The dark days of China's Cultural Revolution are still a taboo topic in China. Wang Jiyu, a former Red Guard, admits in a rare public confession that he killed a man during the violent era.
By NBC News' Bo Gu
BEIJING – At the age of 60, Wang Jiyu couldn’t bear to keep quiet any longer about a story that he had never mentioned in public for over 40 years: As a 16-year-old member of the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, he killed another young man in the middle of a confusing melee.
His story is similar to many others from the violent era in Chinese history known as the Cultural Revolution; what is remarkable is not that he killed someone, but that he is now willing to speak out about it.
Wang broke his silence in an article he wrote for the outspoken Chinese magazine “Yan Huang Chun Qiu” last year. He recently spoke with NBC News about what he says was “an era when all humanity collapsed.”
“The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” was a 10-year movement from 1966 to 1976, led by Mao Zedong, to purge opposition from the Communist Party. Mao’s stated goal was to enforce socialism in the country by removing capitalist and bourgeois elements in society. As a result, millions of Chinese citizens, especially intellectuals, high-ranking officials and military officers, were persecuted, forced into manual labor or killed.
Despite all the literature covering this chaotic period of Chinese history, the Cultural Revolution is rarely discussed in public or mentioned in mainstream Chinese media. The death toll from the Cultural Revolution still remains a mystery, but historians estimate it may go as high as 2 million.
In 1966, the “Red Guards” campaign was formed, made up mainly of young students from relatively well-off families. Lacking structure or real organization but championed by Mao, the Red Guards soon overtook the whole country. Schools were dismissed, and the Red Guards broke into different factions, resorting to violence against their opponents.
Very few people have publicly admitted to misbehavior or crimes. Wang is one of just a few people in all of China to stand up and admit he killed someone during the era.
Drawn into chaos
Wang was born in 1951 to a military family. His father served as a high ranking cadre in the Air Force, an elite position in China that enjoyed many privileges. Wang grew up in a typical Beijing residential compound, where the children of military officers played together.
“Before the Cultural Revolution, we were only 14 or 15 years old, and all the education we had was about class struggle, and gradually and automatically that was the only thing we believed in,” Wang recalled during a recent interview with NBC News.
By the early 1960s, China found itself in the midst of another political upheaval as a result of the growing conflict between Mao and the senior Communist Party leader Liu Shaoqi.
Liu, along with Deng Xiaoping, tried to steer China’s planning economy toward a more practical route after the disastrous Great Leap Forward had led to a massive famine that killed millions of people. The re-direction threatened Mao’s authority, prompting him to set out to purge Liu from the central leadership.
“The Great Cultural Revolution was actually a power reshuffle, with its ultimate goal of setting up Mao’s absolute power and getting rid of Liu Shaoqi,” said Wang.
Day gone wrong
By 1967, Wang was 16 years old and chaos and violence had become the norm across the country. But Aug. 5, 1967 was a day that changed him forever.
“I was at home, then a friend came over [and] told me, one of our friends had been taken by another faction, beaten up and was still being held at the Beijing Grain School,” he said.
Wang immediately gathered some other friends and went to the school to take revenge. Soon a hostile confrontation turned into a violent melee between his group of Red Guards and the other faction.
In the middle of the chaos, a young boy dressed in a blue worker’s uniform hit Wang’s arm with a brick.
“I chased him like crazy. He didn’t realize how angry I was,” Wang recalled. “I hit the back of his head with a heavy wooden club, and he flew away down a slope, like an empty bag. When he tried to get up, I struck him again on his forehead and blood splattered on the club.”
Wang ran away to chase other boys, unaware how serious his attack turned out to be, until a few minutes later when he was told the boy was dying.
“‘No way! How is that possible?!’ I said. I was completely shocked. I went to the clinic where the boy had been sent. He was lying there exhaling only, while blood trickled out of his neck. His face was paper white. I almost collapsed right there. I wanted to say I didn’t do it on purpose, but I knew I had killed someone.”
Wang said he called the police that same night, but nobody bothered to arrest him. The whole country was in pandemonium.
In September of that same year, Wang went to the southern island of Hainan hoping to join China’s war against Vietnam. But his efforts came to no avail, and in December he was arrested for the murder and sent back to a Beijing prison.
However, nine months later he was released, at the consent of the victim’s parents. The father, according to Wang, never mentioned Wang’s name in public. Instead, he met Wang’s father before the release and told him, “It’s a mistake.”
“I couldn’t have come out of jail so quickly if they hadn’t forgiven me,” said Wang, tears welling up in his eyes.
Wang had a dream soon after the incident. “I dreamt I was lying on a hard, cold wooden slab. There was no pillow. Then I saw a very tall woman. I couldn’t see her face, but she was wearing a white gown and told me, you are going to lie here for 10,000 years.”
Wang attributes all the subsequent difficulties in his life to his crime. He has worked at different farms, served in the army, worked for state-owned enterprise and eventually settled down to running a horse farm.
Many of his comrades died young. Wang himself lost his left eye in an accident while he was working as a locksmith at an aviation factory in Jinan, Shandong province in 1971.
“I always believe in karma. If you do bad things, you will be punished. I don’t believe those people who committed crime can sleep well every night.”
Wang said he still believes in the Communist Party and believes in the country, but he cannot stand that everyone is untruthful in today’s society.
And even though his public confession about the crime is incredibly rare, there has not been much of a public reaction to it in China. Only a few outspoken, but non-mainstream, media outlets have picked up on his story. He has done only one TV interview with Phoenix TV, a Hong Kong-based broadcaster. He says he tried to get an interview with CCTV, the state television broadcaster that has the highest viewership in mainland China, but that they wouldn’t do it.
“The children now don’t know what happened. We are choosing to forget. We should not let them forget and everyone should know what happened to this country,” said Wang. “Some people still miss and praise those years – let them go to hell.”