MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
China has long avoided a full accounting of the trauma caused by the decade-long Cultural Revolution that stretched from the 1960s to the '70s. The movement was Chairman Mao's attempt to build a utopian society through class struggle. Ultimately, it drove the country to the brink of civil war and, by some estimates, cost more than a million lives.
In China, public discussion of the revolution is heavily censored. But recently, some of Mao's shock troops, the Red Guards, have apologized for the violence. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing, their apologies have raised hopes that China's wall of silence will crack even further.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: On August 8th, 1966, the Communist Party leadership announced over state radio that some of China's educators were members of the exploiting classes who were poisoning students with their capitalist ideology. The broadcast essentially gave youth known as Red Guards the green light to remove educators from their jobs and punish them.
Chen Xiaolu was a Red Guard leader at Beijing's elite Number Eight high school. He's also the son of Chen Yi, a leading Communist revolutionary and former foreign minister, and that allows some latitude for him to speak out. He remembers responding to the party's call.
CHEN XIAOLU: (Through translator) On August 19th, I organized a meeting to criticize the leaders of the Beijing education system. A rather serious armed struggle broke out. At the end, some students rushed on stage and used leather belts to whip some of the education officials, including the party secretary of my school.
KUHN: Chen says he was against the violence but the situation spiraled out of his control. Chen says his school's party secretary later committed suicide and a vice secretary was crippled.
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KUHN: That summer, Chairman Mao met with crowds of frenzied Red Guards in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. He endorsed their violent tactics. In August and September of 1966, a total of 1,772 people were killed in the capital, according to the Beijing Daily newspaper.
In a Confucian society where educators were once held in the highest esteem, students beating up their teachers was a shocking reversal. Last October, Chen got together with his classmates and teachers and he apologized for the violence he presided over.
XIAOLU: (Through translator) Teachers were made to stand on stage, bow their heads and confess their crimes. Looking back on it, I believe their human rights and dignity were trampled upon.
KUHN: In fact, Chen says, the entire Cultural Revolution was illegal. It violated China's constitution. Now, Chen admits that calling it unconstitutional is a survival tactic. He's criticizing himself, he emphasizes, not Chairman Mao. And he says he's certainly not implying any criticism of China's current leadership.
XIAOLU: (Through translator) I think the reason I've been able to give so many interviews is related to the way I frame these issues. Otherwise, the government would have issued a gag order a long time ago. Well, actually, they did issue a gag order.
KUHN: Chen says major Chinese media like state TV are not allowed to air interviews with him. Meanwhile, another Red Guard leader named Song Binbin apologized this month to her school's vice principal, Bian Zhongyun, who was beaten to death. Song did not admit to taking part in the beating. And she did not invite Bian's widower, 92-year-old Wang Jingyao, to hear her apology. So I went to Wang's home and asked him for his reaction.
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KUHN: The Red Guards were simply executioners, he told me. Their current apologies are to absolve them of responsibility for their crimes. But the chief culprit behind the Cultural Revolution was Mao Zedong. Some observers see the apologies as positive and, hopefully, a sign of things to come.
Wang Youqin is a Chinese language teacher at the University of Chicago who has interviewed hundreds of people about the Cultural Revolution.
WANG YOUQIN: (Through translator) For many years, research into the Cultural Revolution has been frozen like a block of ice. It just wasn't allowed. This time, there's a crack in the ice. I think this crack should be allowed to break wide open to form new doors and windows.
KUHN: But the apologies are the Red Guards' personal statements and there's no clear sign that they've had any effect on the Communist Party's policies. In the early 1980s, after Mao's death, the party issued its official verdict on the Cultural Revolution. It was a mistake, end of discussion.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.