I Attended the High School Reunion of Former Red Guards—They Still Love Mao

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
June 15 2014 11:03 PM

Red Guard Reunion

Mao nearly destroyed their lives, but the class of 1967 still can’t criticize the icon.

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“Every class had to find one. Some found a teacher who was the child of landlords. Some classes found students. We picked Wang Qichuan,” says Wang Yiping, one of the classmates. Directing the movement were soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army stationed at their school. “They said, ‘You have to find a counterrevolutionary. If you don’t, you’re disrespecting Mao. You just have to.’ It fell on his head.”

His fellow classmates can’t explain exactly why they picked him. “He complained and grumbled more than others,” says Wang Yiping. Classmates drew up posters condemning him, black letters on white paper. Soon after, he swallowed mothballs in the dorm—the only poison they had around then—and was taken to the hospital to have his stomach pumped. “I don't remember why he took the poison,” says Zhu. “He didn't have enough courage.”

Wang Qichuan didn’t attend the class reunion. But he was rumored to be making a fortune in the recycling industry. I pictured a local trash kingpin, overseeing a business so lucrative that he didn’t want to retire, as his peers already had. Wang Yiping suggested it wasn’t worth contacting him to dredge up the past, but I found his name and phone number on a school roster and slipped outside the restaurant to call. When I reached him, Wang Qichuan seemed willing to talk. “Take the bus out to the sheriff's station,” he told me. “Get out and walk all the way around it. I’ll be here.”

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Most literary narratives of the Cultural Revolution are told by young urban intellectuals banished to the countryside after Mao decided they’d wreaked enough havoc in the cities. But for this class of 1967, the countryside was where they came from; they were the lucky few to make it into high school in the county seat, where the college entrance exam awaiting them was their only hope of not being sent back. But the entrance exam was canceled nationwide in 1966, and they were all sent home. Wang Yiping would spend years paying back school loans to neighbors—money he had borrowed to pay for high school. For the next decade, only officials’ relatives got into college.

The oft-repeated story is that when the Red Guards were “sent down,” the cities cooled off and the worst was over. But in the countryside, for these youths who were “sent back,” it was just getting started.

Wang Yiping’s older brother was a decorated veteran from the Chinese civil war that ended with the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. He walked with a limp, which had saved his life when he was proselytizing in areas controlled by the Kuomintang. (Two of his comrades had been walking faster up ahead. After seeing them felled by a sniper, he had time to hide in the fields.) But being a lone survivor always attracted suspicion. In 1969, his neighbors borrowed his radio and accused him of tuning into foreign stations. He was locked in a local jail for two years, until he hung himself. “My mother was so angry; he had been her smartest child,” says Wang Yiping. She could not express anger toward those who had driven him to suicide for fear of retribution. Instead, she slapped his corpse, saying, “ ‘Don't you know—this is exactly what they wanted you to do.’ ”

Even now, few people have any opportunity to vent their anger. President Xi Jinping, in a classified letter to universities last year that leaked to the Chronicle of Higher Education, reaffirmed that despite the fact that more than three decades have passed, earlier mistakes of the Communist Party are still off-limits. They’re one of seven “unmentionables,” including universal values, press freedom, judicial independence, and civil rights. Intellectuals were hoping this newer, younger leadership might distance itself from Mao; that would be the truest sign of reform. They remain disappointed. In the meantime, Mao gets millions of faithful visitors every year, pilgrims from the countryside laying flowers at his tomb. And when I ask gentle old Zheng Suxia, one of the Yutian graduates, “Why is Mao the greatest?” she points to his mausoleum as official evidence. A lot more people don’t know whether the Cultural Revolution was a good or bad movement. They just care whether it was good for them.

That afternoon, I took the bus out to the sheriff’s station and found Wang Qichuan about 100 meters behind it, in his junkyard. He lives in an airy shack cluttered with broken things. He is no recycling magnate; he makes less than $5,000 a year. He is noticeably taller than his classmates, and also much quieter. “I’ve never talked about the Cultural Revolution with my children or my wife,” he says. “It was a catastrophe—there’s no way to talk about it with them.”

On one wall is a photo of his grandson, the first to make it out of Yutian; he studies sports at a university near China’s Siberian border. There’s another photo of a young man with sensitive eyes—that’s Wang Qichuan’s father, who died when Wang was 6, right before his grandfather “lost his mind” and stopped working altogether, leaving Wang to support his two sisters by selling bean cakes on weekends.

And that explains why he was chosen to fulfill Mao’s quota: He had no time to make friends and allies in his class. Even though he reaped the whirlwind of the Cultural Revolution, he still knows very little about it. Even now, he hadn’t heard of Mao’s counterrevolutionary quotas. He assumed he was singled out because he wasn’t popular. For practical reasons, he has long since repressed any sense of injustice; he even joined the Communist Party. So he just says, “I would never doubt Mao,” and then eerily repeats the propaganda mantra from a song: “If there were no Mao, there would be no new China.”

April Rabkin is a contributing writer to Fast Company.