China’s Brave Underground Journal
December 4, 2014 Issue
an unofficial journal published in Tiantongyuan, China
available at prchistory.org/remembrance
johnson_1-120414.jpg Magnum Photos
Young pioneers on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, 1965; photographs by Marc Riboud, whose exhibition ‘Witness at a Crossroads: Photographer Marc Riboud in Asia’ is at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York City, until March 23, 2015
On the last stretch of flatlands north of Beijing, just before the Mongolian foothills, lies the satellite city of Tiantongyuan. Built during the euphoric run-up to the 2008 Olympics, it was designed as a modern, Hong Kong–style housing district of over 400,000 people, with plentiful shopping and a subway line into Beijing. But it was a rushed job, and planners neglected to put in parks, open spaces, or anything for the public other than roads, which were quickly choked with cars. Construction was pell-mell, and the area has aged quickly, its towers crumbling and cracking.
This rootless suburb is home to Remembrance, an underground journal that deals with one of China’s most sensitive issues: its history. E-mailed to subscribers as a seventy- to ninety-page PDF every other week, Remembrance’s articles and first-person accounts are helping to recover memories that the Communist Party would prefer remained lost. Remembrance has no listed address, let alone bustling editorial offices. But if it has a home, it is here, in one of Tiantongyuan’s concrete apartments, a dark, ground-floor unit lined with bookcases and stacked with boxes of banned books—a fittingly anonymous home for a publication that officially doesn’t exist.
Remembrance is part of the rise of unofficial memory in China, a trend that resembles the appearance in the Soviet Union during the 1980s of groups like Memorial, a historical research society that helped undermine the regime by uncovering its troubled past. Today’s China is more robust than the Gorbachev-era Soviet Union, but memory is still escaping the censor’s grasp, posing challenges to a regime for which history represents legitimacy. The government still controls official history through textbooks, museums, movies, and the media. But memory is more private, and setting it down on paper can be presented as a personal enterprise, even when the outcome is highly political.
Besides Remembrance, China has roughly half a dozen other samizdat publications that explore the past through accounts of personal experience, including Scars of the Past (Wangshi Weihen), Annals of the Red Crag (Hongyan Chunqiu), and Yesterday (Zuotian). In addition, there are a growing number of underground documentary films, including some that send students to collect oral histories in villages that suffered during the Great Leap Famine or the Cultural Revolution.
One Saturday this spring, several of Remembrance’s regular writers stopped by the Tiantongyuan apartment for a pot of Pu’er tea and a chat with the journal’s cofounder, the retired film historian Wu Di. As they arrived, Wu leaned back in his chair and gave a running commentary on each. Among them were a computer data specialist at a technical university (“the greatest specialist on Lin Biao!”), an editor of the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper People’s Daily (“obviously he has to keep a low profile”), and a befuddled professor who had to call Wu three times to get directions (“what an egghead—he knows everything about violence in the Cultural Revolution but doesn’t know how to hail a gypsy cab”).
Wu is a trim sixty-three-year-old who favors denim shirts, leather jackets, and black baseball caps. He is also a cautious man, who positions himself as a just-the-facts recorder of history. “I simply write true things,” he told me, as the visitors pulled up chairs to a big wooden table, pouring themselves tea and cracking sunflower seeds. “No one says you can’t sit in your own home and do a little research in history.”
The group began discussing its controversial effort to encourage people to apologize for violence they committed during the Cultural Revolution. Some thought that Remembrance had done a good job by publishing articles and even organizing a conference, but others said they understood its critics, who claimed that the publication had taken sides in one particular case of a group of girls who had beaten to death a high school vice-principal in 1966 during the Cultural Revolution. That topic would return again and again during the course of the day—a sensitive issue that has divided intellectuals inside China and abroad. But first the group discussed potential contributors.
“One guy in our work unit, we see him in the yard walking alone each night. He published a book on June 4 [the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre] in Hong Kong called The True Story of June 4. After that no one dared to talk to him.”
