Yesterday’s review of “Reconsidering the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries,” is important reading not only to better understand the terror and hysteria of the Mao years, but to understand the way in which the past effects the psyche of Chinese people today.
Three bits from the article have been cycling through my mind since yesterday: that in some areas nearly 80% of the people accused were later exonerated, 30% of those whose death sentences were not absolutely necessary were executed anyway, and that even in my former home of Longzhou, which is tiny by Chinese standards, at least 40 people were executed. These three pieces show that the campaign was largely used as a source of revenge against otherwise innocent people, and that this campaign reached every corner of every village in China. Campaigns similar to this one were repeated throughout Mao’s rule.
I think in many ways fear of these times still remains. Even my Chinese-American friends, whose parents hadn’t been in China for decades, were cautioned as children not to speak openly with anyone beyond their closest circle of friends. One’s mother even scolded her for greeting a classmate while shopping who was just an acquaintance. “You don’t know what they will say about you to others,” her mother whispered as they left the store.
Later though, I learned that her mother’s father had been a principal prior to the Cultural Revolution. He was locked in one of the classrooms for days after being accused by one of his students of destroying a picture of Chairman Mao. Because of this, her mother was adopted by one of her uncles who was in the army so she could avoid being labeled a class enemy.
Another friend’s mother told me that her mother was a local gov’t official during the Cultural Revolution. Her position entitled her to better food and more meat, but she often gave the majority of it to neighbors to keep them happy. She always had to try to remember who had been given what so that she could appear fair to everyone, and was keenly aware that any perceived favoritism would be grounds for denunciation. My friend’s mother said that she had been upset with her mother for giving so much away, but later realized that it was because of her generosity that they had fared better than other families.
Memories like these are never forgotten and shape a person in ways that they themselves may not fully understand. This leads to anxiety among today’s “counter-revolutionaries” that an economic slowdown could once again spur nationalist sentiments, and a return of red terror.
The “lessons” learned by those who survived this era still shape their actions. Some of China’s rich are citing the fear of nationalism as the very reason for wanting a foreign passport. In academia, you see the effects in professors and students weighing their opinions vs. their future, knowing that what is said today, could be held against them tomorrow. In movies, art, and literature, it appears in the form of self-censorship. And in social interactions, you can still see the ripples of that period when friends hide their real feelings in front of people they would describe as friends.
Because discussing these campaigns is still taboo, there has been no chance for Chinese society to reconcile their present with their past. The elderly people we see on the side of the road may have been the victims, or they might have been the perpetrators of violence who were never held responsible for their misdeeds. It seems that without addressing China’s troubling history, many won’t be able to stop worrying about whether or not what they’ve said in public will come back to bite them.