Children of the Revolution: The History China's New Leaders Won't Confront

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The legacy of the cultural revolution still hangs over China, something that the next generation of rulers knows all too well.

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Bo Xilai, left, attends the opening ceremony of the National People's Congress / Reuters

Not only did the now-disgraced Bo Xilai revive Cultural Revolution songs in Chongqing, where he was the Communist Party committee chair, his dramatic political downfall seemed to have ignited a renewed interest in the cultural revolution, that ignominious decade in modern Chinese history. Much of this new interest came from Premier Wen Jiabao's surprising comments at the conclusion of China's National People's Congress, in which he warned about history repeating itself if reforms are not carried out.

But it is more than just Wen's words. The new cohort of leaders -- Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, and Bo Xilai too -- are all children of that revolution, having watched their families and communities torn apart by brutish and senseless politics. Despite their pedigrees and "royal" backgrounds, both Xi and Bo's fathers were publicly humiliated in "struggle sessions" that sought to instill ideological purity, whatever that meant. Families and friends turned on each other. Suspicions pervaded society and trust became a public scarcity. To give some sense of what transpired, these incredible photos of young Bo Yibo (Bo's father) and Xi Zhongxun (Xi's father) speak volumes:

Gagged and bound, Bo Yibo was likely forced to admit his "crimes" against the Communist Party or his capitalist "sympathies." Xi Zhongxun, with his head bowed, had to dangle an "anti-party element" sign around his neck. This was a time in China's history when accusations became truths and evidence was whatever the party decreed. Confusion and terror reigned--many lives were destroyed, and many more were deferred.

To the young Xi and Bo, their formative years were shaped by tumult rather than tranquility, along with an entire generation of Chinese teenagers, including my parents. As I wrote on Xi Jinping's ascendance to the presidency more than a year ago:

Xi, along with the new generation of Chinese leaders, are the same generation as my parents--in their late 50s and as teenagers, bore intimate witness to what my parents describe as that "nightmarish decade" of the Cultural Revolution. Disillusion with what the country of their birth had inflicted on their livelihoods, my parents eventually chose to emigrate. There are numerous stories along these lines that render theirs virtually "normal" among peers who came of age in that era of delirious tumult. But far more Chinese of that "lost generation," having weathered the turbulence and emerged intact, remained in the country too.

My mother, like Xi, was a so-called "sent-down youth," cast off to far-flung Yunnan province, which borders Burma, for back-breaking manual labor. It mattered little that her father once fought alongside Mao -- he survived the infamous Long March on tree bark and urine -- and served under General Chen Geng and later Luo Ronghuan, who was political commissar under Lin Biao. Loyalty, whether as a foot soldier of the Communist revolution or trusted confidante of Mao Zedong, could be discarded on a whim, and often was.

The case of Lin Biao is a telling one. Once second in command and Mao's designated heir apparent, Lin seemed untouchable. But even his high status ultimately could not protect him from the capricious nature of Mao's wrath. Lin's career and life ended in a ball of flame somewhere between Beijing and Moscow as his plane "crashed," according to official Communist Party explanation. (In fact, soon after the scandal of the Chongqing police chief's defection broke, thus beginning the end for Bo Xilai, many Chinese drew comparisons to the Lin Biao incident.)

No one was safe then, not even if you took a round of machine gun fire in your leg, like my grandfather apparently did during the Chinese civil war. I had heard various strands of my mother's story recounted countless times, but never truly understood its significance until recently. It is not that her family's story is unique; it is that these stories are all too common among her generation of Chinese, who have since reassembled their lives from the pieces of ruin.

Like many of her contemporaries, my mother tells her story in matter-of-fact fashion, with little grudge. Though this period of dark history deprived her of a college education and the niceties of a normal life, she shows little animosity. Yet it was an experience that is deeply embedded and immovable, for better or worse. She is a survivor of the cultural revolution, like the Xis and Lis, who are now ready to take control of a China that is unrecognizable from the one in which they grew up. It would be impossible for Xi and Li to not have been affected by their own experiences in the cultural revolution, but it is also impossible to divine precisely how such experiences will shape their governing philosophy and the future of China.  

Yet to mold China's future requires a more honest and sober reckoning with its recent past. That history is composed of my mother's story and numerous others like hers, but it is told in abridged and truncated versions by the Communist Party. It tells the party's history, not the people's. Transparency has never been the party's strength, and recent political aftereffects from Bo's ouster reveal again how history haunts a political system that is afraid to face that history head on. Xi and Li understand it intimately, but they, like leaders before them, will not own that history. And that is a shame. 

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Damien Ma is a fellow at the Paulson Institute, where he focuses on investment and policy programs, and on the Institute's research and think-tank activities. Previously, he was a lead China analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk research and advisory firm.

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