Beijing (dpa) – Zhang Hongbing was 16 years old when he and his father sent his mother to the executioner.
At that point, over a million people had already been killed and many millions more were beaten, humiliated and harassed in the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” – one of the bloodiest eras in Chinese history.
Facing internal criticism and seeing his status as leader diminishing, Chairman Mao Zedong in 1966 mobilized youthful Red Guards to stamp out “bourgeois” elements that had infiltrated government and society.
Historians widely agree that Mao wanted to use the revolution to purge his political opponents by turning the masses against them.
China was plunged into chaos and anarchy until Mao’s death 10 years later.
According to reliable estimates, about 1.5 to 1.8 million people were killed and at least 36 million people were victims of political persecution. Most of the violence occurred in the first few years of the movement.
On the evening of February 13, 1970, in a small town in eastern Anhui province, Zhang’s mother, Fang Zhongmou, railed against Mao in an argument with her zealous family members.
“Why is Mao Zedong making himself a personality cult? His pictures are everywhere!” she said.
“I told her, ‘Shut up! I will smash your dog head if you go against our beloved great leader Chairman Mao,'” Zhang recalled.
Fang’s brother begged her to take her words back, warning that she would be killed, but Fang said: “I am not scared,” then tore down and burned Mao’s portrait.
“After that, father asked us to watch mother and he left to report her. I also wrote a letter and reported it as well,” Zhang, now 63, told dpa.
Zhang attended his mother’s trial but did not go to the execution ground.
“I chose to run away. I didn’t want to see the bloody, cruel moment of my mother’s death,” he said.
Mao had initially supported the Red Guards and Xie Fuzhi, the national police chief, had said it was “no big deal” if Red Guards were beating “bad people” to death.
The Communist Party of China now officially views the revolution as “10 years of catastrophe” that caused “the heaviest losses suffered by the party, the country, and the people since the founding of the People’s Republic” in 1949.
But the party does not allow open criticism of the events.
As the 50-year anniversary of the beginning of the Cultural Revolution approaches on May 16, no official commemoration ceremonies are planned.
Few Chinese media have published stories about the anniversary, and government internet censors have deleted many social media posts discussing the revolution.
But Zhang, who stayed in Anhui and later became a lawyer and father, is one of the few former Red Guards who have spoken publicly of his regrets.
He said he wants to tell his mother’s story because he is worried about what will happen if memories fade.
“I’m afraid that it could happen again – only in a different form,” Zhang told dpa.
The Party has not released information from investigations on particularly grisly events, such as reports of people killing and eating victims in the southern region of Guangxi.
“The wounds are so deep that they reverberate to this day,” Chinese historian Zhang Lifan said.
“Today’s leadership derives its legitimacy from the legacy of Mao’s generation. The government is afraid of losing its power if it criticizes Maoist ideology too much,” Zhang told dpa.
Daniel Leese, professor of modern China at the University of Freiburg, said there are some similarities between the conditions of the Cultural Revolution and present day China.
“The cleavages of that time are still virulent. The new leftists are seeing an opportunity to build on Mao’s warnings of a revival of capitalism in China,” Leese said.
China’s income inequality is among the world’s worst. The country’s Gini coefficient for income was 0.49 in 2012, according to a recent Peking University report, where a number above 0.40 represents severe income inequality.
It is difficult to know what is happening within the leadership, but President Xi Jinping in May issued a rare warning against “cabals and cliques” in the Communist Party of China.
“We should not bury our heads in the sand and spare these members, but must make a resolute response to eliminate the problem and deter further violations,” he said in a speech.
Xi’s “tigers and flies” purge was launched more than three years ago, ostensibly aiming to punish corrupt officials in both high and low positions.
It has lasted longer and struck at a more senior level than many analysts expected.
“What is happening now is partially comparable to [Mao’s purge of opponents] but some fundamentals are entirely different. Xi is waging an internal party purge, but Mao used public criticism of the Party to bring the state to the brink of collapse,” Leese told dpa.
“The personality cult around Xi is also … not comparable to the propaganda around Mao. And the frenetic enthusiasm and absolute loyalty of people to the Party during the Cultural Revolution years are no longer a given,” he said.
Zhang Hongbing’s worries are shared by many Chinese citizens.
“If we don’t thoroughly self-examine the Cultural Revolution, somebody else might call it back in the future,” said one of the deleted comments on Weibo microblog.
“The current issue is not if the Cultural Revolution will come back. Because it already came back,” another censored comment said.
“It was not only a movement about ‘fight, smash, rob.’ The core of the Cultural Revolution was brainwashing people and turning them against each other. Then the leadership can benefit.”