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02/22/2013

Cultural Revolution trial triggers debate in China

Mao Zedong
A woman walks past an exhibition of Cultural Revolution era photos on display at the Wangfujing shopping street in Beijing on Feb. 21. (MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

Anyone who visits the People’s Republic of China knows there are three topics you never bring up in polite conversation: Taiwan, the Tiananmen Square massacre and Tibet.

To that list, now add a fourth: What exactly happened during the Cultural Revolution?

The bitter decade launched by Mao Zedong in 1966 set mobs of youths rampaging across the country, waging constant revolution and holding the power of life and death in their bare hands.

This week an extraordinary story surfaced in China in which one youth – now in his 80s – has been put on trial in the eastern province of Zhejiang, for executing a doctor in 1967 at the height of the revolution.

The story stopped many Chinese in their tracks.

The Communist Party is never keen for citizens to discuss past disasters over which the Party presided out of fear that it will undermine the Party’s legitimacy.

Plus: an estmated 2 million Chinese lost their lives in the turmoil.

But Chinanews.com reported that the accused, a man with the surname Qiu, testified that he was “selected” by a group of armed civilians to execute the doctor whose surname was Hong.

Qiu used a piece of rope to strangle him, then broke his legs with a shovel and buried him.

The report – which was reposted on the People’s Daily and state agency Xinhua websites – touched off a scorching debate on China’s twitter-like social media service Sina Weibo.

The South China Morning Post of Hong Kong quoted several incensed netizens.

“What about those big names who started the Cultural Revolution,” one asked. “How come they never took any responsibility?”

“How about the thousands of other murderers?” asked another.

State-run China Youth Daily went further in an editorial, comparing the excesses of the period to those of the Nazis in the lead-up to, and during, WWII.

“The most shocking thing about the Cultural Revolution was the assault on human dignity,” the daily wrote. “Insults, abuse, maltreatment and homicide were common.”

If the terrible period was not open to discussion and review soon, it warned, such chaos and violence could be repeated.

Are you listening Mr. Santayana?

Bill Schiller has held bureau postings for the Toronto Star in Johannesburg, Berlin, London and Beijing. He is a NNA and Amnesty International Award winner, and a Harvard Nieman Fellow from the class of '06. Follow him on Twitter @wschiller

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