Wu smoothed over the awkward moment by announcing that he’d arranged lunch at an odd little restaurant that aims to promote traditional Chinese values. Before we left, he pulled me aside: “You might be interested in politics, but I’m not. I am just a historian.”
And yet the distinction is fluid. Remembrance used to focus on the Cultural Revolution but over the past few years has broadened its concerns. As one contributor asked me: “When does history end?”
It’s hard to overstate how politicized history has become in China, where politics and tradition give it a mythic, taboo quality. Communism itself is based on historical determinism: one of Marx’s points was that the world was moving inexorably toward communism, an argument that regime-builders like Lenin and Mao used to justify their violent rise to power. In China, each succeeding dynasty wrote its predecessor’s history, and the dominant political ideology, Confucianism, is based on the concept that ideals for ruling are to be found in the past, with the virtuous ruler emulating them. Performance matters in judging governments, but mainly as an expression of history’s verdict.
Shortly after taking power in 2012, the Chinese leader Xi Jinping reemphasized history’s importance in a major speech. Xi is the son of Xi Zhongxun, a top Communist who helped found the regime but fell out with Mao and suffered during the Cultural Revolution. Some thought this family trauma might lead the younger Xi to take a more critical view of the Mao era, but Xi has presented himself as heir to the founding generation, including Mao. In his speech, he said that the last thirty years of reform should not be used to “negate” the first thirty years of Communist rule—in other words, you can’t support China’s current policy of opening to the outside world and economic development but also criticize the Mao era. Both, he said, are one and the same, two sides of a coin.
The unstated reason is that Mao isn’t just China’s Stalin—someone whom the Soviet Union could discard because it still had Lenin as a less tarnished founding father. For the Communist Party of China, Mao is Stalin and Lenin combined; attack Mao and his era and you attack the foundations of the Communist state. Five years after the Cultural Revolution ended with Mao’s death in 1976, the Party issued a statement that condemned that era and Mao’s part in it, but also ended further discussion of Mao by declaring that “his contributions to the Chinese revolution far outweigh his mistakes. His merits are primary and his errors secondary.”
For decades, many independent Chinese historians have tried to dig deeper, usually by publishing their memoirs and internal documents abroad. One coalition of scholars led by Song Yongyi, a librarian at California State University, Los Angeles, published The Chinese Cultural Revolution Database, a monumental work with 40,000 entries, including unpublished speeches, documents, and other information.1Others, such as the journalist Yang Jisheng, have published revealing histories of the Great Leap Famine.2Many of these works have been published in Hong Kong, often through the publisher Bao Pu, who runs New Century Press. All were inspired by memory. Song was jailed for five years during the Cultural Revolution. Yang watched his father starve to death during the famine. Bao’s father was a famous reformer who spent years in jail after the Tiananmen massacre.
Likewise, Wu Di’s firsthand experiences led him to explore the past. In 1968, when he was seventeen, he was exiled to Inner Mongolia along with millions of youths sent to remote areas to get them out of China’s cities, a move that allowed Mao to restore control after the anarchy of the early phase of the Cultural Revolution. Wu lived among the herders and horsemen of the great steppes north of Beijing. One day, several youths were accused of beating a man who had robbed them. Wu spoke out in favor of them and was immediately arrested.
He was thrown into a jail cell about twenty feet long filled with twenty men. They were accused of having organized a plot for Mongolian independence centered around the ethnic Mongolian Communist leader Ulanhu. After a month, Wu was reassigned to a cell with just two men, senior Communist Party leaders suspected of participating in the plot but distraught over their arrest. Wu was ordered to make sure the men didn’t take their lives.
“At first, I was just excited to be away from the overcrowded cell and didn’t care about the men,” he said. “But then I began talking to them and started to learn about the Cultural Revolution in Inner Mongolia.”
When he eventually returned to Beijing, he took a university degree, became a teacher, and explored the outside world through foreign films, which became his specialty. He published widely on the topic, including an amusing book on foreign and Chinese cinema that could be translated as East–West: Apples and Oranges.
