|(Top) Li Qingyou sits in front of a dam that he and other former Red Guards built in Jiasang village and Chairman Mao Zedong at a rally in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, on May 22, 1970. (AFP)
Beijing, Aug. 23: Li Qingyou vividly recalls the day 40 years ago when Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution that killed millions of people and ravaged China’s body, mind and soul.
Li had been in Tiananmen Square on 18 August, 1966, when Mao had first exhorted his “Red Guards” to purge China of “counter-revolutionaries”, and said he and the other students had been completely brainwashed by Maoist zeal.
“We were a generation that was born and grew up under the red flag,” Li said in a recent interview. “Our mentality was that when Chairman Mao waved his hand, we would move, and whatever he said, we would do. We never realised where it would all lead.”
At Mao’s bidding the frenzied students took to the streets, destroying paintings, books, cultural treasures and anything associated with religion. As the movement spread, millions of artists, officials, and intellectuals were beaten, humiliated, and sometimes spontaneously lynched in public meetings known as “struggle” sessions.
The Chinese government, which still rules in Mao’s name, has taken few steps to redress these wrongs, leaving many Chinese struggling to make sense of the madness.
Li and the former Red Guards in his group are attempting to come to grips with the period in a personal way: They recently “adopted” the village where they were once sent to spread the Cultural Revolution, and are helping it modernise using a mix of international aid and entrepreneurship.
“We’re doing privately what the government once ordered us to do — and this time we’re doing it better,” Li said.
In December, 1966, when Mao launched the Red Guards into the villages, Li and a group of 18 other Red Guards had found themselves on a rickety truck bound for Jiasang, in central Shanxi province.
Liang Yuting, 60, Jiasang’s Communist Party secretary at the time said he had no idea why the students been sent to his village. “All we were told is that these city kids had been sent to taste the bitterness of the countryside,” he said.
That they did, Li recalled. Despite arriving in the middle of winter in a village with no electricity, the students had to commence plans to raise food production in Jaisang.
Although bereft of direction and funds, the students built a simple road and small dam.
But “people were too busy struggling against other people to benefit from this,” said Liang. “Sometimes, when the wheat was ready for harvest in the fields, it would rot because all the young people had gone to other parts of the country to spread the spirit of the Cultural Revolution.”
After Mao’s death in 1976, new leaders such as Deng Xiaoping put an end to the tumult and launched the reforms that have since remade China.
Li and the other Red Guards all returned to Beijing and benefited from China’s economic transformation.
But when Li visited Jiasang by chance in 1995, he was shocked to see it still mired in poverty.
The road and dam the students had built had become useless with age. Being strapped for cash, the villagers had cut and sold surrounding trees, so the area was severely deforested.
Moved by this, Li contacted his former Red Guard colleagues and they unanimously decided to do something for Jiasang.
Over the next few months, the group pooled $120,000 and used it to reforest the mountains around Jiasang with about 20,000 pine, persimmon and walnut trees.
“We realised that just as in 1966, it was a road and mini-dam that the village really needed,” Tian said.
So the group sought out local government and international donors. The Australian Embassy in Beijing donated $40,000 for the dam, but when provincial authorities approved money for the road, much of it was swallowed up by corrupt local officials, the villagers said. Still, the group persevered, and now Jiasang has a new dam and a decent road connecting it to the highway 10 miles away.
“Sometimes a voice is all that voiceless people need,” Tian said recently as he stood proudly above the gushing dam, in which the village also breeds fish.
“Now, we’re hoping we can get someone to give us money to build a hydropower plant below the reservoir.”
Developing Jiasang has allowed Li and Tian to reach a comfortable closure on the Cultural Revolution. But official corruption is raising new discontent in China’s villages.
Lin Baoguo, 30, a Jiasang resident who has to work as a migrant labourer in nearby cities, said another Cultural Revolution might be just what China needs.
“They don’t teach us much about the Cultural Revolution in school, but the one good thing was that it really curbed corrupt officials,” he said.
“If we had a Cultural Revolution now, the money (Li and his group) got for us which those corrupt officials took would get to our village.”