China's Great Leap Backward

By Ferguson, Niall | Newsweek, April 2, 2012 | Go to article overview

China's Great Leap Backward


Ferguson, Niall, Newsweek


Byline: Niall Ferguson

"To understand China you have to think in generations," my Chinese friend explained. "And the key is that after 2012 the Cultural Revolution generation will be in charge."

While antiwar protesters clashed with the National Guard on American campuses and Czechs defied the Red Army in the streets of Prague, China had the Cultural Revolution. In some ways it was the ultimate '60s teen rebellion. In other ways it was totalitarianism at its worst: a bloody revolution from above unleashed by one of the 20th century's most ruthless despots.

That it disrupted the lives of a generation is clear. Only consider its effects on the two men poised to inherit the top two positions of president and premier. Xi Jinping was a "princeling," the son of one of Mao Zedong's loyal lieutenants. He was just 15 when his father was arrested on Mao's order. Xi spent the next six years toiling in the countryside of Yanchuan county in central China. Li Keqiang had a similar experience. No sooner had he graduated from high school than he was sent to labor in the fields of impoverished Anhui province.

To get an idea of what exactly this means, imagine Barack Obama feeding pigs in Iowa or Mitt Romney mending a tractor in Wisconsin. Except that no American farm could ever match the grinding hardship of a Chinese collective farm.

One of China's leading economists put it to me like this: "The one thing I learned on the collective farm"--which in his case was out west on the Chinese-Soviet border--"was to judge a person's character inside 10 seconds." (As he said this, he gave me a piercing look.) "I also learned what really matters in life: to think freely--and to have friends you can trust."

Generational Civil War: The Cultural Revolution began in the summer of 1966, when posters appeared slamming senior party figures as "takers of the capitalist road." Mao chimed in, expressing his "passionate support" for protesting students, whom he christened the "Red Guards." This was the cue for young people all over China to flock to Beijing, dressed in identical uniforms and brandishing Mao's Little Red Book.

Mao's stated ambition was to remove the capitalist elements that were impeding China's progress. More likely, he intended to implement a ruthless purge of his critics. Yet the Cultural Revolution soon grew into an all-out civil war between the generations.

Not only party officials but also academics were targeted. …

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