HUANGSHE VILLAGE, CHINA -- Its 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 Hongs 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 wasnt 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 Hongs 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 Qius return, Hongs 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, Qius 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 Partys past, the details of what transpired amid the chaos have in large part been brushed away or covered up. So Maos 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 isnt 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 partys 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.