The Lost Generation of the 17th Chinese Communist Party Politburo

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 19

Chairman Mao Zedong with members of the Red Guards

China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which lasted roughly from 1966 to 1976, was a period of immense turmoil in Chinese society during which millions were killed or persecuted. A majority of the 11 new officials appointed to China’s elite 25-member 17th Communist Party Politburo in 2007 are part of the Cultural Revolution generation—those who came of age during a tumultuous period, and also known as the “lost generation.” This group of primarily urban youth endured traumatic experiences during their formative years; a select group eventually rose above the vast majority of their peers to join the ranks of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) leadership elite. This generation of leaders, many of them children of high-ranking Party officials, had to survive years of manual labor in the countryside and won coveted places in China’s top universities during a time of incredible uncertainty and competition. Their experience as part of this generation has fundamentally shaped the character of these new leaders and has proven to be an important factor in their leadership style and policy orientation.

The Cultural Revolution and Its Impact on China’s Urban Youth

The Cultural Revolution, a political campaign launched by Mao Zedong to eliminate political rivals and revolutionize Chinese society, affected every strata of the population but was felt particularly keenly by China’s youth. In particular, the movement targeted China’s secondary school students in an effort to create an iconoclastic rebellion against the political and intellectual elite. From 1966 to 1969, China’s youth, particularly the urban youth, were mobilized in groups called Red Guards (hong wei bing) to attack most traditional forms of authority in society (particularly teachers). In 1969 Mao disbanded the Red Guards, fearing that the chaos they caused could harm the foundation of Communist Party rule. He subsequently initiated a policy of sending these urban youths to the countryside to “learn from the peasants,” a policy that would last until 1978. The official goal of the policy was to help young people get in touch with the revolutionary origins of the Party and contribute to the country’s rural development, but it was actually intended to quell social unrest in urban areas created by the increasing unruly Red Guards [1]. This policy marked the end of many of these students’ education and fundamentally changed their lives forever. The majority of new officials appointed to the 17th Communist Party Politburo in 2007 belong to this generation.

From 1966 until approximately 1978, almost 17 million urban students were sent to rural villages and farms to perform manual labor [2]. This transfer meant being separated from their families and everything they had known; most students (called “sent-down youth” [chadui zhishi qingnian]) spent between two and eleven years in the countryside [3]. Although many were able to eventually return to urban areas, this group has become known as the “lost generation,” since many missed out on opportunities for higher education and eventual career promotions.

Only about five percent of this generation eventually received a college education [4]. Between 1970 and 1976, while the Cultural Revolution and sent-down youth policy were still underway, Chinese universities and colleges enrolled a limited number of “worker-peasant-soldier” students upon a recommendation system [5], as the normal university entrance examinations had been abolished. After Deng Xiaoping reinstated the national university examination system following a nearly decade-long suspension, only about six percent of the applicants were accepted; other sources cite this number as low as three percent. This exceptionally competitive situation prevented many otherwise-qualified candidates from pursuing higher education.

The 17th CCP Politburo: New Members from the Cultural Revolution Generation

In 2007, with the appointment of the 17th Communist Party Politburo, a significant group of officials that were part of this lost generation entered the elite leadership ranks. Eleven new members were appointed in 2007: Bo Xilai, Li Keqiang, Li Yuanchao, Liu Yandong, Wang Qishan, Wang Yang, Xi Jinping, Xu Caihou, Zhang Gaoli, Zhou Yongkang and He Guoqiang. Of these new members, six (Bo Xilai, Li Keqiang, Li Yuanchao, Wang Qishan, Wang Yang, and Xi Jinping) are considered members of the Cultural Revolution generation (born between 1947 and 1960) that performed manual labor in the countryside at some point during the period. Additionally, two members of the 17th Politburo that were also part of the 16th Politburo—Zhang Dejiang and Liu Yunshan—could also be considered a part of this generation and were sent to the countryside for manual labor.

Most of these new Politburo members also happen to be “princelings”—sons or daughters of high-level officials. Bo Xilai, currently the party secretary of Chongqing and former Minister of Commerce and Governor of Liaoning Province, is the son of Bo Yibo, a revolutionary veteran of the Long March and former vice premier. During the Cultural Revolution Bo Xilai’s father was imprisoned for 15 years and his mother was beaten to death. Bo Xilai performed manual labor from 1968 to 1972 (from the age of 19 to 23); his siblings were either sent to the countryside or imprisoned. After Mao’s death Bo Yibo returned to power and became a vice premier under Deng Xiaoping. Bo Yibo’s rehabilitation made it possible for Bo Xilai to attend Beijing University (from 1978 to 1979), join the Party in 1980, and enter the CCP leadership. [6].

