The woman who sparked years of death and terror: Nie Yuanzi says the anniversary of the Cultural Revolution must not be ignored

Jane Macartney – The Times (London)

Copyright The Times
May 12, 2006
NIE YUANZI is a frail, slightly stooped 85-year-old woman who lives with her two Persian cats in a tiny borrowed Beijing bedsit.
It is hard to imagine that this was the person who sparked the Cultural Revolution, which cost tens of thousands of lives and destroyed the livelihoods of millions. But she did. And while China’s leaders are suppressing any commemoration of the revolution’s 40th anniversary this month, Ms Nie has used her first interview with a Western journalist to argue that China must learn the lessons of that disaster to ensure that it never happens again.
“The Cultural Revolution was a disaster so huge that we can understand it only if we study it,” she told The Times
.
On May 16, 1966, the People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, published a coded attack on Chairman Mao’s political rivals.
Ms Nie, then Communist Party secretary of Peking University’s philosophy department, said the attack inspired her to put up a poster charging that the elite school was under the control of the bourgeoisie. Mao then had the poster read out over national radio, effectively giving his blessing to attacks on those in authority and triggering a decade of chaos.
Students rose up to oppose “revisionists” — bureaucrats, academics, officials, leaders. Radical students calling themselves Red Guards paraded their teachers and professors though the streets in dunce caps. Government ministers were forced to kneel as they were beaten.
Many committed suicide to escape persecution. As the turmoil gained momentum, student factions turned on each other. Hundreds of thousands of Red Guards gathered beneath the Tiananmen rostrum in Beijing, waving the Little Red Book of Mao’s quotations and chanting “Long Live Mao” in slavish adulation.
Mao used the movement to regain the political initiative and supreme power that he had lost in the early 1960s after the disastrous famine caused by the Great Leap Forward.
His cry for permanent revolution, class struggle and the elimination of bourgeois culture pitted the radicals against “capitalist running dogs”. With virtual civil war raging in many provinces, the army was finally called in to restore order. Ms Nie was drawn into the circle of Chairman Mao, his wife, Jiang Qing, and the Gang of Four. But she was herself detained in 1968 as Mao moved to regain control over the Red Guards and she spent the next 17 years in jail.
She now inhabits a bizarre limbo, with no pension, deprived of her political rights, banned from publishing or speaking and relying on the kindness of friends for food and lodging.
She lives in a tiny flat lent to her by a former foe from Peking University. Her bed sits in a corner of a neat little room that serves as sitting room and study. Her cats curl up under the covers.
It is a far cry from the Cultural Revolution when to keep a pet was condemned as bourgeois.
“Chairman Mao used what I wrote to set alight the Cultural Revolution, but I never knew it would play such a huge role,” she said. “I was very happy at the time, but I did not understand the deeper significance.” She does now, and in the last years of her life the woman known to history as one of the notorious Five Leading Red Guards is consumed by a determination to ensure that later generations really understand what are officially known as “the ten years of chaos”.
She says she tried to curb the violence and now regards the turmoil as a terrible mistake that must not be repeated. Of her incarceration, she says: “I could have committed suicide but I felt I must stay alive so that people understand the Cultural Revolution.” China’s leaders, a generation just entering adulthood in 1966, disagree.
With the gap between China’s rich and poor growing steadily wider, and anger rising among tens of millions of impoverished peasants, they are acutely aware of the danger of another extremist movement. Thus they have ordered a complete news blackout on the anniversary next Tuesday.
Beijing has ignored calls for ceremonies to mark the anniversary and for a reassessment of Mao’s role. In closed-door meetings Zeng Qinghong, the Vice-President, has said that commemorations could upset stability and set back economic reform, and that reassessing Mao’s role is simply too difficult. Mandarins have banned all mention of the Cultural Revolution in the media.
Elderly Red Guards gathering for private commemorative meetings in Beijing are followed by the police. Ms Nie and other figures from those days are under surveillance.
The few courageous Chinese academics who quietly study the Cultural Revolution in the face of official disapproval share Ms Nie’s anxiety at the Government’s decision to draw a veil over those years.
