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Why It's So Hard To Apologize For The Cultural Revolution

China tries to come to terms with its not-so-distant past.

A 1971 school book cover of Chinese Red Guards
A 1971 school book cover of Chinese Red Guards
Tian Yuan

Song BinBin became well-known in China as a student after being the first person to put a Red Guard armband on Mao Zedong in front of a huge crowd in Tiananmen Square. She was also involved in the beating death of the headmistress of her school.

BEIJING – Twenty former students who'd attended the Affiliated Female Middle School of Beijing Normal University in the late 1960s recently men with their former teachers and families.

During the Jan. 12 meeting, Song Binbin, daughter of a Chinese Communist party patriarch and the school’s Red Guard leader at the start of the Cultural Revolution, offered an open apology to the school's administrators, teachers and schoolmates who were victims during that brutal period of China's history.

Indeed, one of the victims was Bian Zhongyun, the deputy headmaster of the school, who was beaten to death by students in August 1966.

Song is the second well-known figure to offer such a gesture, following the example of Chen Xiaolu, another former Red Guard student leader, and son of a Marshal of the People’s Revolution Army, who apologized for the irreparable mistakes committed during the purges of alleged "bourgeois" elements.

The Cultural Revolution ran from 1966-76, which is sometimes referred to as a "lost decade." It was hugely disruptive – especially regarding the economy and education – and the military eventually had to step in to calm tensions. The period saw millions of urban youth ordered to leave their families and schools to work in the countryside, and many people died as a result of executions or being harassed into suicide. Today, the topic is addressed only gingerly by state media and in schools.

The party gave its official assessment of the period in a resolution at meeting in 1981. It was a radical break from the line taken by Mao, who had died five years earlier. It read: "The Cultural Revolution was civil strife wrongly launched by leaders, then utilized by counter-revolutionary groups, which brought serious catastrophe on the party, the nation and people of all ethnic groups."

Still, Song Binbin’s apology sparked criticism, including one commentator who declared: “they apologize on the surface while in reality they are condemning others who don’t apologize.”

Wang Zhenyu, professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, said it's time to end any taboo around the Cultural Revolution. “Some choose to forgive, and others don’t," he said. "But in any case, it’s absolutely unnecessary to speculate on the motivation of someone's apology.”

1967 mass rally in Shenyang against two senior officials accused of treason (Wikipedia)

Wang says the Chinese authority's stance on the matter can be summed up as “denial,” deliberately avoiding the subject. “When we are to judge something we have to first make things clear so as to know what’s right and what’s wrong, based on evidence," he said. "We aren't even aware of certain basic historical facts. Although we are told that the Cultural Revolution was a disaster, we don’t know where it went wrong.”

Wang believes that the Chinese public and media ought to put more energy and resources into digging for the truth of what happened leading up to and during the Cultural Revolution. “Right now, when there is so much discussion about China’s possible future paths, it can be very valuable to go back to understand the Cultural Revolution," he said. "After all, reflecting on the wrong path taken can help us to clarify the direction of China’s future development.”

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