Yet the memories of his youth stayed with him. He knew he had witnessed history and spent the 1980s carefully writing down what he’d heard, corroborating information with eyewitnesses. A fresh finding was the degree of ethnic hatred that underlay the violence. Official figures show that during the Cultural Revolution in Inner Mongolia 22,900 died and 790,000 were imprisoned, but there was no atonement and no discussion of the fact that most of the killers were Chinese or that the victims overwhelmingly were Mongolians. Wu’s conclusion was that this unresolved era continues to underlie ethnic tensions in the region.
But the manuscript was unpublishable and there was no Remembrance to get even the gist of it published in China. It lay in Wu’s desk drawer, a fading memory of the windswept Mongolian steppes.
The only way to get around Tiantongyuan is by car, so we drove to the restaurant through the bleak northern streets, ending up at one of the suburb’s luxury compounds. The houses inside were called villas but they were little more than concrete blocks, with blue-tinted windows protected by rusty bars. Out front were BMW s and Land Rovers—expensive anywhere but about double the US prices due to high tariffs. Rich people lived here, but they seemed trapped.
After winding through the subdivision for half a mile, we arrived at a small parking lot. I had expected a grand restaurant but it was a simple, prefab building with big windows. Inside, two volunteers stood behind a card table, ladling food out of two stainless steel buckets. The choice was vegetable or tofu stew, with millet porridge or steamed buns that had gone cold. It was 12:15 PM but already late for lunch by Chinese standards.
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A statue of Mao, Wuhan, Hubei province, 1971
On one wall was a large portrait of Confucius above an altar table covered with fruit and flowers. Across from it were elegant Chinese bookcases, with shelves of different length and height. They were stacked with books and DVD s, free for the taking, all extolling traditional Chinese religions. One was called Lectures on Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism, given at the Palace of Golden Horses Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. Another was The Hidden Truth: See Truth, Treasure Life. The restaurant’s simplicity and its free literature were signs that it was a center for traditional values. I asked Wu who ran it.
“It’s a businessman,” he said. “He’s doing this as a charity. It’s an act of benevolence.”
We listened to a DVD of a man lecturing from an enormous flat-screen television at full volume. He wore a gray collarless jacket, and stood before a backdrop of a sky and a field of cartoonishly bright colors. His topic was a Buddhist classic, but he was free-associating about death, morality, and national affairs.
“How can you tell a country’s condition?” he said. “By the virtue of its leaders.” Virtue, he said, means being not corrupt. If leaders are not corrupt, they are virtuous. If they are virtuous, they should be respected.
The People’s Daily editor laughed and shrugged, as if he were listening to one of his newspaper’s circular editorials. “The usual line from Chinese tradition—everyone should be respected and virtuous,” he said. “But what to do if the leaders aren’t virtuous? I guess you’re supposed to figure it out yourself.”
We ate quickly and drove back to the apartment. The men reassembled around the big wooden table to talk, but I went to a back room to chat with Dai Weiwei, one of Remembrance’s editors and contributors. Like Wu, she is a volunteer but works at it more or less full time.
At fifty, Dai is a tall northerner, with short curly hair and a soft voice. Her parents had been senior editors at the Xinhua news agency; this meant she grew up in a housing compound with other children of the elite, which left her with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of who is married to or related to whom. She joined Remembrance in 2011, three years after it was founded.
“This is a chance for us to look into our own history,” Dai said to me, as she perched on the corner of a sofa piled with banned books imported from Hong Kong. “Remembrance is ordinary people looking at history, not the government.”
