A poster promoting Cultural Revolution (1966-76) denunciation campaigns Photo: nipic.com
"The chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) was not an excuse for my own evil deeds; this is the painful result of reflections from the autumn of my life," reads an apology printed in a recent issue of the Yanhuang Chunqiu magazine.
"This has been a rock in my heart for years," said Liu Boqin, 61, a retired official in Ji'nan, Shandong Province, who paid for an advertisement to print the apology despite huge family pressure. He was expressing remorse for the violence he had committed when he was just 14 against teachers and classmates during the Cultural Revolution as a "Red Guard," in an effort to lift the weight off his conscience.
"It's good that he can come forward and speak, at a time when some people are trying to forget this history," Li Gang, Liu's classmate who also participated in violent denunciation campaigns, known as pidou, told the Global Times.
Liu's apology quickly stirred up complex national memories, 37 years after a dark era of Chinese history, and drew massive compliments for his courage and humanity - this was because the public have rarely seen these kinds of confessions from perpetrators of violence during that period.
Reign of insanity
Liu was a student at the Ji'nan No.1 High School in 1966 and his father was a senior official, which gave him the privilege of being able to denounce those with a "bad political status."
Many teachers across the country were stigmatized as "monsters" and suffered brutal humiliation and violence, including six from Liu's school. "I beat Mr Li Changyi, our dean, and forced my teacher Bi Dezhi to sing 'the song of monsters.' I made up 'reactionary slogans' for my art teacher Hu Xihe's comics, which were extremely absurd and shameful," he told the Nandu Daily.
"Mr Li was almost 60 at the time. Students forced him to bow and poured half a bottle of red ink over his bald head, and whipped him with a kitchen rug," said Li Gang, "Such things happened around the nation; young people went crazy."
They also searched their classmates' homes and harassed them. "We confiscated what was probably the entire life savings of Han Guiying, but I can never apologize to her as she died several years ago," said Liu.
Compared with their "minor sins," Wang Jiyu, 62, a leading horse breeder in the country, has been living with the guilt of killing 19-year-old Wang Yanhong with two others when he was 16 in a chaotic fight in 1967. He believes the two blows he delivered were fatal, even though another kid stabbed a dart into Wang's neck.
"I bludgeoned him with a stick as he was the 'enemy of revolution,' and freaked out when the school doctor said he had died. I was a murderer and I was arrested," Wang told the Global Times.
The ideology behind defeating the "poisonous enemy class" created numerous tragic stories, claiming tens of thousands of lives. "It was horrific when friends and families turned against you in no time," said Cao Guangbin, Liu's classmate who had "bad roots" and was bullied.
Tragedy and regret
The Cultural Revolution was officially denounced in 1981 by the Communist Party of China but remains a sensitive scar. Liu's family also suffered in the later stages, leading him to reflect and issue personal apologies over the following years.
Liu was not the first Red Guard student to make a public apology. Wang Jiyu also wrote about his remorse in Yanhuang Chunqiu in 2010, while Shen Xiaoke and Hu Bin, two other students in Beijing, wrote an open letter of apology to their teacher Cheng Bi the same year.
They all received forgiveness. Wang Jiyu was released from prison because of the pleading of Wang Yanhong's parents. Shen and Hu were called "my good students" by the teacher they used to beat, and Bao Dechang, Liu and Li's classmate who had suffered, told them multiple times to "let go" and that he had received great comfort from the apology.
"But my behavior was still wrong in any society, even as a teen in that social environment," said Liu.
"I almost untied the knot in my heart by speaking out. Not because they forgave me, but because I finally apologized."
Apologies like these have been extremely rare over the past few decades. Liu has been considering making a public apology for years, but was worried that it might create pressure for his "accomplices." Family members also said the public might view him as a villain. He's unlikely to be alone in facing these pressures, with millions of other participants staying silent.
"That's the reason for those crazy times; people were obsessed with the war between classes, when perpetrators and victims overturned each other to show loyalty to Chairman Mao and avoid becoming the enemy, and go on spreading hatred in a cycle," said Wang Jiyu.
Guo Changhui (pseudonym) is a retired engineer in Liaoning Province who as a teenager in 1969 "helped to persecute" his neighbor, an accomplished doctor, resulting in his death. "We were too weak to resist the environment we were in, and were attracted and supported by that evil revolutionary passion even if we didn't believe in it. How can we make up for this breakdown in humanity?" he asked.
Over 50,000 netizens showed their respect for people like Liu on Sina Weibo, calling it salvation "for our country, which doesn't have a tradition of confession," also saying they wished more people could stand up and face history.
Wang Jiyu said he believes that apologizing for these deeds may become more normal for his generation if the hatred dredged up by the Cultural Revolution could be resolved, but said the public should engage in deep and holistic reflection about the Cultural Revolution in order to ensure that the scars left behind don't result in attempts at revenge.
"Wang Yanhong's parents were so amazing; they didn't tell their families anything about me, in order to prevent them from taking 'revenge,'" he said.
Li Gang said he wishes there could be an official memorial to that era, like a museum, "to remember the history and really think deeply about our mistakes."