In downtown Beijing, just a little over a mile west of the Forbidden City, is one of China’s most illustrious high schools. Its graduates regularly attend the country’s best universities or go abroad to study, while foreign leaders and CEOs make pilgrimages to catch a glimpse of the country’s future elite.
Founded in 1917, it has been lavishly rebuilt over the past few years, with a sleek new gym, dining hall, and classrooms—a monument to a rising country. But to many Chinese people of a certain age, the Experimental High School Attached to Beijing Normal University conjures up another image—that of a group of fanatical girls torturing their vice-principal to death.
For years, the event has been of interest to foreign scholars of the Cultural Revolution; it is a Lord of the Flies story that has attracted academics investigating female violence, filmmakers trying to document the mindset of violent Red Guards, and researchers trying to piece together how many people were killed, by whom, and how. In China, the story is more veiled. In official accounts it is usually mentioned as an example of the chaos that the country should avoid, and it is heavily censored to conceal the fact that many of the young women were children of the Communist elite, and today are prominent members of society.
But this is changing, part of a broader movement intended to shift discussion of sensitive questions from the private into the public sphere. Led by samizdat publications like the online journal Remembrance,* accounts of violence—including the vice-principal’s killing—are being published and passionately debated. More remarkably, people are even apologizing publicly for their actions, setting off long-overdue discussions about how China should deal with its violent past, especially when many of the victims are dead. Is it best to forget, which the country has largely done, or is there merit in digging up the past? And is it possible to have a cathartic confrontation with the past in a country with no real public sphere?
Over the past year, the apologies for wrongdoing have come in rapid succession. One man in Jiangsu wrote in a magazine about how he had informed on his mother, leading to her execution. In Beijing, an editor wrote an account of how he’d beaten a peasant who he thought hadn’t shown enough enthusiasm for Mao’s ideas.…
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