Wu’s idea had been to found a publication to allow people like himself to publish. His own manuscript on Inner Mongolia had stayed in his desk drawer until the 1990s, when he met one of the West’s foremost scholars of the Cultural Revolution, Michael Schoenhals of Lund University in Sweden, who published, in an English-language monograph series, excerpts under the pseudonym “W. Woody.” Seventeen years later, in 2010, Wu published the book in Hong Kong.3
In 2008, he launched Remembrance with the Chongqing historian He Shu. In the inaugural edition, they wrote that most research on the Cultural Revolution had been done abroad, by scholars such as Schoenhals or Harvard University’s Roderick MacFarquhar. Now it was time for Chinese to look at their own history and publish their findings in China.
In 2011, the two men split amicably after Wu wanted to broaden the magazine beyond the Cultural Revolution. Wu changed a phrase in Remembrance’s sixteen-character mission statement from the “study of the Cultural Revolution” to the “study of culture and history.” With He gone, Wu needed help and Dai volunteered. (Meanwhile, He runs his own unofficial magazine on the history of the Cultural Revolution, Yesterday.)
Wu and Dai’s rule of thumb, however, is that history stops in 1978, which is when Deng Xiaoping ascended to power and established the current political system of economic and social liberalism, but strict political control. That means Remembrance avoids sensitive contemporary issues such as the 1989 Tiananmen massacre—a report on it would guarantee the editors’ detention and Remembrance’s closure.
Still, Remembrance publishes articles on some of the most controversial topics in the Communist era. These include articles looking at the still-murky plot by Mao’s favorite general, Lin Biao, to depose him in 1971, accounts of political campaigns, and histories of strikes in the 1950s—the supposed golden era of Communist rule when the party claims it enjoyed mass support.
I asked Dai if Remembrance had a kanhao, the government-issued registration that all periodicals must obtain to be legal. “No, but we aren’t a publication,” she said. “We are just a PDF newsletter that goes out to just two hundred people.”
According to arcane rules that everyone accepts but whose origins no one knows, China’s public security classifies e-mails to fewer than two hundred people as a private distribution list; anything more is a publication, which means censorship and oversight. So officially, Remembrance’s writers are just people interested in history sending out an e-mail every once in a while to interested friends. It’s not their fault if Remembrance somehow reaches many of China’s educated elite, and is avidly read and collected by researchers abroad. Forwarding is beyond Wu’s control.
Outside, we could hear the men arguing. Their voices rose, until the discussion sounded almost angry; one man seemed to be shouting. The topic was the apologies made to victims of the Cultural Revolution, which had caused much debate in China’s social media in 2013 and 2014. The group could not agree whether it was a good thing or not. I prepared to go over and listen in. Dai looked up.
“They get heated, but it’s a chance for a release. They teach at universities but can’t teach this to their students. Think about that.”
I will discuss the question of apology they were debating in the next issue.
—This is the first of two articles.
1 The Chinese Cultural Revolution Database, edited and compiled by the Editorial Board of the Cultural Revolution, Song Yongyi, editor-in-chief (Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong). The database can be ordered at: http://www.chineseupress.com/chinesepress/promotion/cultural-revolution-cd-new2006/e_revolution.htm. ↩
2 Yang Jisheng, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962, translated by Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012); see my review in these pages, November 22, 2012. ↩
3 W. Woody, The Cultural Revolution in Inner Mongolia: Extracts from an Unpublished History (Stockholm: Center for Pacific Asia Studies, 1993); Record of the Cultural Revolution in Inner Mongolia: “Ethnic Separatism” and the Movement to “Weed Out Counterrevolutionaries” (Hong Kong: Mirror Books, 2010). ↩
The Chinese Cultural Revolution Database, edited and compiled by the Editorial Board of the Cultural Revolution, Song Yongyi, editor-in-chief (Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong). The database can be ordered at: http://www.chineseupress.com/chinesepress/promotion/cultural-revolution-cd-new2006/e_revolution.htm. ↩
Yang Jisheng, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962, translated by Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012); see my review in these pages, November 22, 2012. ↩
W. Woody, The Cultural Revolution in Inner Mongolia: Extracts from an Unpublished History (Stockholm: Center for Pacific Asia Studies, 1993); Record of the Cultural Revolution in Inner Mongolia: “Ethnic Separatism” and the Movement to “Weed Out Counterrevolutionaries” (Hong Kong: Mirror Books, 2010).
