Children of Mao’s wrath vie for power in China
By Chris Buckley, Reuters, June 22, 2012
BEIJING (Reuters)—Forty five years before ambitious Chinese politician Bo Xilai fell from power accused of flirting with Cultural Revolution extremism, he stood as a teenager in front of a baying crowd that accused him of defying Mao Zedong’s campaign.
Bo’s divisive rise and downfall has kindled debate about how the chaotic Cultural Revolution (1966-76) shaped him and his generation, which will assume power at a ruling Communist Party congress later this year.
At the start of the Cultural Revolution, the man at the centre of China’s worst political scandal in decades was a student at the Number Four High School in Beijing, an elite cradle for “princelings”, the sons of Communist leaders who had risen to power with Mao.
The school became a crucible for conflicts unleashed with Mao’s call to rebel in the name of his unyielding vision of communism. The era paralyzed the country politically, triggering social upheaval and economic malaise.
One day in 1967, Bo and two brothers were paraded at the school by an angry group of student “Red Guards”, and accused of resisting the Cultural Revolution just as their father, Vice Premier Bo Yibo, had been toppled along with dozens of Mao’s former comrades and accused of betraying their leader.
Their persecutors twisted their arms behind them and pressed their heads nearly to the ground while pulling back their hair to expose their faces, Duan Ruoshi, a fellow student at the Number Four school, wrote in a memoir published last year.
“Despite the shouts of condemnation from all sides, Bo Yibo’s sons exuded defiance and twisted their bodies in defiance against their oppressors,” Duan wrote in the memoir published by “Remembrance”, an online magazine about the Cultural Revolution.
The ordeal was a lesson for Bo in the capricious currents of Communist Party power, which only a few months before seemed to promise him and other princelings a bright future as inheritors of the Chinese revolution.
Now the effects of the Cultural Revolution on Bo and his generation are in question.
In mid-March, Bo, who had ambitions to be elevated this year to China’s top decision making body, was dismissed from his post as party secretary of Chongqing, a crowded municipality in southwest China.
Critics, including Premier Wen Jiabao, have suggested that Bo, 62, flirted with reviving the extremes of the Cultural Revolution, a decade of zealotry and violence etched in the memories of tens of millions of Chinese.
Yet the era was a formative one for many Chinese leaders now poised to rise to power in a Communist Party leadership transition later this year. President Hu Jintao is due to retire as party leader and hand power to a generation including many leaders who were Red Guards—student-militants fighting for Mao’s vision of a communism purged of compromise.
At many schools, gangs of the loosely organized Red Guards marched into a vacuum of authority in the summer of 1966, when officials were toppled and police retreated. Across Beijing in August and September that year, nearly 1,800 people died in attacks instigated by Cultural Revolution radicals, according to official estimates published in 1980.
A Reuters investigation based on interviews with 10 former students and recent memoirs from the Number Four school shows that Bo, his brothers and many fellow princelings experienced the Cultural Revolution as both enforcers and victims of Mao’s wrath—a double legacy key to understanding its influence.
“They experienced both attacking others and being attacked by others, and then counter-attacking. Their role underwent a massive reversal,” said Zhu Jingwen, another student at the Number Four school during the Cultural Revolution.
“Bo Xilai is one example of the effects of growing up in the Cultural Revolution,” said Yang Fan, a professor at the University of Political Science and Law who was a student at Number Four at that time and knew the Bo boys.
“He’s the negative side of that experience,” said Yang.
The Cultural Revolution-era elite alumni of Number Four are part of a generation marked by chaos that has made them less conformist than their predecessors. While Bo’s brash ambition was rare among Chinese politicians, his sense of destiny and pragmatism are seen by some as shared princeling traits.
“Overall, I think, their experience has made them more independent-minded and less trusting of central authority,” Yin Hongbiao, a student at Number Four at the start of the Cultural Revolution, said of politicians from Bo’s generation.
“At a time when they should have been studying, they were embroiled in political turmoil,” said Yin, who is now an historian of the Cultural Revolution at Peking University.
After Bo’s recent dismissal, his wife’s sister told friends not to worry about him, said a retired academic who said she overheard their comments at a funeral in March of a fellow princeling.
“Don’t worry about Bo Xilai, he’s been through much worse than this,” the academic said, citing the sister’s words. “He’s been through the Cultural Revolution. This is nothing.”