In China, Living With the Unspeakable

By John Pomfret, a correspondent and former Beijing bureau chief for The Post. He is the author of “Chinese Lessons.” (THE WASHINGTON POST, 07/09/06):

Forty years ago this past August, the first killings were carried out to launch the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China. Two educators in Nanjing and a high school principal in Beijing were the first victims of the Red Guards, the shock troops of Mao Zedong’s war against rivals in the Communist Party.

Over the following 10 years, 18 million city kids were dispatched to the countryside to hack out meager existences amid the peasantry. Millions of officials were purged and hundreds of thousands were executed. My college classmate at Nanjing University, Wu Xiaoqing, was the son of the two educators who were murdered in Nanjing; he was 11 when his parents died. When we studied together he had the nickname “Old Wu” because he seemed old before his time.

Today China’s juggernaut economy, freewheeling night life and sophisticated diplomacy make it seem a world away from the Communist Party-imposed madness of the 1960s. Wu’s life is an example. He’s a university professor, a published author and the father of a young woman who is preparing for college in Australia. No other country seems to have been so adept at avoiding the pitfalls — and erasing the memory — of its past.

Wu’s parents were beaten to death by a gang of Red Guards on Aug. 3, 1966. At the time, his father was the top educator in Jiangsu province and his mother was the party secretary at a leading university in Nanjing. The gang descended on their home, dragged the parents out onto the streets in their pajamas and set upon them savagely. The autopsy report on Wu’s father listed six broken bones, a brain hemorrhage and massive trauma to his internal organs.

A few years later, Wu had the opportunity to join the Communist Party — a road to a good future in China — but there was a condition. Party officials told him he had to have a “correct” understanding of why his parents died. Wu wrote in his application that his father died of chronic hepatitis and his mother of high blood pressure, and he added the requisite denunciation. “My parents made mistakes and you must criticize mistakes,” he wrote. “The Cultural Revolution is great!”

His application for party membership was accepted. He felt no remorse for joining an organization responsible for the murder of his parents. “I know I wrote lies. They made me write lies,” he rationalized to me later. “But a party membership helped improve my life.”

When the Cultural Revolution ended, Wu passed college entrance exams and found a job at the university where his parents were killed. His reasoning was simple. His family had been victimized there so he would be protected there. His parents’ murderers were never prosecuted, despite the fact that two Chinese journalists (a writer and a photographer) documented the whole affair and the evidence was quickly placed in the hands of the police.

Old Wu kept his head down. He did not march during the 1989 student protests that ended in the Tiananmen Square crackdown. And after the crackdown he was put at the head of a committee investigating professors in the history department of his university. In recent years, Wu was assigned to write a chapter in a high school history textbook about the Cultural Revolution. He tried to slip in some details about the horrors of the time, including a subtle critique of the systemic nature of the problem. But it was excised by a censor’s knife.

Wu is aware of the Faustian bargain he’s made to live — and live well — in the People’s Republic of China. It’s a bargain that millions of people like him in China’s growing middle class have made. They inhabit a system that many despise, but it’s also a system they believe they can’t live without. The cost of moving forward is forgetting the past, Old Wu would say, including the dream of bringing to justice the people who killed your parents.

China wants the 21st century to become the Chinese century, yet history has a way of sneaking up on countries, just as it does on people. The late Chinese writer Ba Jin lobbied hard in the last years of his life for a museum to commemorate the victims of the Cultural Revolution; it was never built. I asked Wu what he thought about such a museum. Forty years after the Cultural Revolution, he said, “China isn’t ready for it.” in China.