China’s Brave Underground Journal—II
December 18, 2014 Issue
an online journal published in Tiantongyuan, China
Available at prchistory.org/remembrance
Li Zhensheng/Contact Press Images
Ouyang Xiang, son of a denounced former Party secretary in Heilongjiang province, being persecuted during the Cultural Revolution for sending an unsigned letter to the local revolutionary committee in his father’s defense, Harbin, November 1968. The sign around his neck bears his name and the date of his offending letter. When he tried to shout ‘Long live Chairman Mao,’ his mouth was stuffed with a glove. Several days later he was pushed out of a third-story window; the official report called his death a suicide.
In downtown Beijing, just a little over a mile west of the Forbidden City, is one of China’s most illustrious high schools. Its graduates regularly attend the country’s best universities or go abroad to study, while foreign leaders and CEO s make pilgrimages to catch a glimpse of the country’s future elite.
Founded in 1917, it has been lavishly rebuilt over the past few years, with a sleek new gym, dining hall, and classrooms—a monument to a rising country. But to many Chinese people of a certain age, the Experimental High School Attached to Beijing Normal University conjures up another image—that of a group of fanatical girls torturing their vice-principal to death.
For years, the event has been of interest to foreign scholars of the Cultural Revolution; it is a Lord of the Flies story that has attracted academics investigating female violence, filmmakers trying to document the mindset of violent Red Guards, and researchers trying to piece together how many people were killed, by whom, and how. In China, the story is more veiled. In official accounts it is usually mentioned as an example of the chaos that the country should avoid, and it is heavily censored to conceal the fact that many of the young women were children of the Communist elite, and today are prominent members of society.
But this is changing, part of a broader movement intended to shift discussion of sensitive questions from the private into the public sphere. Led by samizdat publications like the online journal Remembrance,* accounts of violence—including the vice-principal’s killing—are being published and passionately debated. More remarkably, people are even apologizing publicly for their actions, setting off long-overdue discussions about how China should deal with its violent past, especially when many of the victims are dead. Is it best to forget, which the country has largely done, or is there merit in digging up the past? And is it possible to have a cathartic confrontation with the past in a country with no real public sphere?
Over the past year, the apologies for wrongdoing have come in rapid succession. One man in Jiangsu wrote in a magazine about how he had informed on his mother, leading to her execution. In Beijing, an editor wrote an account of how he’d beaten a peasant who he thought hadn’t shown enough enthusiasm for Mao’s ideas. And in Shandong, a man took out a small advertisement in a magazine, saying that he had beaten and spat on teachers but now, approaching old age, “I cannot forget what I have done wrong.”
The most widely reported was last year’s apology by Chen Xiaolu, the son of a famous general. Chen said that he had led a Red Guard–style police unit but failed to protect teachers at his school from being humiliated and beaten savagely by students. Chen was widely praised for his apology, but after about a month censors closed down discussion—taking the relevant blog pages off line—because the issue was too sensitive. In an interview, Chen said one motivation for speaking out is his fear that many behavioral patterns haven’t changed in China. “In 2011, people were beaten during the anti-Japanese protests,” he told me. “People still have that violence, that anger.”
None of the apologies has touched a deeper nerve than one made earlier this year by a reluctant sixty-five-year-old woman—one of the girls who had stood by as her vice-principal was sadistically tortured to death. Song Binbin had been one of the school’s student leaders as the Cultural Revolution unfolded starting in May 1966. The daughter of a famous general, Song Renqiong, she participated in writing vitriolic “big character posters” denouncing the teachers and administrators of what was then an all-girls school. Taking their lead from China’s god-like leader, Mao Zedong, she and other classmates concentrated their attacks on authority figures, who Mao said had betrayed the Party.
