Secrets Of The Past

A seven-inch scar, hidden by a black toupee, explains Song Yongyi's lifelong obsession. For 30 years, the Chinese historian has been struggling to exorcise the painful memories of the Cultural Revolution, the decade of mass madness and factional fighting launched by Mao Zedong's Red Guards. Song spent three and a half years in jail--and endured beatings and torture--for reading "counterrevolutionary" books. China's salvation, Song thought after his release, would come in facing the dark past, and he set out to uncover the origins of the tumultuous decade. So it was no small irony that last summer, when the Dickinson College librarian went back to China, his Cultural Revolution research landed him in jail again. For six months, interrogators pressured him to confess, first to trafficking in state secrets and later, transporting "intelligence" to a foreign country. They told him his wife, also in detention, was "weak and growing ill" because of his refusal to confess. "It was like something out of Kafka," says Song. "The mental anguish was brutal."

If it hadn't been for pressure from Song's colleagues in the United States and influential members of Congress, Song might still be in jail today. Instead, China released him last month, saying he had "confessed"; Song says he admitted to no wrongdoing. But the mystery is unresolved: what was Song on to? Twenty-five years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, what could be so sensitive that the authorities would risk international criticism and throw a bookish scholar behind bars? Song's e-mails to a Shanghai friend about classified documents published in the West may have caught the authorities' attention. Chinese spy-catchers might also have been suspicious about the fact that Song was working with scholars funded by a Taiwan foundation. But Song's revelations alone might have been enough to threaten Beijing's leaders. Among other things, he was exposing embarrassing details about power struggles and the role of the beloved late prime minister Zhou Enlai, godfather of China's No. 2 leader, Li Peng. Says Song's lawyer, China expert Jerome Cohen: "They gave him the old 'you know what you've done' treatment."

In the past 20 years, tragedies and details of the Cultural Revolution have poured out in China's freer environment. The Communist Party declared the Cultural Revolution a "disaster," and the Gang of Four--Mao's wife and her three henchmen--was convicted of "persecuting to death" 34,000 people. If the party itself refutes the madness, what's wrong with digging up that history? The problem, according to Song, comes when you ask the next logical question: how could a few dozen "antiparty" elements and their Red Guards wreak such carnage unless Mao and other senior leaders acquiesced? "The system itself turned Red Guards into monsters," says An Wenjiang, who's tried unsuccessfully since the late 1980s to publish a manuscript about 1966 to 1976 titled "Crazy Years." The obstacle, An says, has been "self-censorship" by timid publishers.

To this day, many details of past power struggles are kept hidden by party guardians, who may be afraid of parallels drawn to today. The story of Li Lisan, a contemporary and onetime rival of Mao's, for example, remains a mystery. He died in prison during the Cultural Revolution, supposedly a suicide. But Li Lisan's daughter, Inna, recalls he'd always said he would never commit suicide. Moreover, the government says he swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills--though his medications were strictly rationed. Family members don't rule out suicide, says Inna, "but who gave all those pills?"

The party also suppresses examples of extreme brutality. The book "Troubles Caused by Leftism" was banned in 1994, partly because author Wen Lu revealed mass murders in Hunan. (Red Guards dumped one teacher into a deep pit with more than a dozen other people; her students rescued her, the only survivor, after seven days without food and water.)

But Song took on one of the most sensitive taboos of all: China's iconic prime minister, Zhou Enlai, who is beloved for supposedly restraining both the Red Guards and Mao. A year ago Song told a Boston gathering of Asia scholars that the Chinese government has "purposely created a brilliant image of Zhou by using inaccurate and false data." And while many Chinese believe Zhou tried to protect top leaders, including President Liu Shaoqi, from their attackers, Song cited documents showing that Zhou led the party's investigation into Liu's "crimes." Worse, Zhou led the way in denouncing Liu at the party plenum, where the president was officially purged. "People cannot accept that Zhou might have been immoral," says Li Mei, a freelance photo editor. "It would make them think all leaders are the same." Most shocking, Song referred to findings that Zhou, in a note to Mao, suggested Liu should be "executed." Liu died tragically in prison. "Clearly Zhou was not simply a national hero," Song told NEWSWEEK. "His was a very complex role."

Song isn't the first person to cast aspersions on Zhou. In a book, Mao's doctor Li Zhisui called Zhou "obsequious [to Mao], sometimes embarrassingly so." The doctor said that after the death of Lin Biao, Mao's designated successor, in a coup attempt, authorities covered up evidence of Zhou's closeness to Lin, including photos showing them together. Says Jeff Wasserstrom, who teaches Chinese history at Indiana University: "Chinese want to believe [Zhou] was a different kind of leader, representing the road not taken in Chinese politics."

In a sense, to challenge that idea--that with a more humane leader, the party could have been enlightened--is to question the whole regime. Many former Red Guards want to dissect the movement that swept them away; Beijing prefers to bury such historical debate. Like many of his generation, Song, now 50, at first was Cultural Revolution and joined the Red Guards. He became disillusioned and inspired by the fervor of the began a book club with friends; they devoured classified writings about Stalin's purges, the Third Reich and Marxism. In 1971 the five book-lovers were arrested. Song was rehabilitated after the 1976 fall of the Gang of Four, and in the late '80s he immigrated to the United States to pursue an advanced degree. "I wanted to study the Cultural Revolution because of my experience," says Song. "We need to learn this lesson and teach our next generation to avoid making the same mistakes."

In December he was formally charged in Beijing with "purchasing intelligence and transporting it to a foreign country." Song says he bought old newspapers, books and Red Guard handbills. (He admits to having four photocopies of confidential documents published previously in China.) When his interrogators accused him of endangering national security, Song retorted, "How many people died in the Cultural Revolution? About 200 million. And how many people died reading my books... ? No one. So what is the real threat to national security?" They had no response.

Fortunately, Song got caught up in the debate on China's entry into the World Trade Organization. More than 4,000 citizens and 100 China scholars signed petitions demanding his release. Senior figures on Capitol Hill, such as Sen. Arlen Specter, argued that Song's detention could threaten China's entry to the WTO. In January, Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona led a delegation to meet with Chinese President Jiang Zemin. They warned that Song's case could undermine the WTO talks. Jiang took notes; his aides later told the U.S. visitors that the president had asked for a memo on Song's status. When Song was released, the Chinese Embassy in Washington immediately informed Specter.

Song fought his captors to the end. One of his last questions was: "Will I be permitted to return to China to do more research?" The agents just smiled. Song has been haunted by nightmares ever since his first ordeal in jail. "It's so painful for him to remember," says his wife, Helen, "that we've never talked in detail about how he got that scar." He plans to keep working on exorcising those ghosts.