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CommentInsight & Opinion

The dazzling comeback of China's sent-down youth of yesterday

Nora Sausmikat says with the ascent of a new Chinese leadership comprising many who were 'sent down' during the Cultural Revolution, there's a feeling that this generation's time has now come

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 May, 2013, 2:41am

When I interviewed Chinese intellectuals 10 years ago, many believed that the zhiqing generation - the fanatical young people sent to the countryside to learn from peasants during the Cultural Revolution - would be left out of the leadership succession.

Today, the most powerful people in China belong to this generation, including President Xi Jinping as well as five of the six other members of the new Politburo Standing Committee. And 17 of the 23 provincial party chiefs are also part of this cohort.

They were between 13 and 20 years old when the Cultural Revolution started. The older ones, born around 1946-47, had nearly finished school when it began. The youngest - those in Xi's age group - had just entered the sixth-class level when the schools were closed.

Yet the experiences of this generation differ greatly, given the vast numbers involved: an estimated 17 million educated youths were sent down, while an unknown number managed to stay in the cities because of special privileges.

Still, some famous Chinese thinkers, such as Xu Youyu, have said they shared common experiences. With only a very limited number of books to read, they shared the experience of reading prohibited books by authors such as Bertrand Russell, John Locke and Anna Louise Strong. One book in particular was influential: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. While finding some parallels, the Chinese youth of the 1960s and 1970s started to doubt whether their country had chosen the "best system in the world".

In his book Footprints of the Missing, Yin Hongbiao reconstructed the political thoughts and reading habits of his fellows. He described in great detail the resistance and doubts among the different factions of zhiqing and Red Guards of the time. He created a genealogy of resistance against the Cultural Revolution, reconstructed the beginnings of the crude imaginings of liberalism, discussion about the French Revolution and studies of Stalinism.

No other generation had to struggle so hard to be able to read books - which proves their extraordinary thirst for knowledge . Song Yongyi, who now lives in the US and is a well-known Red Guard researcher, supports the image of a rebel faction of the Red Guards who read and wrote many important texts that could be used even today as blueprints for political reform. Others see them as "early democrats". But there are also the "others", the princelings, sons of powerful Communist Party cadres, for whom the Cultural Revolution was only a short interruption in their otherwise privileged lives - like Xi, the son of the former vice-premier Xi Zhongxun who fell from political favour in 1968. It has been well documented how 15-year-old Jinping had to live in a Yanan cave for seven years.

And while the majority of China's most powerful people today experienced the "rustication", or forced exile from the cities, many now portray their act of leaving the city as a deeply patriotic and voluntary act to serve Mao Zedong and the party.

During the 1990s, heroic essays were published to highlight the integrity of this generation. Also, many argued that, because of their role during the Cultural Revolution - they were called the "vanguards of the revolution" - they are today the rightful successors of the socialist cause. They all experienced the effectiveness of propaganda and the strategy to preserve power by using it.

When Chinese researchers meet members of the zhiqing generation, often a discussion begins about heroism and the big loss of talented people due to the sheepish obedience and idealism of their generation. They talk about the strong stereotypes of their generation: the heroism, patriotism and self-adulation, and about their big sacrifices which are still to be recognised.

Looking back, it seems that the publication of so many memoirs from zhiqing, beginning in the 1990s, was in fact in preparation for a new age of heroism that begins with Xi's presidency. Now, finally, this generation is getting recognition. The cave which Xi lived in is already being prepared as a tourist spot. A primary school in the Xi family's ancestral village has been named after his father, the former counterrevolutionary.

Nevertheless, Xi, like many in the political elite today, belonged to the privileged zhiqing, those who could leave the countryside as "worker-peasant-soldier student" and return to the city before the official opening of regular universities. They started their political careers simultaneously with the cult of the laosanjie, the group of graduating secondary school students among the first to be sent down.

This select group are thought to represent a whole age group, which brings a strong expectation to gain recognition for the suffering of this generation. While the talent of a whole generation of educated people was wasted, the people concerned now have the onerous task of directing China by finding alternatives to the growth-led model, addressing social conflicts and welfare issues, and dealing with diverse and powerful interest groups.

Sociologist Sun Liping, two years younger than Xi and his PhD supervisor at Tsinghua, has pointed out that reform is being held hostage by powerful vested interests. Others speak of a disintegration of power.

In any case, reading the speeches of this newly elected leadership, we can be sure that they stand for a firm hand in conflict resolution, strong cultural nationalism and self-assertion.

Hu Angang , an economics professor at Tsinghua who is the same age as Xi, is a good example of this stereotype. He learned how to adapt to the challenges of the times and managed to become the "environmental hero" of China, propagating the old datong (big community) ideal, with China as the most successful economy by 2030, leading a global "green revolution". With this golden age of growth in mind, this generation seems to be made for a time of heroes.

Dr Nora Sausmikat is a Sinologist specialising in political reform and civil society in China. Currently, she leads the China programme at the German Asia Foundation

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