In the girls’ school, this meant that the top suspect was the school’s vice-principal and Party secretary, Bian Zhongyun. A fifty-year-old mother of four, Bian was a staunch Communist who had joined the Party in 1941 and worked in a guerrilla base before the Communist takeover in 1949. She was seen as formidable, in charge of discipline.
At the start of the summer, Bian had been beaten by some young people but the violence had eased. Mao had left Beijing, and moderates had tried to get a grip on the situation by sending “work groups” to factories and schools to restore calm. But when Mao returned in July, he recalled the work groups, and urged students to resume their attacks on authority. Bian was beaten badly on August 4. That evening she told her husband that the girls would kill her. He urged her to somehow escape, but she was proud and certain she was a good Communist. The next day when she left for the school, she formally shook her husband’s hand, as if to say farewell.
Bian was tortured all day. In Though I Am Gone (2006), a moving and detailed documentary on the killing by the director Hu Jie, witnesses say the girls wrote slogans over her clothes, shaved her head, jabbed her scalp with scissors, poured ink on her head, and beat her until her eyes rolled into her head. When she started foaming at the mouth, they laughed and ordered her to perform manual labor by scrubbing the toilets. She collapsed and died there, her clothes soaked in blood and feces. Hours later, some students carted her away in a wheelbarrow. When students mentioned Bian’s death to Party officials, they brushed it off as not inconsistent with Mao’s orders.
Song’s direct role in Bian’s killing is unclear. She has never been credibly linked to the beating, but as one of the student leaders, many assumed she must have at least known about it. Still, all accounts show that it had been an anarchic and confusing day, and she might not have done any worse than the scores of other girls who were in the school at the time but did nothing to stop the violence.
What makes her case special is what happened in the next few weeks, and how she dealt with it in the following decades. At a mass rally of Red Guards on August 18, she met Mao on the rostrum of Tiananmen Square, pinning a Red Guard armband on the seventy-two-year-old’s sleeve. Mao chatted with her, asking what her given name meant. Song replied that Binbin meant “refined,” “gentle,” or “elegant,” and Mao suggested she change it to “Yaowu,” which means “be militant.” Photos and films show Song beaming as she talks to Mao, ecstatic that she has been allowed so close to the great leader.
The next day, an article under the byline Song Yaowu condoned extremism, saying that “violence is truth.” Schools across China were renamed “Yaowu” and Song became one of the most famous Red Guard leaders, just as one of the most violent phases of the chaotic decade began. In Beijing alone, 1,772 people were killed that August, with Vice-Principal Bian’s murder usually reckoned to be the first. For years, many believed that Song killed Bian as well as others.
Like other Red Guards, Song was eventually sent to labor in the countryside when Mao decided that their chaos had gone too far. Her family connections, however, ensured that she didn’t suffer as badly as others. Many urban youths were able to return home only after the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976. But like other children of top Communist officials, such as Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Song returned to Beijing in the early 1970s to attend university.
In the 1980s, she emigrated to the United States, changed her given name to Yan (which means “stone”), earned a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, worked as a civil servant in the Boston area, and married a wealthy businessman. In 2012 a Bloomberg News investigation showed that her extended family had gotten fabulously wealthy over the past decades, typical for the aristocratic clans that stem from the founding generation of Communist leaders and now dominate the country. In 2003, she returned to China.
Song remained famous, but steadfastly refused to give interviews (including several requests from The New York Review) though she did give some hints about her views of the past. In the 2003 film Morning Sun by the US filmmaker Carma Hinton, she consented to be interviewed, portraying herself as an unwitting girl who had been almost tricked into meeting Mao on the rostrum. She also said she didn’t write the article condoning extremism, and generally abhors violence. Hinton, who grew up in China and participated as a Red Guard at another Beijing school, was a gentle interviewer: in the film, she doesn’t ask Song about Bian’s killing, and she filmed Song in a dark room so that her face was obscured. Instead, Bian’s death was discussed by one of Song’s classmates who had not been present at the school that day. She started her account by saying that Bian had been in poor health, implying that this was an important reason for her death.
