for any The regime is bent on forgetting the horrors of the past, and the last surviving victims are a troubled bunch. As they get older, it becomes harder for those who experience or witness acts of political violence to remain silent. The Chinese Communist Party is facing such a moment. Even the youngest participant in the Cultural Revolution will soon be 70. While there is still time, some survivors are talking about the deadly decade of purges and bloodletting launched by Chairman Mao Zedong in 1966 as a way to outflank critics of the party establishment. Unfortunately for these survivors, the collective interests of the ruling party, and indeed the country, as defined by the paramount leader, President Xi Jinping, leave little room for personal pangs of conscience.
School textbooks offer only brief descriptions of the 1960s and 1970s, claiming that Mao’s mistakes were outweighed by his achievements. Xi Jinping denounced the “historical nihilism” of “hostile forces” at home and abroad. He meant revisiting dark events from the past to shake public confidence in the party’s leadership. For some older Chinese, the cries of oblivion are attractive. For others who suffered under Mao, the party-mandated amnesia was brutal: life in prison without the possibility of parole.
To better understand this moment, inspectors visit a family that was first convicted of a “counter-revolutionary” more than 70 years ago. In 1949, after the Chinese Civil War ended, the Wang family of Shishi village in Jiangxi province was on the wrong side. Its founder was a lieutenant colonel in the Nationalist army who was defeated by the Communist army. He was sentenced to hard labor. His only child — idealist and nerdy Wang Kangfu — became a principal at 17, teaching Chinese literature at a rural elementary school. When the Cultural Revolution began, Xiao Wang was 24 years old. Soon after, police and revolutionary law enforcement officers from the “Socialist Education Work Group” removed him from the classroom. The investigative report used in the ensuing trial began with his class background. It accused him of opposing Mao Zedong’s policies, reading classics under the counter-revolutionary influence of his father and teaching children to be spies. After listing his political offences, it accused him of raping and beating schoolgirls as young as 12 and complained of his “cunning” pleas.
Wang was convicted of two counts of rape and ten counts of molestation. He was sentenced to ten years of forced labor. After his release in 1975, he continued to maintain his innocence. He is introduced to another class enemy, Zhou Ying, the daughter of a landlord who fled to the then British colony of Hong Kong. Locals thought they would be a good fit. The two married in 1977, a year after Mao Zedong’s death effectively ended the Cultural Revolution. Despite suspicions that the Revolutionary Tribunal’s decision was dangerous, Shi Shi’s village school hired Wang as a substitute teacher, a low-paying job he would hold for years. He would go on to have four children but devote most of his energy and modest income to seeking a retrial or exoneration.
A few years after Mao’s death, Wang was all but cleared of his crimes. It was a relatively open era, suitable for economic reformers at the top of the party to allow some discussion of the crimes committed by left-wing zealots. At a risk, he wrote to former students whose testimony incriminated him. In all, he found 10 of the 12 students as witnesses. In letters and affidavits, he is said to be innocent by all, including the two students listed as rape victims. Some responded that they did not know they had accused him of rape, or that they had been taught to report him. In 1980, a close relative had his case reviewed by a local court. According to his younger daughter, Wang Zhenzhen, the commentary described a “classic case concocted in the socialist education movement.” But his hopes were dashed. At first, a county judge privately questioned his insistence on not seeking financial damages. A higher court then dismissed his appeal accusing him of colluding with witnesses. The teacher persisted alone for four decades, waking up before dawn to write hundreds of letters to courts, prosecutors and state leaders.
By any legal standard, a case merits retrial
Wang’s sense of loneliness has eased in recent years. Lawyers offered free advice, saying the prosecution’s evidence was weak. Chinese journalists interviewed him, testing the boundaries of censorship. Seeing these reports, his former students gathered to collect new statements. Classmates “all felt he was wronged,” said one, a refreshed 71-year-old retired forestry worker. In 1966, the inspector took the inspector to meet one of the two rape victims, and he admitted that the female classmates were tired of talking about the case and were afraid of neighbor gossip. The woman confirmed Wang’s account of innocence before retreating indoors, saying the topic upset her husband and adult son.
In January 2022, China’s prosecutor general refused to reopen the case, citing a lack of new evidence, in a serious blow. Wang’s wife isn’t jealous of his 44-year campaign, though the cold and dampness of their cement-floor home forces her indoors to wear thick coats and purple wool hats. She admitted that the case had robbed the family of a normal life and made their home “feel like home”. Sometimes poverty forces families to eat rotting vegetables and the meat of pigs culled for swine fever. But she described her husband as a kind and kind man. She likened him to a thermos, cold on the outside and hot on the inside. “I have to support him, this is a very unjust case,” she said.
Such insistence is inconvenient for China’s rulers, but time is on their side. Wang died last October at the age of 80. His photo sits on the dressing table, next to funeral couplets, joss sticks and a black-and-white portrait of his father, a Kuomintang colonel. Authorities can wait. Soon, the Cultural Revolution will be known only through history books, and those are written by the party. ■
Read more from our China columnist Chaguan:
What Party Control Means in China (March 9)
Why aren’t China and the US more afraid of war? (March 2)
Chinese public has had enough, but not on brink of revolt (February 23)
Another: How did the teahouse column get its name