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In China, a son haunted by the Cultural Revolution

Zhang Hongbing was a 15-year-old Red Guard when his mother was executed by firing squad. Today, he tries to make his peace, and make amends.

March 30, 2013|By John Hannon, Los Angeles Times
  • Zhang Hongbing stands at the site of his mother's grave, marked by a red stone visible in the background, in Guzhen, China. She was executed in the Cultural Revolution in 1970. Zhang wants to put up a memorial.
Zhang Hongbing stands at the site of his mother's grave, marked by… (John Hannon / Los Angeles…)

GUZHEN, China — At 58, Zhang Hongbing is still tormented by the death of his mother more than four decades ago. She was a victim of China's Cultural Revolution, executed by firing squad during Chairman Mao Tse-tung's decadelong purge of capitalism, cultural elites and political rivals.

As a 15-year-old Red Guard, Zhang denounced her to authorities.

Today Zhang is a lawyer, and he is trying to make amends for his past. He has officially cleared his mother's name of the charges for which she was killed, and he has reconciled with relatives. Now he is trying to win official landmark status for her grave, hidden by a lumberyard built near the spot.

"I want to use this savage, inhumane case to make all of my compatriots understand exactly what happened in our home," Zhang said in an interview recently near Guzhen, about 600 miles south of Beijing.

Zhang said he feels that the story provides an important lesson for the country, especially after the recent political campaigns of the now-disgraced Bo Xilai, a former Red Guard and son of a Mao-era general.

Zhang, a compact man with graying hair, splits his time between Beijing and the riverside plains of Anhui province here, where he grew up. Grain fields dominate the area, but Zhang says he was raised as an "official's kid," not a farmer. His father, who died in 2003, headed the county health department. Zhang's mother was a hospital administrator. Both were People's Liberation Army veterans and Communist Party members, as is Zhang.

The circumstances of his mother's death led Zhang to choose the legal profession, he says. And he has used his legal expertise on his mother's behalf. Recently, he set out the facts of his family's history on a blog. His narrative and the supporting documents drawn from local records have not been censored.

Zhang, along with his older sister, joined the Red Guard youth paramilitary movement at the outset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Zhang's given name was Tiefu, but at 13 he was so excited about the Revolution that he changed it to Hongbing (literally, "red soldier"). "My parents agreed, and not only that, they were really happy," he recalled.

Yet by year's end, the Cultural Revolution had begun pulling his family apart.

Zhang's older sister contracted meningitis in dirty travel facilities while going to Beijing to hear Mao speak at a rally. She died in December 1966 at the age of 14.

Zhang's father, meanwhile, was subjected to "criticism and struggle sessions" by his colleagues and by the Red Guard. At that stage, Mao's faction in Beijing encouraged Chinese youths and party members to abuse and humiliate authority figures, especially those suspected of sympathy with Mao's rivals.

"I didn't beat my father, but I was at the sessions," Zhang said. "I might have been yelling, I don't remember."

Zhang's mother, Fang Zhongmou, also underwent two years of criticism sessions. In an album of Cultural Revolution memorabilia stashed among his office files, Zhang keeps a tiny sepia snapshot of his mother and father, wearing dunces' caps, on a forced march through town.

Zhang said his mother was vulnerable because her own father had been executed in 1951 as a landlord, a bandit, and a spy. The accusations were made, without proof, he said, during an anti-landlord campaign launched by the Communist Party shortly after its 1949 victory in the civil war. With a "counter-revolutionary" family background, Fang was barred from entering the Party in the early 1950s, and then became a prime target for criticism sessions years later.

Having suffered the loss of her daughter and years of violent criticism sessions, Fang Zhongmou finally snapped one evening in 1970.

"Why is Mao creating a cult of personality?" she asked her husband and son. She threatened to tear down portraits of Mao in their house, and she suggested that China should posthumously rehabilitate Liu Shaoqi, a leading politician whom Mao had imprisoned and who died in custody in 1969.

Zhang was horrified, as was his father.

"If you attack our dearest leader Mao Tse-tung, you'll get your dog's head crushed!" Zhang told his mother, according to testimony he filed to the military court investigating his mother, and retrieved from the Beijing National Library in 2009.

When his mother refused to take back her words, the young Zhang denounced her in a note he placed under the door of an army officer who lived nearby. Zhang's father, meanwhile, fetched the military police unit charged with law enforcement in Guzhen during the Cultural Revolution.

In fury, Fang locked herself in a room and set fire to a portrait of Mao. Her husband ordered her out of the room and instructed his son to beat her. Zhang complied, striking her on the back with his fists.

A soldier brought in by Zhang's father then struck her and took her away.

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