That same year, Song threatened to sue the University of California Press for a book, Chinese Femininities, Chinese Masculinities: A Reader, that made several assertions about Bian’s murder, including that Song “led” the students in torturing Bian to death. The two sides reached an agreement, with Song not pursuing legal action in exchange for the press issuing an erratum to the book and promising to make corrections to the second edition. The editors and authors also issued an apology for presenting Song “as responsible for violent acts that occurred near the start of the Cultural Revolution. Including these statements in the book was a serious error in judgment.”
A few years later, Song again surfaced in the media. To celebrate its ninetieth anniversary, the experimental high school published a picture book of famous alumni, including Song, and prominently featured the picture of her meeting Mao on the rostrum. Almost perversely, the facing page has a picture of Bian, with no mention of the link between the two women. Pictures taken at the anniversary event show a banner that Song’s classmates made for her that flew outside the school. It is adorned with photos from her youth, including the picture with Mao. The photos were widely circulated in China, eliciting scorn and anger among many victims of Mao-era violence.
But friends close to Song say she was troubled by being associated with violence, especially Bian’s death. That led to the involvement of the underground magazine Remembrance, whose editor, Wu Di, decided to get involved.
Earlier this year, when Wu and several writers who contribute to Remembrance met at an apartment in a northern suburb of Beijing, they spent the day debating history, especially the recent wave of apologies. The apologies, they said, had triggered an outpouring of anger and empathy that was so overwhelming that the government eventually banned the topic from official media.
Wu told me that Song had long wanted to speak out about the violence but was discouraged by her husband. When he died two years ago, she participated in a roundtable discussion that was reprinted in Remembrance. Later that year, the magazine also published a piece by her called “The Words I’ve Wanted to Speak for Forty Years.” In it, she recounted the circumstances surrounding Bian’s death, explaining how she urged her classmates not to be violent. The article went on at length about how Song hated the given name “Yaowu” (be militant) and had suffered for being associated with violence. Reading Song’s essay is an unsettling experience. One senses that her feelings are honest but muddled, a misguided attempt to equate her sufferings with the atmosphere of terror and violence that she helped create.
Song’s article was criticized as an attempt to whitewash her role in Bian’s death. Wu and Remembrance, too, came in for criticism for giving her a platform. Wu told the group of us at the table, however, that this had been his goal. By giving Song a place to air her views, he hoped to open up the discussion on responsibility.
“What I had hoped for was a Willy Brandt moment,” Wu said to the group, and the writers nodded at the reference to the former West German chancellor who in 1970 fell to his knees before a monument to the Nazi-era Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a signal moment of penance in Germany’s postwar rehabilitation. “But it became more complex than I thought.”
As Wu had hoped, the discussion heated up after 2012. When Chen Xiaolu, the general’s son, apologized last year, Wu urged Song to take the next step and apologize formally herself. Several classmates said they would join her, and several teachers from that era, now in their nineties, agreed to participate.
In January, Song returned to her old high school, where a bronze bust of Bian stands on a pedestal in a conference room. Bowing before it with several other classmates, Song pulled out a written apology, saying she felt “eternal regret and sorrow” for her actions. At first, Song largely reiterated her 2012 article, saying she’d tried but failed to disperse the girls.
But then she went further, trying to explain her actions that day. She said that she had been scared. People who had sided with the moderates were being accused of not following the correct political line. Worried about the consequence for herself, she “followed those making errors…. For this, I have responsibility for the sad death of Principal Bian.”
Wu also helped to organize a conference to discuss the violence at the girls’ school. Song sat hunched over a MacBook Air, and gave her account again, as did numerous other participants. A few weeks later, Wu dedicated an issue of Remembrance to Bian’s killing, including essays by Song and some of her classmates describing their experiences that summer, the violence, and how it happened.
In some ways the apology was remarkable. Unlike the statement by the general’s son, Song’s apology is more detailed. She describes her actions and how, in effect, she had been too cowardly to defend her teacher—a plausible enough explanation given her age and the totalitarian atmosphere at the time.
