In 1970, when China was in the grip of the Cultural Revolution, Zhang Hongbing, a 16-year-old in Guzhen, a county in Anhui Province, made a fateful decision. During a family debate that year, his mother, Fang Zhongmou, had criticized Mao Zedong for his cult of personality. Her son and his father, believing her views to be counterrevolutionary, decided to inform on her. She was arrested that same day.
Mr. Zhang still recalls how his mother’s shoulder joints gave a grating creak as her captors pulled the cord tight. Two months later, she was shot to death.
In 1980, four years after Mao’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution, the verdict on Fang Zhongmou was reversed. A local court declared her innocent.
In the months and years that followed, Zhang Hongbing and his father scrupulously avoided all reference to this episode. Only in retirement did his father raise the subject: As an adult at the time, he took responsibility for what they had done.
In 2013, the Chinese media reported the lifelong regrets of Mr. Zhang, then 59 years old. For years he would often break down in tears, howling and wailing. “I see her in my dreams,” he said, “just as young as she was then. I kneel on the floor, clutching her hands, for fear she will disappear. ‘Mom,’ I cry, ‘I beg your forgiveness!’ But she doesn’t respond. Never once has she answered me. This is my punishment.”
Why, in those dreams, does Ms. Fang never say a word to her son? It’s not, I think, that she wants to punish him, for she knows that the true blame lies with others — with those who were in power at the time. She — like the souls of all who perished during the Cultural Revolution — is awaiting their apology. She has been waiting for 44 years.