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Mao's Red Guards 40 Years Later -- Victimizers or Victims?

New America Media, News Feature, Xujun Eberlein Posted: Dec 26, 2006

Editor's Note: More than 40 years after Mao Zedong's Red Guards launched the Cultural Revolution to "crush an old world and construct a new one," two former Red Guards now run China while many of their contemporaries languish in prison or struggle with the stigma of their tainted past. Once a household name in his native Chongqing, Rong Jhou says he could write a book about China's prison system -- yet he still swims the Yangtze to commemorate the founding of his Red Guard unit and Mao's famous swim. New America Media writer Xujun Eberlein interviewed Zhou about his own and other Red Guards' fates last summer. Born in Chongqing she was raised during the Cultural Revolution, Eberlein writes on China from her home in Boston, Mass.

Few Americans realize that both China's current president, Hu Jintao, and premier, Wen Jiaobao, were Red Guards in the late 1960s -- the much feared student movement that unleashed Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. Hu once belonged to Tsinghua University's "4.14" and Wen was in Beijing Geology College's "East is Red," both important Red Guard groups.

Neither leader suffered political consequences for their low-profile participation as Red Guards. Others far more prominent in the movement were less fortunate.

One hot day last summer I interviewed Zhou Rong, a former Red Guard leader, at a restaurant in Chongqing, our mutual hometown. A robust, short man who appears younger than his age of 61, Zhou Rong's hair is still black, his round face the peculiar brown of the Yangtze's muddy torrents. A scar about two inches long crosses his right cheek.

The scar is a momento of the "armed fights," an all-around civil war between two factions of the Red Guards in 1967-68. The Red Guards were not a unified movement. Comprising students from middle school through university, they first followed Mao's call to "crush an old world and construct a new one." But after effectively demolishing the old government, they fought each other over who should take seats in the new.

The fights were nationwide, but the most deadly battles occurred in Chongqing, the largest industrial city in southwest China and my hometown. As a commander in many of those fights, Zhou Rong was a household name during my childhood. I remember hearing the news of his death a number of times. Somehow he always managed to resurface, giving me the chance to finally meet him in person decades later.

When the Cultural Revolution began in the summer of 1966, Zhou Rong was a 21-year-old student at Southwest Normal College. Historical chance placed him in the leadership position of "8.31," a Red Guard group known for having the boldest fighters. He told me he had tried every kind of gun with great joy but he had never killed anyone. He had, however, seen many friends fall by his side, among those his personal secretary, a pretty girl three days short of 19.

Zhou Rong fought for two years and paid with six years of jail time -- all without a sentence. He was arrested in October 1970, two years after the armed fights had stopped, before the Cultural Revolution ended. At the time he was an art editor at Yibin Daily, a newspaper in a small city up the Yangtze from Chongqing. On the second day of his arrest, his arm was broken in a beating by prison staff. For the next six years he would undergo all kinds of cruel treatments in five different prisons. "I can write a complete book about China's prison system," he chortles, in his down-to-earth Chongqing accent. Amazingly, during all these years his work unit, Yibin Daily, did not stop paying his salary. "If he is a criminal, show me his sentence," his boss reportedly said. "If he's not, why not let him go?"

Just as he was jailed without charge in 1970, he was released without comment after Mao's death in 1976. Yibin Daily took him back, again as an art editor. He was good at what he did, repeatedly winning awards for the paper, and they valued him. He had his own studio, dark room and even a yearly vacation. But times had changed. One day in 1984 during a business trip to Chengdu he read by chance a Chinese translation of Alvin Toffler's "The Third Wave." On his return, Zhou Rong sent in his resignation letter.

At the age of 40 he started his own advertising business in Chongqing, modeled on Toffler's thinking. But he had been prohibited from living in his old battlefield. For the next five years he was an illegal "immigrant" in his own hometown, causing frequent run-ins with the authorities.

In 1990 Zhou Rong wrote a four-line poem ridiculing the government's prohibition of his residential status. He mailed the poem to Chongqing's liberal Mayor Liao Bokang. A month later, the local police station summoned him and he prepared for another arrest. However, after reproving him for writing a "reactionary poem," the police processed his new resident registration. With the Mayor's personal interference, Zhou Rong's illegal resident status finally ended, and he was able to pursue his business. His modest company now employs several people. He is not rich, but he is content. On days he is not too busy, he likes to fly kites on the beach.

A natural swimmer growing up by the Yangtze, Zhou Rong swims in the river near his house almost every day. On July 16th and August 31st each year, he swims for several hours, dragging his clothes behind in a plastic bag. The first of these two dates commemorates Mao's famous swim in the Yangtze, and the second the formation of Zhou Rong's Red Guard group "8.31." Both events took place in the summer of 1966.

Zhou Rong was not the only Red Guard to go from the vanguard of politics to prison. His old rival, Zhou Jiayu (not related), fared worse. A famous leader of "8.15," the then faction-in-power, Zhou Jiayu had ascended as high as a deputy Governor of Sichuan Province during the later years of the Cultural Revolution. In November 1976, about two months after Mao's death, Zhou Jiayu was arrested as the Sichuan representative of the "Gang of 4", the group that led the Cultural Revolution. He served 15 years in prison, during which his wife divorced him. Finally released in 1991, he became a true proletarian, with no family and no money. The police made sure that no one dared to employ him. He lived off the generosity of friends until another Chongqing Mayor, Ziao Yang, interfered. "He's entitled to have a rice bowl," the mayor reportedly said.

The renowned "five leaders" of Beijing's factions also went through long spells in prison. The old generation of Communist cadres, who had been mercilessly targeted by the Red Guards, emerged the unforgiving victors. "The succeeded is titled the king, and the defeated is named the bandit" profiles thousands of years of Chinese political history.

"We castigated the capitalist roaders for two years. They punished us for many more," Zhou Jiayu says. He contends that, contrary to the popular belief that the Red Guards were victimizers, they in fact are the true victims of the Cultural Revolution.



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