But Song wasn’t entirely convincing. Crucially, she doesn’t explain why she had assumed that the girls wouldn’t beat Bian when they had disobeyed her once before, or how she could not have known that Bian was being beaten after she left the girls—the campus is not that big and other eyewitnesses say that the atmosphere was so tense that people hid during Bian’s ordeal. In essence she explains these points by alluding to the fear that possessed her, and one can read between the lines and understand that she probably knew what was going on but didn’t act. Yet her circumspection left many observers dissatisfied, especially in view of her previous history of avoiding discussion of Bian’s death and even celebrating that era.
Bian’s widowed husband, for example, rejected the apology. Now infirm, he could not be reached for comment, but Chinese media reprinted a statement attributed to him calling the apology “hollow.” Many liberal intellectuals in China and abroad chimed in, primarily questioning Song’s claims that she had pleaded for calm. One of the online parodies that circulated did not mention Song but showed a cartoon of a tear-shedding crocodile in a Red Guard’s uniform. Another had a police officer asking a group of people why they’re admitting to having aided in torture and murder—are they here to turn themselves in? “Oh no,” they say. “We came here to apologize.”
From the government’s perspective it was more unwanted publicity about who did what during the Cultural Revolution—a not obscure topic given that Chinese leader Xi Jinping and other leaders came of age in that era and that some may have participated in the violence. One of Deng Xiaoping’s daughters, for example, was one of Song’s classmates, as was a daughter of Liu Shaoqi, another former leader. After a brief flurry of reports, the government issued a circular to editors banning news of Song’s apology, and ordering websites to take down posts about it. What had started as a way to put Song’s conscience to rest had the opposite effect, turning into a public debate that the government has had to squelch.
Wu is happy about the resulting public discussion but not about how Song was attacked. “I thought liberal intellectuals would applaud us for trying to get this discussion going,” he said to our group. “But after all this criticism of Song Binbin, who’s going to apologize again in the future?”
The writers gathered around the table began talking at once. Some supported Wu, saying he had done his best. Others said they could understand the unwillingness by some to accept Song’s apology, noting that she and her friends still wouldn’t say which of them actually had beaten the vice-principal. The group argued back and forth.
“The point is if they were Red Guards they were under Song’s control.”
“They know who did it—why don’t they say?”
“What purpose would that serve? It would end in suicide.”
“She excused herself but she did apologize.”
“Higher levels don’t want this because they think it’ll cause conflicts. That’s why no one reports on the apologies anymore.”
“Don’t forget that Bian was the highest Communist Party official at the school. If you put it this way—they beat to death the highest Communist Party official at the school—haha, so if you think of it like this, the West can accept it. The people who beat her to death were anti-Communist heroes!”
Everyone stopped and looked at the person who had made that dark joke. He looked down a bit embarrassed. “Just a jest, sorry.”
After hours of discussion, the meeting was almost over. The tea leaves were spent, and the teapot only yielded a weak brew. Dai came in and handed out some banned books that had been printed in Hong Kong and shipped up to China. The men figured out who owed what for the books and settled up. Soon they would disperse, heading back from this faceless subdivision to Beijing, where the Cultural Revolution had started nearly half a century ago.
But first Yin Hongbiao spoke. He is a Peking University international relations specialist who also writes on student violence. Like almost everyone who contributes to Remembrance, Yin holds no official position in this field because universities, even famous ones like Peking University, discourage or ban research and teaching of recent Chinese history. But he has written extensively on the subject, and the others listened attentively. Yin reminded them that people like Song had been teenagers at the time.
“Children can commit crimes, but you have to ask, who raised them?” He spoke slowly, and looked up at the others who had gathered around the wooden table. “Who encouraged them?” he continued. “We want them to apologize, but shouldn’t others, too?”
The room went silent. Then they started speaking, incoherent but passionate and urgent, as memories of the past collided with questions about the future.
—This is the second of two articles.