It’s not known whether Hong Yunke was still breathing after being strangled with a rope in December of 1967. His family later worried that when one of Hong’s assailants hacked at his legs with a hoe to make it easier to stuff him into a hole in the ground, he might have held on to life for an awful few moments before a large stone was dropped over his body.
Kidnapped by a local militia during a time when Red Guard factions terrorized this patch of farmland in eastern China and much of the nation, Hong was accused of being a spy and a landlord.
The execution that followed wasn’t surprising. The Cultural Revolution, which then-Chinese leader Mao Zedong championed in 1966, left millions terrorized, injured or dead by its end a decade later.
Some of those involved in Hong’s execution were tried in 1986. But a main suspect had left town – until last July, when an 80-year-old man was found on the side of a nearby highway, unconscious in the summer heat. The man, named Qiu Riren, for years had been presumed dead.
Qiu, mostly deaf, was in a daze. His belongings were stuffed into the bags he carried.
As word spread of Qiu’s return, Hong’s son heard the news: “The person who killed your father has come.”
For this village of some 3,300 people wedged among rice fields and factories in the coastal province of Zhejiang, Qiu’s sudden reappearance resurrected memories of the Cultural Revolution and with them questions about guilt and bloodshed that the Chinese Communist Party has yet to settle.
Lurking just beneath any discussion of the Cultural Revolution is the legacy of Mao, the founding father of the party and Communist China.
In 1981, the party acknowledged that Mao was responsible for the Cultural Revolution. At the same time, however, it celebrated his overall leadership. “It is true that he (Mao) made gross mistakes during the ‘cultural revolution,’ ” an official pronouncement reads, “but, if we judge his activities as a whole, his contributions to the Chinese revolution far outweigh his mistakes.”
As with much of the Communist Party’s past, the details of what transpired amid the chaos have in large part been brushed away or covered up. So Mao’s prestige remains beyond question in China. His face adorns currency, from the 1-yuan to the 100-yuan note, and looms large at Tiananmen Square.
Yet when reports surfaced last month that Qiu stood trial Feb. 18 on charges of murdering Hong, some Chinese wondered aloud about the fairness of punishing an elderly man when the leader responsible for fanning the flames of the Cultural Revolution is still officially revered.
It isn’t clear why censors allowed a story about a trial linked to the Cultural Revolution – a proceeding surprising enough to begin with – to appear on an official website. Although it was deleted from the initial site, the account also was posted and allowed to linger at the Internet portal of Xinhua, the state news wire.
If the report were a trial balloon, reaction to it made clear that despite decades of economic progress that have papered over many tensions from that long-ago era, an open examination of the period might bring considerable risk to the party’s carefully cultivated image.
“Everyone knows who the biggest murderer was. If old man Qiu is guilty and needs to be put on trial, then for his sake, at least the portrait should be taken down,” said one online user from the eastern province of Jiangsu, in an obvious reference to Mao and his huge likeness that hangs in the heart of Beijing.
Another man, from the southwestern province of Sichuan, wrote on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like micro blog service, that, “There are thousands and tens of thousands of murderers who took lives during the Cultural Revolution. Most of them have not been prosecuted by the law.”
For Hong’s family, the impact of Mao’s Cultural Revolution – an attempt to affirm his dominance and stamp out “revisionism” – was devastating.
The oldest son, Hong Zuosheng, was 13 years old when he last saw his father walk out the back door wearing a dark coat and carrying a wooden medicine box. The Hong family had worked as village doctors for generations, curing ailments and dispensing medicine.
After his father’s death, Hong Zuosheng’s mother moved away with his younger brother. He and his little sister were raised by their grandfather. They tended a tiny farm together. Hong Zuosheng followed his grandfather on his medical rounds, learning a trade that he practices today.
“When he killed my father, it left my family very poor,” Hong, who’s now 59, said in an interview last week at his home village of Mashang, about four miles from Huangshe.
“My grandfather told me that my father . . . had been killed. He told me to go to school and study characters so that I would be able to sue (the killers) later on,” said Hong, who explained that he can’t read as he handed over a folded copy of a public security bureau recommendation to indict Qiu. “We couldn’t even get food to eat, much less go to school.”
As he described the day his father died, Hong paused for a moment to go into a back room and retrieve a farming hoe with a long blade. He said it was the sort of tool Qiu had used to chop off part of his father’s legs so the body could be crammed into a makeshift grave.
A villager told the Hong family that Hong Yunke’s cries for help had echoed through the foothills before he died.
While everyone interviewed agreed about the basic chronology of the slaying of Hong Yunke – captured while traveling to see a patient, then held overnight in a cow pen before being taken to an isolated spot – there is disagreement about why it happened.
His family maintains that the militants were manipulated by a man with whom Hong had had a personal feud.
But Chen Guibi, the Communist Party secretary of Huangshe for the past 12 years, gave a different scenario. A few days before Hong’s death, two local militias fought a bloody battle in which more than 10 fighters were killed. When the commander of the losing faction heard that his men had come across someone moving between villages, the risk of letting a possible spy go free was too great, Chen said .
“In his estimation, Hong Yunke was a spy,” Chen, 57, said between puffs on a cigarette as he sat in the front room of his home. “He couldn’t know for sure, but a spy must be killed.”
Since his trial, during which, witnesses say, he confessed to taking part in Hong’s killing, Qiu has been left to wander around and await a verdict.
There’s been little explanation about where he disappeared to for so many years; he’d previously gone back and forth from the village doing odd jobs.
“Old Man Qiu didn’t recognize this place when he came,” said Zhang Xinchang, a 67-year-old farmer who was sitting and watching the rain on a recent afternoon in Huangshe. “But some old people saw him and recognized him.”
Qiu now lives in a bare concrete building at the edge of a small bamboo grove. Locals said that his son, who resides in a different village, didn’t attend his trial.
When a reporter tried approaching Qiu to interview him, he shouted a few phrases over and over before tottering into a doorway and hiding behind a curtain:
“I can’t hear!”
“I have bad health!”
“Don’t take my picture!”
In the crowd that formed outside, mostly farmers with mud-spattered shoes, a couple of men reminded a visitor that the Cultural Revolution had been “a policy from the center.” A 72-year-old man surnamed Wang, who didn’t give his full name, spoke up to clarify that, “We blame the situation on Chairman Mao.”
After Wang said so, the people standing beside him walked away.