They fear that China could be convulsed by something similar again, and that Beijing’s attempts to prevent it by suppressing discussion of the Cultural Revolution is misguided.
Xu Youyu, Professor of Philosophy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has long
argued that only by confronting its past can China hope to avoid a repetition of such a mass movement. He sees a rising nostalgia for an age that many Chinese, especially farmers and workers, remember now as a golden time when life was simple, jobs were secure, everyone was poor together and Mao was a godlike leader.
He said: “People think of the Cultural Revolution as a time of mass mobilisation and not as a disaster. If China does not review its past, then the Cultural Revolution — in a different guise — could happen again.”
China has been affected for centuries by movements that spiralled out of control: the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 when missionaries were massacred and the embassies in Beijing besieged by extremists who believed themselves immune to bullets; the 19th-century Taiping rebellion; even the 1989 student movement that culminated in the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Today anger simmers among Chinese at the widening gap between rich and poor, and at rising corruption. Last year more than four million people took part in 87,000 protests to voice discontent at such grievances as appropriation of land, corruption, taxes, lack of pensions and jobs.
Many remember the Cultural Revolution as an effective means to eliminate such inequities. Professor Xu said: “Mao appears as a banner for people who are discontented.”
The trouble is that young Chinese have no memory of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. Nor are they allowed to remember.
History textbooks contain a scant chapter that refers briefly to Mao’s mistakes in attacking “capitalist roaders” but heaps most blame on the Gang of Four. No explanation is given for the deadly fanaticism that gripped ordinary Chinese during those years.
Yin Hongbiao, Professor of History at Beijing University, said: “If younger people lack education about this then such extreme behaviour could reappear.”
To review Mao’s part as instigator of the chaos, in which a generation lost their education, families waged war within the home and countless historical treasures were smashed, is a challenge too far for his successors. Establishing where the blame really lay would force a reassessment of the Communist Party that Mao brought to power in 1949. One academic said: “The credibility of the party relies on the legend of Mao.” Indeed, Mao reigned supreme with the Gang of Four — led by his wife — at his side until his death in 1976 brought the Cultural Revolution to a close. The official posthumous verdict is that Mao’s contribution was 70 per cent positive and 30 per cent negative.
Li Dongmin, the leader of all Beijing’s high-school Red Guards who stood with Mao to wave to the adoring masses from the gold-roofed Tiananmen rostrum, worries about that verdict. He said: “The truth must be told. If people cannot speak out then one day China could explode again.”
Mr Li’s life mirrors the evolution of China under Communist rule. A decade after shaking hands with Mao, he was jailed as an enemy of the revolution. Mr Li has evolved from Red Guard to counter-revolutionary, from revolutionary to sociology student, and now director of the Social Survey Institute of China.
Ms Nie has little left to lose and lays the blame for the Cultural Revolution at the feet of Mao and the Communist Party. “I thought we would build a democratic China, but today we are still ruled by a dictatorship,” she said.
THE REVOLUTION
1958 Chairman Mao started the Great Leap Forward, forming communes in the countryside to prove China’s self-reliance. About 30 million people died in the three years of famine that followed
1960 Mao retired from the front line of power while other leaders tried to put the economy back on its feet
1965 Mao began to reassert his authority. Newspaper articles placed at his behest started to hint that a resurgent bourgeoisie was trying to replace Marxism-Leninism — a thinly veiled hint that he was preparing to purge his enemies
1966-1976 Mao used the Cultural Revolution to reassert control, consolidating the personality cult surrounding him. Tens of thousands died, many committed suicide and the lives of millions were ruined. Students were sent into the countryside to work, creating the “lost generation” whose education was disrupted.
1971 Lin Biao, Mao’s chosen successor and head of the army, died in a mysterious plane crash in Mongolia after an attempted coup. Mao’s star began to wane
1976 The radical ultra-leftist chaos ended with Mao’s death on September 9 and the arrest of the Gang of Four on October 6

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