Niall Ferguson: China's Great Leap Backward

Roundup: Historians' Take

Niall Ferguson is a professor of history at Harvard University. He is also a senior research fellow at Jesus College, Oxford University, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His Latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, has just been published by Penguin Press.

"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... 

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