A statue of "sent-down" youths at the exhibition, with the lead figures resembling President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. Photos: Simon Song

Controversy stirs over Beijing exhibition on 'farm re-education' policy

Exhibition looks at the controversial policy of sending millions of youths to the countryside

Scholars have criticised a government-approved exhibition about the policy of sending millions of young people to work in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution.

The experts say the event puts a positive spin on a traumatic period in the nation's history and stops short of reflecting on government errors made in the past.

The exhibition, which opened to the public on July 1 at the Beijing National Stadium, will run for two to three years. Admission is free for "sent-down youths", the people who took part in the original programme.

The show features a group of statues of young people, with two of them bearing a conspicuous resemblance to younger versions of President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang , who both spent part of their youth working in the countryside.

The idea of sending young people to the countryside started when Mao Zedong sent his own son, Mao Anying , to Zaoyuan village near Yanan in Shaanxi province in 1946, the exhibition says.

Later in 1955, Hu Yaobang , then head of the Communist Youth League, sent more than 1,500 youths from Beijing to carry out voluntary reclamation work on uncultivated land in Heilongjiang province.

Critics said the exhibition failed to highlight the fact millions of young people were displaced as a result of the Cultural Revolution when they were sent to work in rural areas by Mao to receive so-called "re-education by farmers", after schools were suspended during the years of political chaos.

Young people had to work in the fields and forests, braving the harsh elements when they were sent to remote areas in the northeast or southwest of the country.

Bi Fujian , a popular TV anchor, was suspended from his work at the state broadcaster in April for comments he made at a private banquet about Mao and the time he spent as a "sent-down youth".

Bi was seen in a widely circulated video ad-libbing to the tune of a revolutionary opera, singing "We've suffered enough". On Mao, he said: "The old son of a bitch, he tormented us!"

There are now more than 100 exhibitions about "sent-down youths" all over the country, according to Pan. Unlike most private exhibitions on the topic which tended to dwell on the suffering of the young people, Pan said his event in Beijing attempted to "spread positive energy".

He said the exhibition had been approved at a "national level", but denied it represented the official view of the policy among this generation of the country's leadership, many of whom were "sent-down youths" themselves.

Items used at the time.
Among the government's seven top officials, members of the Politburo Standing Committee, four spent several years of their youth working in the countryside: Xi, Li, Zhang Dejiang and Wang Qishan .

He Weifang , a law professor at Peking University, wrote on social media that the exhibition had "turned sins into great accomplishments", as it failed to mention the hardships young people from the cities endured.

Zhang Lifan , a Beijing-based historian, said the tone of the exhibition suggested the country's leadership was not willing to reflect upon and admit government mistakes of the past.

"From the historical point of view, sending millions of young people to the countryside runs counter to the process of urbanisation and has created too many tragedies," Zhang said. "But the party will only offer the positive readings of the campaign, such as how Xi benefitted from the experience, and ignores the damage done."

The exhibition shows photographs and items used by young people in the countryside in the 1960s and 1970s and describes their lives, with a special section on role models deemed to have made exceptional sacrifices.

Pictures of youngsters who took part in the programme and later became celebrities, business tycoons and politicians, are displayed near the end of the exhibition, which closes with Xi's first-hand account on how he benefitted from being a "sent-down youth".

Xi said his years spent in the countryside had given him a pragmatic attitude towards work and life and that the hardships taught him to face up to challenges with courage.

Xi told party cadres in 2013 "not to be negative about the 30 years before Deng Xiaoping's economic reform" and that "to completely negate Mao Zedong would lead to the demise of the Communist Party of China and to great chaos in China".

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: 'Sent-down' youths' past dug up