It is an anniversary that China wants to forget. May 16 marks 40 years since the start of the Cultural Revolution, one of the most insane episodes of the 20th century when children turned on parents, pupils tyrannized teachers and hundreds of thousands died in the name of class war.
The government will hold no commemoration. But for one survivor, at least, the lessons of those "10 years of chaos" must be heeded if China is to develop a modern law-governed society to match its economic progress.
Zhang Sizhi (
In only his second interview in the three decades since, Zhang told the Guardian newspaper that these experiences convinced him of the need for an independent legal system. Although President Hu Jintao (
"It is ridiculous that party cadres who have no legal qualification are taking the place of the courts in administering justice," said Zhang. "But in the current environment, it has become almost a rule of the game."
The official history of that period records the May 16 circular in which Mao called for a life-or-death struggle against bourgeois ideology, saying: "All erroneous ideas, all poisonous weeds, all ghosts and monsters, must be subjected to criticism."
Textbooks recognize this was a mistake that led to political chaos, economic instability and social unrest as Red Guards publicly humiliated, and sometimes killed, professors, doctors and other "counter-revolutionaries."
But questions about responsibility and compensation remain largely unanswered. Although Mao drafted the circular, most of the blame for what followed is usually heaped upon the "Gang of Four" led by Mao's wife, Jiang Qing (
At their televised trial, the Gang of Four were accused of persecuting 700,000 people and held directly responsible for 35,000 deaths. Most foreign scholarship puts the killings at between 300,000 and 800,000. In their biography of Mao, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday estimate the toll at 3 million.
The trial was billed as a resurrection of the rule of law, but it was anything but fair. Like the judge, Zhang was under orders about how to handle the case.
"The key point was not to mention Mao in the courtroom," he recalled. "It is still very sensitive to talk about Mao's mistakes."
His client had no such qualms. Jiang testified that she was "Mao's dog" who only bit on his orders. Such comments were censored from the televised highlights. The judge acknowledged Mao was partially responsible, but his comments were removed from the trial summary in the Chinese media. The four were convicted. Jiang killed herself in jail in 1991.
Zhang says political interference is still the legal system's biggest problem. In Beijing, the mayor or the secretary general of the Communist Party often give detailed orders to judges. In big trials it comes in the form of written guidance. But instructions are also made by phone or face-to-face, which means no one can be held accountable.