China Power

How the Cultural Revolution Haunts China’s Leaders

Growing up during the Cultural Revolution had a lasting impact on Xi Jinping and his generation of elites.

How the Cultural Revolution Haunts China’s Leaders
Credit: Cultural Revolution poster image via Shutterstock

The mainstream view, at least amongst the China-watching community in recent years, was that Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao’s generation would be the last to have a clear memory of the Cultural Revolution decade that began in 1966. Presumably, younger leaders belong more to the post-1978 reform era. Cheng Li in his 2001 book, China’s Leader’s: The New Generation, even went so far as to call the Hu-Wen generation the “unlucky” ones — their education disrupted, their careers put on hold or sometimes radically redirected because of the closure of universities at the end of the 1960s and the internecine battles within the Communist Party during this era. Those coming after them at least lived in a world of more normality.

A biography of Xi Jinping issued by Mirror Books in 2013, however, makes at least one thing clear. The “Decade of Turbulence” from 1966-1976 lay just as heavily, if not more so, on Xi, Li Keqiang, and Wang Qishan and their fellow fifth generation leaders as it did on previous ones. They might have been children when it started, but over the course of the years up to 1976 their most formative experiences, and the things that have most sharply shaped their world view till now, were from this unique period of modern Chinese history when Mao became an object of quasi-worship, society was convulsed by factionalism and violent battles, and every dimension of life was politicized. It is impossible to understand these leaders and their behavior today without taking this into account.

Xi Jinping Da Zhuan (“Biography of Xi Jinping”) by Hu Lili and Li Taohao is as full of inventive speculation as any other product largely written for the Chinese language speaking overseas audience. But it does convey something of the real trauma of the Cultural Revolution period and the toll it must have taken on the young Xi. His father, Xi Zhongxun, had already been removed from political life by an early argument around hidden messages supposedly contained in a book he was associated with while working in the propaganda organs in the early 1960s. And while the Cultural Revolution meant his case was revisited and he was exposed to some struggle sessions, on the whole the elder Xi was sidelined and simply left alone (due in some part, the book argues, to Premier Zhou Enlai’s intercession).

For Xi junior, the Cultural Revolution meant first of all the removal of his father and the break-up of his family just as he was hitting adolescence. It meant the end of his life in Beijing and the move to a rural area of Shaanxi province, close to the old revolutionary base of Yan’an. His education effectively stopped for a decade, and his life instead centered on a commune among farmers and agricultural workers. The one sighting he seems to have had of his father during this period was in the very early 1970s, when the two were almost unrecognizable to each other because of the lengthy period they had been separated.

For all the negatives of these experiences, they also handed Xi some immense political assets that have paid rich dividends in the years since. His rustication, along with so many other youth of the period who were sent down from cities to the countryside, means he can now talk authentically and credibly to the still hugely important rural constituency of China. He can be all things to all people, a member of the elite but with impeccable peasant credentials. His “bad background” from his father, which was such a disadvantage at the time, also meant that Xi never joined any Red Guard group and is therefore clean of any claims that he took part in the persecution of others or engaged in violent activity. Finally, the experiences of the Cultural Revolution have evidently given him a toughness and patience. Xi’s “narrative” as a politician and person has been far more utilized by state propagandists than stories of the inscrutable Hu Jintao, who seemed to go out of his way to eschew any idea of a biography prior to going into politics.

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Xi is not by any means alone in many of these experiences amongst the current leadership. Premier Li Keqiang took part in brigade activities as a sent down youth, as did Wang Qishan, currently the chief anti-graft crusader, and Liu Yunshan, the chief ideologue. For them, the Maoist schooling in radicalism has long lost its ideological potency, but in terms of the practice of politics — the ability to act sometimes with brutal decisiveness and accept the messy consequences as long as the bigger target is being achieved — this fifth generation of elite leaders owe much to Mao and his era of revolutionary schooling.

Highly ironically, the Chairman argued that the Cultural Revolution, along with winning against the Nationalists in the Civil War, was his greatest achievement. Mao has been proven right, if only in the sense that people profoundly shaped and formed by that decade are now running the country, still haunted by the lessons they learned growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The ruthless logic of the Cultural Revolution, with its categorical divisions between the loyal and the disloyal and its mobilization of the population through the vision of a modern, perfected society, still lingers on, almost half a century after the movement “to touch the soul” (in the words of one of its leaders) kicked off. And while the physical vestiges of that era — the portraits and statues of Mao, the painted slogans daubed everywhere, the revolutionary art — have largely been eradicated from the landscape, the spiritual legacy is alive and well in the hearts of the current national leaders.