Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.01.21

Scars on Modern Chinese History

JBPress on January 17, 2014

In China, since last spring more and more ex-Red Guards have been coming out of the closet and formally expressing apologies for their wrongdoings during the notorious 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. However, some in Tokyo, as well as in Beijing, wonder whether these apologies are truly genuine or just being made for specific political reasons.

The latest in the series of apologies was one by a daughter of famous PLA general Song Renqiong, one of the "Eight Immortals" of the Chinese Communist Party. The daughter, Ms. Song Binbin, reportedly visited her alma mater in Beijing last weekend to express "eternal regret and sorrow" to her former teachers and administrators.

She was a representative of the Red Guards, young students loyal to Mao Zedong, and in the summer of 1966 had the honor to be received by Chairman Mao on top of the Tiananmen Rostrum. She was a senior Red Guard leader in her girls' high school who initiated a radical and sometimes fatally violent "political struggle" against the school authorities.

Such activities ultimately led to a mob beating to death the school's party secretary, sparking beatings of many other teachers across China and causing many deaths. Within just two weeks in August 1966, about 100 were allegedly tortured to death in one central Beijing district alone. Ms. Song said that her "inability to protect school leaders is my lifelong regret."

Many China watchers in Tokyo, however, don't take this at face value. They are not convinced that such apologies are a sincere expression of remorse and made out of genuine conscience. Many ex-Red Guards have been silent for decades, either for fear of being blamed for the innocent deaths or of losing their current status in the Communist Party.

Ms. Song's confession sounds humane. She is now 64 years old and does not have a lot to lose. Some of her old teachers have already died and others are in their 90s. She was quoted as saying that "If we don't apologize now there will be no chance," and "I hope my teachers can see our apologies." However, this is not the end of the story.

Those who were born in the 1970s and thereafter in China know little about these tragedies. This is partly because no one, neither perpetrator nor victim, was willing to talk about what really happened, but mainly because in order to save the legitimacy of one-party rule in China the Communist Party has not seriously faced up to the past.

It is intriguing that this series of confessions and apologies coincided with the Bo Xilai trial. Some sinologists in Tokyo pointed out that many of those Red Guards expressed their remorse in reformist newspapers and magazines in China and that this could be interpreted as a benign criticism against Mr. Bo's past and also of Mr. Xi Jinping's recent Maoist approaches.

In fact, another former Red Guard confessed that he was worried that, without greater introspection the chaos during the Cultural Revolution could be repeated. Similarly, a few days before the purge of Mr. Bo, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao warned that without reform among top leaders the country could face another "tragedy" like the Cultural Revolution.

Here, two questions arise. First, has Chinese society really changed since 1976 when the Cultural Revolution ended? Ms. Song Binbin answered "no" by saying that "If we do not thoroughly understand and examine the mindset behind the entire Cultural Revolution era, similar incidents will happen again."

However, those calling for a lifting of the taboo on the Cultural Revolution have faced political obstacles. The central party leadership has not yet fully denounced the Cultural Revolution, much less Chairman Mao who took advantage of it. Some reportedly even dismissed the "mistakes" of Chairman Mao's era as "fragments and nonessentials in the long flow of history."

This leads to the second and fundamental question for the Japanese public. Can we really trust the judgment of a regime which does not fully face up to and review their own past crimes or wrongdoings, but criticizes Japan for not doing the same? The answer is of course "no" again, but this will by no means justify a "revisionist" approach on the Japanese side.

Japan has already faced up to the past and apologized for the war and colonization, something no European power has done to their former colonies in the Middle East and Africa. Let us keep our apology intact and wait for China to fully face up to their own scars from the Cultural Revolution and the June 4, 1989 incident in Tiananmen Square.