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Son's Accusations Led to His Mother's Execution during Chinese Cultural Revolution

Zhang Hongbing in his study

Zhang Hongbing haunted by his actions as a teenager

by Xie Wenting, Global Times (owned by the mainland China communist party)

"He stomped on her leg, and my mother immediately fell to her knees. They then used hemp ropes to tie her arms behind her back. It was like they were binding zongzi [rice dumplings]," recalled Zhang Hongbing, 63, a Beijing-based lawyer.

This scene took place in February 13, 1970. When other families were still celebrating the Spring Festival, two army officials in Guzhen, East China's Anhui Province, rushed to Zhang's home to arrest his mother, Fang Zhongmou.

The woman had been denounced by her son and husband for having criticized Chairman Mao Zedong. Less than two months later, Fang was executed.

Zhang, then a 16-year-old, believed at the time that he was doing the right thing. But decades later, his deeds have returned to haunt him. "I want to atone for my crimes," said Zhang.

Zhang's story is just one of the countless tragedies that took place during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), a decade of political chaos.

"I want to get people to think about how it was possible that a husband denounced his wife and a son sent his mother to her death in the Chinese mainland, and what we can do to prevent such tragedies from happening in the future," Zhang told the Global Times.

Red to the core

In his younger years, Zhang used to view himself as being "red to the core." His mother was an administrator at a local hospital in Guzhen and his father was an official in the county's health department.

He later learned that his grandfather, Fang's father, had been identified as a "landlord" and "spy," an allegation he said was not backed by any evidence.

At the outset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Zhang joined the Red Guards together with his elder sister.

At the age of 13, he changed his given name from Tiefu to Hongbing, meaning red soldier, a decision that was backed by his parents.

However, after his sister went to Beijing at the end of 1966 to attend Chairman Mao's reception, she died of meningitis shortly after returning home. After his sister's death, his mother's mental condition took a turn for the worse.

As the Cultural Revolution continued, Zhang's father was subjected to criticism and struggle sessions for almost two years for following a "bourgeois reactionary line." During this period, Zhang wrote a poster in large characters accusing his father of buying clothes and face cream for his daughter.

Once his father was released, his mother underwent criticism sessions. The brutality she endured during those sessions, combined with her daughter's death, destroyed the woman and led to her outburst one day.

Fang said Mao was a "traitor" and praised former Chinese President Liu Shaoqi, who was deposed and denounced by Mao as a "revisionist" and "capitalist roader" during the Cultural Revolution.

This led Zhang to get into an argument with his mother. His father later went out to denounce Fang. Worrying that his father had not done so, Zhang wrote a short letter of accusation and sent it out on his own initiative.

When the army officials came to Zhang's house after receiving the letter, the portraits of Mao Zedong that had been hanging on the wall and Mao's writings had all been burnt by Fang, leaving a pile of ashes on the ground.

After Fang was taken away, his father took out a notebook, asking everyone to write down materials for the prosecution.

Zhang wrote 21 pages and his father wrote 10. They ended by writing the same suggestion: Fang Zhongmou should be shot.

According to the county history and court documents, Fang was then found guilty of supporting Liu Shaoqi and attacking Mao Zedong.

On April 11, 1970, Zhang went to see Fang at a mass tribunal but did not follow her to the firing squad.

Making amends

After the fall of the Gang of Four in 1976, who had directed the purge of thousands of Communist Party of China officials and intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution, Zhang felt his political faith collapse. He even considered drowning himself in a river at the end of 1976.

In 1978, Fang Zhongmou's brother went to Zhang's family, asking to appeal his sister's case, but the idea was met with opposition by Zhang's family.

The family's attitude changed in 1979 after many similar tragic cases were revised.

"It was I who caused my mother's death. I felt full of regret, grief and shame… I needed to take action to clear my mother's name. As for my guilt, I will never clear it in my whole lifetime," Zhang wrote in his diary.

Since then, Zhang has tried legal means to expiate his guilt. Now he is seeking a revision of the county's historical records related to his mother's death, and for his mother's tomb to be identified as an immovable cultural relic.

The two cases are now pending at Bengbu Intermediate People's Court in Bengbu, Anhui.

Speaking out

Zhang said the essence of his mother's case is that she was "convicted for her words." The right to free speech that the Constitution gives to people was taken away at that time, he says.

Zhang decided to speak out about his guilt to the public in 2013. "I spoke about it to remind people and to prevent them from forgetting," Zhang said.

Zhang's decision to speak out drew a backlash from some of his closest relatives and his wife, who was against him speaking about these past affairs. Zhang's younger brother is supportive of his efforts to identify their mother's tomb as an immovable relic, but does not want him to talk about it in the media, worrying it could have a negative influence on his children.

Zhang's life did not change much after his open confession. He spent much of his spare time reading comments left by netizens on his actions. He communicated with those who supported and encouraged him, but did not reply to those with neutral or negative opinions.

There were also some commenters who told him to kill himself. These people, according to Zhang, are "inhumane beasts" who are just like he was in the Cultural Revolution.

Fang's brother Meikai told the China News Weekly that "They have forgiven the family. But they were still unable to be calm when reflecting on the past."

Zhang said that he now is writing a "treacherous son's book of confession," dedicated to his mother.