Let time be the judge

Murder case stirs debate on China’s uneasy past

Let time be the judge

“I was just following orders”

In Ferdinand Von Schirach’s bestseller The Collini Case, the murder of a business tycoon triggers a trial that lays bare the scars of Germany’s Nazi past. Without giving too much away, the novel’s plot begs the question: is it morally right for those who have committed atrocities to escape being punished thanks to a statute of limitations?

Indeed, when is a person too old or a crime committed too distant in the past not to be prosecuted? This is a question that societies such as Burma, Argentina and Chile have also had to ask themselves.

Now, for the first time, parts of Chinese society is grappling with a similar dilemma: is it right to try an 81 year-old man for a murder he is alleged to have committed as a Red Guard during the final days of the Cultural Revolution?

Qiu Riren, from the eastern province of Zhejiang, is awaiting the verdict of a one-day trial held last month. But the case has sent a wider ripple through Chinese society, especially among victims of the Cultural Revolution. They have welcomed the wider debate, saying that it is essential to acknowledge this thinly-documented and largely hushed-up period of China’s relatively recent past.

“The remembrance, record and even reflection on the Cultural Revolution is often banned,” agreed the China Youth Daily in one of many powerful commentaries published after the trial. “A nation that doesn’t not reflect on its past will remain a cannibal tribe”.

Others have expressed concern that the case is the wrong place to begin the process of looking back, preferring to target others than Qiu. “This man is no more than an accomplice. The real culprit still lies in the heart of Tiananmen Square being worshipped by millions,” wrote one weibo user, presumably in reference to the portrait of Mao Zedong in Beijing’s central square.

Mao died before other instigators of the Cultural Revolution – the Gang of Four – were put on trial in 1981.

Since then the wrong committed in the period have gone untried. That makes the current trial somewhat unprecedented.

The defendant, Qiu, was a member of the Red Guards, the radical youth movement that revered Mao and often used violence to persecute those deemed to be counter-revolutionaries or enemies of the working class.

It is hard to fathom the full horror of this chaotic 10-year period but for those who want to try, WiC highly recommends Mao’s Last Revolution by Roderick MacFarquhar (the author claims that at least 36 million people were persecuted in the period and as many as 1.5 million died).

Qiu has admitted to murder but said it was carried out on the orders of his Red Guard superiors who suspected that his victim, Hong Yunke, was a spy.

Hong’s family registered the murder accusation in 1982, after the Gang of Four had been tried. But even had the judiciary been minded to proceed, Qiu made it impossible by fleeing his village and disappearing. His identity only came to light last summer.

This delay is now raising further debate, as legal scholars have warned that the trial breaches China’s 20-year statute of limitations.

Others prefer not to look back at the period at all. “Why do they have to dig up the bones, we should let bygones be bygones,” advised another netizen.

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