the West with news that contained something other than Mao’s slogans. The Cultural Revolution was being put to rest.

A merchant at a Beijing flea market sits beside copies of propaganda posters from China's ultraleftist 1966-76 Cultural Revolution on Sunday, May 21, 2006. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the start of the upheaval inspired by then-Chinese leader Mao Zedong, in which millions of people were persecuted.  (AP Photo)

A merchant at a Beijing flea market sits beside copies of propaganda posters from China's 1966-76 Cultural Revolution in 2006. (AP Photo)

I was a member of a ‘60s generation in the West that had been bamboozled by the propaganda of the Cultural Revolution. Since China had been cut off from the West pretty much since Liberation (The Communist Party victory in October 1949), no authentic reporting or scholarship had reached us about what went wrong with this revolutionary movement. Even in the mid-1970s, when some of my progressive friends went on highly curated trips to China, they were kept in the dark about the brutalities of that period. Many Westerners were ignorant about how a movement with admirable ideas about egalitarianism could have gone so awfully wrong. How mob behavior had been manipulated.

But by being there, we caught and heard glimpses of it. I and other foreign experts who worked for Chinese institutions would hear rumors of humiliating confrontations, beatings, of bodies wrapped in blankets and thrown out of third story windows, of suicides after torture, of wrongful arrests, solitary confinement, and famous writers being sent to remote regions to clean latrines.

From my colleagues, I could never get direct answers to the questions I posed about what had happened at Radio Beijing. But at the time I was able to understand that both victims and perpetrators, in what became for at least one year the equivalent of a civil war, now sat beside each other at their desks, having no options to change jobs nor to seek justice. A kind of purgatory. Given the chaos, twists and turns of political directions and confrontations, victim and perpetrator could also have been mixed in the same person.

Jiang Qing, the widow of Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung, stands handcuffed in the Supreme People's Court in Beijing, China during the Gang of Four trial. Jiang was sentenced to death for her role in China's failed Cultural Revolution; her sentence was suspended so that she might "reform through labor." (AP Photo/Xinhua)

Jiang Qing, the widow of Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung, stands handcuffed in the Supreme People's Court in Beijing, China during the Gang of Four trial. Jiang was sentenced to death for her role in China's failed Cultural Revolution; her sentence was suspended so that she might "reform through labor." (AP Photo/Xinhua)

It took almost 25 years for the accumulation of reliable reporting on the statistics of the Cultural Revolution. At the trial of the Gang of Four in December 1980, the Chinese Communist Party put the death toll at roughly 34,000. Scholars gathering information from within China are now placing the figure in the countryside alone at 1.5 million deaths.

Chinese and Western scholars have written extensively about the causes, directions and details of some of the brutalities of the Cultural Revolution, and now estimate that at least 100 million people were persecuted in some way: arbitrary arrests, brutal confrontations, beatings, torture, outright murder, serious injuries, forced suicides, denied medical treatment after beatings, houses looted, forced banishment to remote rural provinces. Top officials were not spared. A half dozen of them committed suicide in the opening overtures of the Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiao Ping’s son, Pufang, was thrown out of a window during a “struggle” session and left paralyzed for life.

A few victims later confessed to “naming” a family member, a spouse, a colleague as a “bad” element in order to save themselves from more abuse.

Some 16 million high school and college-aged students were sent to the countryside to work in factories, mines or farms. Many could not return to their families and home cities for 10 years or more. Every work unit in cities sent their comrades to re-education farms for two years at a time. One of my colleagues at Radio Beijing had been sent to the countryside three times for two-year stints.

Male members of China's Red Guard with photos of Mao in Peking, China in an undated photo. (AP Photo)

Male members of China's Red Guard with photos of Mao in Peking, China in an undated photo. (AP Photo)

While the violent behavior and consequences are being tabulated, harder to assess is the trauma and suffering of families when children turned against parents or witnessed their grandparents’ suicide, or a husband’s humiliation, or parents, children, or couples separated for years. When I arrived in Beijing the news was filled with the problems of unemployment and a housing crisis as many of the “sent down youth” were returning to their home cities. During the years of the Cultural Revolution most schools were closed, faculties decimated and facilities destroyed. There was and still is the sense of a “lost generation.” In June of 1981, while I was working in Beijing, the Chinese Communist Party released a statement: “The Cultural Revolution was responsible for the most severe setbacks and the heaviest losses suffered by the Party, the state and the people since the founding of the PRC. It was initiated and led by Comrade Mao Zedong.”

