BEIJING (AP) — As a teenager, Wang Keming felt nothing but contempt for the older peasant his village singled out for collective persecution in 1970. Stirred by Mao Zedong’s radical ideology and inured to the rampant violence of China’s Cultural Revolution, he beat the man bloody and saw nothing wrong with it.
Decades later, Wang felt something that few of the millions of people who committed abuses have publicly acknowledged: guilt. He expressed remorse to his victim and later he shared his apology in a national journal, in what is believed to have been the first public apology by anyone for personal acts committed during the Cultural Revolution’s violent decade.
“I realized that what I did was an individual political act, and I must take responsibility for it,” the retired newspaper editor said in an interview at his suburban Beijing home. “Otherwise, my heart would be troubled for the rest of my life.”
Since Wang’s 2008 public apology, dozens of other participants have accepted responsibility and shown contrition. The vast majority have not, though an entire generation was almost wholly caught up in the events. About one million people were estimated to have died from execution, persecution, extreme humiliation, factional warfare and savage prison conditions — often in the hands of their fellow country people.
The Communist Party, which still rules China with an iron fist, also has yet to apologize five decades after Mao launched the movement to realize his radical communist egalitarian vision.
The party closed the book on the era in 1981 without holding Mao responsible or apologizing to the nation. It instead rendered a verdict that the movement was a “catastrophe” caused by mistaken policies and a handful of self-serving political radicals. A further re-examination of the decade might further threaten its legitimacy to rule; last month’s 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Cultural Revolution was met mostly with stony official silence.
Advocates of greater openness say that without an honest accounting, wounds will never heal and the movement’s unaddressed history will impede China’s political development. Xu Youyu, a liberal Chinese intellectual, said that by failing to admit its mistakes, China’s leadership set the wrong example.
“Such an attitude has affected the masses, giving individuals an excuse not to apologize, because those with graver mistakes have not said sorry,” Xu said.
Wang was among millions of city youths sent to the countryside at the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1969. Then 16, he was eager to play his part and prove his fervent loyalty to Mao.
By then, schools had been shut down and urban teenagers were wandering the streets with little to do but pick fights with each other. To prevent further rounds of chaos, Mao sent them to the vast countryside, ostensibly to spread revolution and learn life lessons from the peasantry.
Wang found himself in Yujiagou in northern Shaanxi province, a stark area of loess hills where he was forced to endure back-breaking work plowing fields of buckwheat, millet, wheat and sorghum on the arid slopes.
Wang was not allowed to participate in the revolution in Beijing, partly because his father had been labeled a “capitalist roader,” one of Mao’s worst class enemies. Now he saw his chance.
“I really wanted to join the revolution. I thought it was a meaningful thing,” Wang said. “The collective education instilled in me had sowed hatred in me against enemies.”
He never had a second thought about using violence. “Revolution is violence,” he said, citing a common saying from the Cultural Revolution years. “I never thought violence was a bad thing.”
As an excitable teenager, Wang also preferred joining political meetings called to denounce those designated as society’s bad elements over performing strenuous farm work.
“Since I slacked off in farm work, maybe I could make up for it by my zeal in the political movement, to show that at least I was politically reliable,” he said.
So, when the village picked peasant Gu Zhiyou to meet its quota of bad elements, Wang enthusiastically joined the farce of shaming the man, whose alleged counter-revolutionary crimes had included quoting an ancient Chinese proverb linking a weather pattern to mass deaths. His critics said Gu was hoping for an invasion by what was then the Soviet Union, whose relationship with China had soured.
At an Aug. 14, 1970, denouncing session, Wang shouted slogans against Gu. The group took a break, and Gu sat on a grindstone in the shade of a tree, but Wang felt a need to continue hounding the man.
“But every word I heard (from him) was defiant, and I told myself, ‘You can’t be kind to enemies.’ So I suddenly shouted, ‘You are still resisting,'” Wang wrote in his public apology. “I stepped forward, raised my right arm and slung it at him. I hit his face with my fist.”
Gu was left splayed on the grindstone, his nose and mouth bleeding. “I was a bit taken aback that I beat him to the point of bleeding, but then I told myself, ‘He is an enemy, and I can beat him as long as he is an enemy.'”
Scholars say that by engineering the Cultural Revolution for mass participation, Mao unleashed destructive powers upturning the prevailing social order, distorting morals and setting free the ugliest side of human nature.
“The Cultural Revolution corrupted people’s morals,” said Wang Youqin, a University of Chicago lecturer who has documented Cultural Revolution-era killings. “Too many ordinary people were part of it, and they are unwilling to admit wrongs.”
