Leah (Kimmerly) Caprice: The Lost Generation of the 17th Chinese Communist Party Politburo

Roundup: Talking About History

[Leah (Kimmerly) Caprice is a Research Analyst at Defense Group Inc.'s Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis.]

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. ...

comments powered by Disqus