Li Yuanchao, head of the CCP Organization Department and former party secretary of Jiangsu Province, is also a princeling; his parents were both revolutionary veterans and his father, Li Gancheng, was vice mayor of Shanghai from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s [7]. Li’s father was purged during the Cultural Revolution and, at the age of 18, he was sent to perform manual labor at a farm in Dafeng County, Jiangsu province. Like Bo Xilai, Li performed manual labor from 1968 to 1972, after which he attended Shanghai Normal University and Fudan University and began his political career. Wang Qishan, a vice premier and former mayor of Beijing, was sent to the countryside at the age of 21; he performed manual labor for two years at the Yan’an County Ping Village Commune in Shaanxi province from 1969 to 1971. In 1973 he entered Northwest University; he became a princeling when he married the daughter of Yao Yilin, a former vice premier (from 1978 to 1980). Xi Jinping, another new member of the 17th CCP Politburo and presently PRC vice president and president of the Central Party School, is also a princeling who was a sent-down youth; his father is Xi Zhongxun, a veteran of the communist revolution and former vice premier. Xi Zhongxun was purged during the Cultural Revolution and spent sixteen years in prison [8]; from 1969 to 1975, between the ages of 16 to 22, Xi performed manual labor at the Wenanyi Commune Liangjiahe Production Brigade in Yanchuan County, Shaanxi province. His father was released in 1975, allowing Xi Jinping to enter Tsinghua University the same year.

Li Keqiang, a vice premier and former Party Secretary of Liaoning province, was sent to the countryside at the age of 19 in 1974; he performed manual labor until 1976, when he joined the Party and became Party secretary of his labor brigade branch committee until 1978. In 1978, after the sent-down youth program was ended as part of Deng Xiaoping’s initial reforms, he entered Beijing University and graduated in 1982. Wang Yang, party secretary of Guangdong, is also a new Politburo member who is part of the Cultural Revolution generation. When it began he was 11 years old; at the age of 17 he was sent to work at the Anhui Province Su County District Food Factory, where he stayed for four years.

Other new members of the 17th Politburo—Liu Yandong, Xu Caihou, and Zhang Gaoli —are slightly older (born in 1945, 1943, and 1946, respectively) and were not sent to the countryside. Zhang Dejiang and Liu Yunshan, members of the 16th and 17th Politburos, were also sent-down youths—Zhang performed manual labor in Jilin province from 1968 to 1970 and Liu performed manual labor in Inner Mongolia from 1968 to 1969.

Perseverance and Luck: The Exceptional Circumstances of the New Politburo Members

The majority of politburo’s lost generation was able to receive an advanced education, a privilege unattainable for the majority of their peers. These leaders secured entrance either through hard labor and/or their parents’ connections. Xi Jinping, who entered university in 1975, is part of this latter group; his father’s status was likely a major factor in his admission, which occurred before the college entrance examinations had been officially reestablished. Bo Xilai, Li Keqiang, and Li Yuanchao (for his second stint at university), all entered some of China’s most elite universities (Beijing University and Fudan University) in 1978, after the exams were reinstated. Their admission during this highly competitive process is a testament to their talent, in addition to the fortuitous personal connections (guanxi) that their princeling status ensured (in the case of Bo and Li Yuanchao).

These new leaders’ ability to pursue higher education was a major factor in their eventual career success. From 1979, the Communist Government began to value education as important for the promotion of officials after years of rejecting intellectualism during the Cultural Revolution; in 1983 it required a college diploma as the main condition for promotion [9]. This fact alone prevented a significant portion of the Cultural Revolution generation from achieving elite positions in the Party. The new officials on the current Politburo were thus in a highly favorable position for advancement; many of their connections as princelings of newly rehabilitated elite officials enhanced their position even further. Although their elite connections could not protect them from performing manual labor or being persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, their privileged status later gave them access to opportunities that were unavailable to most ordinary Chinese.