That seemed to lay all the blame on the Great Helmsman. A convenient washing of the hands. Let’s move forward.

What fascinated me about Song Binbin’s public act of contrition was the language she used:

“How a country faces the future depends in large part on how it faces its past,” she said, according to a text of her statement published on Consensus Net, a Chinese website.

“I hope that all those who did wrong in the Cultural Revolution and hurt teachers and classmates will face up to themselves, reflect on the Cultural Revolution, seek forgiveness and achieve reconciliation” (as quoted in Chris Buckley’s posting in The Globe and Mail).

In 1998, I produced an award-winning documentary with Bill Moyers for PBS called Facing the Truth about South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation process. The South African model became the standard for questions of seeking justice and reconciliation in countries trying to move forward and recover from traumatic violent pasts when massive human rights crimes have taken place. It offered up the possibility of restorative justice – achieved through truth-telling – versus retributive justice which is played out in courts and involves punishment. In our interview with Archbishop Tutu, he said:

Watch a clip from 'Facing the Truth'

“The past has a way of returning to haunt you. It doesn’t go and lie down quietly. We need to acknowledge that we had a horrendous past. We needed to look the beast in the eye so that the past wouldn’t hold us hostage anymore… This is a moral universe. We have to take account of the fact that truth and lies, goodness and evil are things that matter.”

So given the extent of the crimes of the past that have remained unresolved and that have left an ocean of suffering and resentment and disillusionment, the question for China is whether the Chinese Communist Party — or a grassroots movement — has the courage, humanity and strength to take on its own project of truth-telling and justice seeking, forgiving and reconciliation. They are all linked.

The clock is ticking. The generations involved are aging and dying. The husband of Principal Bian, who was fatally beaten to death, is now 93. The Chinese people deserve a reckoning. Forgetting is not a way forward.

For Song Binbin, who after her Red Guard years came to the US to get a degree at MIT and worked in the US until very recently, perhaps her US education has included learning about a famous statement from Martin Luther King:

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”


More information about the crimes committed during the Cultural Revolution, and their devastating effects on victims and families, is available in the most recent edition of the Human Rights in China journal, “Living Through History.”

And for a broader overview of the Cultural Revolution and an accumulation of the scholarship it has produced see: Roderick MacFarquhar & Michael Schoenhals, Mao’s Last Revolution.

Gail Pellett, journalist
Gail Pellett’s radio, television and print work are posted on gailpellettproductions.com.
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  • Anonymous

    Good article. I am reading about how horrible the US treated the people trying to escape that nightmare.

  • Zephon

    Indeed we did little to help China and their people through this period after WWII and their Civil War.

    Sadly this came after China was our steadfast ally in the WWII defeat of Japan, we turned our backs on the people of China.

    Kind of our Cold War payback for Mao/Communists defeating our chosen one – the KMT.

    Ironically this led China under Mao to get most of their support from the Japanese. Whom he thanked for coming to power. Mao considered the Japanese a part of his ability to conquer the the American backed KMT in China’s civil war.

  • Anonymous

    It is scary and not the only guy that came into power with sane and good ideas then turned 180.

  • Strawman411

    The list of U.S. foreign policy insanities inspired by the overarching tenet of “better dead than red” is indeed a long one.

    This visceral paranoia gave birth, in my opinion, to the long slide of American democratic principles toward the corporate-owned husk of a once-free society we face today.

  • Anonymous

    We treated Chinese American citizens almost as bad as Japanese American citizens. Many Americans want to do the same to Muslims. Downright shameful.

  • Crusader70

    “Ironically this led China under Mao to get most of their support from the Japanese.” Huh?

    The Japanese never supported the communists, they fought against them. Mao was speaking ironically, that the Japanese invasion of China and the chaos that followed destabilized and exhausted the Guomindang government and military and provided the conditions for the communists to win the post-WWII civil war.