The movement began with a document issued May 16, 1966, by the Communist Party’s Politburo, which also purged four top officials. Widespread violence was not immediate, but that August and early September in Beijing alone, Wang has documented 1,772 related deaths of people who were beaten, tortured or took their own lives.
Many of the victims were schoolteachers persecuted by their students organized into Mao’s bands of youthful revolutionary Red Guards.
Wang said the killing spree — intensified by Mao’s encouragement of Red Guard violence — was one of the worst in Chinese history during peacetime.
“The weapons used to kill were not guns and knives, but the fists, clubs and copper-buckled belts of the Red Guards,” Wang wrote in a 2014 article. “The process of killing often took hours or even days. It should be called torture-killing.”
Cheng Bi, a 93-year-old retired Beijing school administrator, was abused by many students but believes two students — whose names she still remembers — should have apologized for their particularly brutal acts against her during the Cultural Revolution. One is dead, and she does not expect the other to apologize.
She recalled how she was forced to kneel with her arms raised while one of the students beat her wrists repeatedly. The other whipped her 45 times, turning her body purple.
“Anyone could beat me at any time,” Cheng said, recalling how her persecutors shaved half her head to shame her in what was spitefully termed the “ying-yang hairstyle.”
“They beat me with belts, slapped me in the face, forced me to perform labor and starved me. The students threw away my pain medications so I had to endure the physical pains,” Cheng said.
In one incident, students slapped her rice bowl out of her hands three times in a row because they didn’t think she deserved to eat, she recalled. “I was so humiliated I wished a big ditch would suddenly appear in front of me so I could fall into it,” Cheng said.
But she survived. In her school, one teacher hanged herself after five rounds of savage beatings by students during a single night. Another young staffer was beaten to death by students wielding wooden training guns, belts and lead pipes.
Decades later, Cheng did receive an apology, from an unexpected source. Shen Xiaoke, who as a student once harangued Cheng using the ideological language of the extreme left, sent her a letter in 2010.
“It bothered me that I was so irrational then,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in the central province of Hubei.
“I was really surprised,” Cheng said. “I didn’t think he’d done anything bad to me and wondered why he needed to apologize.”
Inspired by Shen, several more students apologized to Cheng for their ignorance, rudeness and callousness during the decade. He’s happy that a national newspaper published his letter, though it was printed without his prior knowledge.
“It can serve to represent the classmates who are too ashamed or do not have guts to apologize yet,” Shen said.
He noted that it’s easier for students with no blood on their hands to say sorry than those who do, Shen said.
He knows of a former classmate who kicked the teacher who later hanged herself. He said the former student has not publicly apologized, but privately has broken down wailing when speaking of the psychological burden.
After attacking Gu, Wang Keming remained in Yujiagou for several years and even worked alongside his victim. Gu was kind to him.
Wang said he felt a tinge of sorrow but quickly justified his act on the grounds it was a part of the revolution. “I kept coming up with reasons for my act, but my inner conflicts only grew worse.”
In 1978, Wang returned to Beijing. He worked as a laborer, then landed a job at a newspaper. He later devoted himself to studying the dialects and folk cultures of northern Shaanxi.
Wang came to realize the Cultural Revolution was a mistake, and later concluded that he bore personal responsibility.
“When we put collective values ahead of individual values, there can be no place for human rights, and no respect for humanity,” Wang said. “Because of people like me, a totalitarian regime gets to be stable.”
In 2004, Wang apologized to Gu, who died four years later.
“Hey, it was a political movement,” Wang quoted Gu as saying in his public apology. “You were only a kid and didn’t know anything.”
In January 2008, Wang’s apology appeared in a national journal. The article prompted a book project spearheaded by Wang and other Chinese intellectuals to find more people willing to own up to their actions.
More than 30 agreed, including Zhang Hongbing, a Beijing lawyer who had informed on his own mother. She died during the course of her persecution.
“We were the accomplices of the evil,” Zhang wrote.
Wang Jiyu admitted that on Aug. 5, 1967, he clubbed a boy who had hit him with a rock.
“He flew like a tossed bag and tumbled down an embankment. As he slowly crawled back up, I smashed him on the forehead and the blood splashed onto the club,” Wang wrote.
He was never legally punished for killing the boy.
“Repentance is not enough, and it may take generations of reflection to understand why there was so much hatred,” Wang Jiyu wrote in 2008. “For me, the remorse for the killing has only grown heavier with each year.”