During their youth this generation endured numerous about-faces in Party policy (namely the Great Leap Forward and subsequent famine in the late 1950s) yet still sought to join the CCP and become officials at a time when many of their peers were traveling abroad or seeking their fortunes in business during Deng’s Reform Era. These leaders received a pre-Cultural Revolution education, where they were taught to value heroism, patriotism, altruism, and communist internationalism. They were given role models such as Lei Feng, a soldier who always selflessly devoted himself to the benefit of others. Throughout their childhood they were taught to glorify Mao, be loyal to the Party, love their country, and hate class enemies [10]. Instead of rejecting these values after the trauma of the Cultural Revolution, these new Politburo officials embraced the Party and joined its ranks. This may in part be due to the fact that they were given the opportunity of education after their years in the countryside (which many of their peers were denied) but it is also largely due to their genuine commitment to the Party.

The Personal Impact of the Cultural Revolution

Despite their ability to obtain a university education, join the Party, and begin the path to an elite government career, the psychological impact of the Cultural Revolution on these new leaders (as with all members of their generation) was still significant. Many endured the persecution and separation of their families; most had their education suspended while they performed harsh manual labor. What do the experiences of this generation bring to the Chinese leadership? More than anything else, the Cultural Revolution and sent-down youth experience has given these leaders the qualities of adaptability and persistence. Most survived persecution and physical hardship but still managed to either attend university during the most competitive period in recent memory or join the Party during their time working in the countryside and begin their service in local leadership positions. Some were aided in this process through their parents’ elite connections, but their strong personal qualities also played a role.

These new leaders also have an appreciation of circumstances in the countryside, gained through their years as sent-down youth. Although several of them are princelings they were not reared in exclusive circles of elite privilege—the sent-down youth experience likely gave them perspective they might not otherwise have had. Many of the new leaders have shown an appreciation for rural and social issues in their previous positions; Li Keqiang made significant progress in stimulating the local economy during his time in Henan province, contributing to a 14 percent rate of income growth for farmers in 2004 (marking the first time that an income growth rate of a rural area surpassed that of an urban area) [11]. Li also worked to transform poor residential areas and improve unemployment during his time as party secretary of Liaoning province. During Li Yuanchao’s tenure as party secretary of Jiangsu province, the urban-rural income ratio reached 1:2:15, the lowest in the country. He also made significant efforts to integrate migrant workers into the urban environment [12]. Although other leaders, such as Xi Jinping, earned most of their leadership experience in coastal, urban areas, they have earned a reputation for being sensitive to social issues; the Chinese media has praised Xi for “never losing his common man’s touch” [13].

Their experiences during the Cultural Revolution have also likely contributed to the more liberal views held by most of these new leaders. For example, Li Keqiang was active in campus politics during his time at Beijing University in the late 1970s and early ‘80s; according to former classmates, Li liked to voice new ideas and was supportive of open campus elections. In his positions in Nanjing and Jiangsu, Li Yuanchao has implemented intra-Party elections for top local leaders and is reportedly one of the few provincial leaders to explicitly call for political reforms [14]. Years of enduring Maoist repression and chaos during the Cultural Revolution likely contributed significantly to formation of these leaders’ views. The majority of these leaders are also long-standing advocates of pro-market economic reforms, particularly Xi Jinping and Bo Xilai.

Prospects for the Future

When the next session of the CCP Politburo is appointed in 2012, the Cultural Revolution generation will range in age from 52 to 65; with a mandatory Politburo retirement age of 70 [15], this will be the last Politburo group that will likely contain older members of this generation. Younger members, however, could continue to be present on the Politburo for years to come. Members of this generation, coupled with the eventual appointment of even younger officials who came of age during Deng’s Reform Era, will likely bring a new and unique leadership dynamic to the Party, one which retains some measure of idealism but a strong dose of pragmatism. The members of the Cultural Revolution generation, who were given a traditional socialist education as children but endured the trauma of the sent-down youth experience and the subsequent fight for higher education and young adults, will undoubtedly possess sensitivity to rural and social issues as well as strong Party loyalty to the top leadership. They will also support continued economic reforms and perhaps measured political liberalization. This generation is likely the last that will have personally experienced the extreme political campaigns of the Maoist years; therefore, once the leaders who came of age during the Reform Era are appointed, an even greater contrast in leadership style (and perhaps political views) will begin to emerge.


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