The Rise of China’s Powerful, “Educated Youth”

National library of China (Photo credit: Gabrial F.Y. Tsang)

By Gabriel F. Y. Tsang, Visiting Researcher of the Center for East Asian Studies, Stanford University. He is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature at King’s College London and Honorary President of the British Postgraduate Network for Chinese Studies.

Wang Jianlin, Tie Ning, Xi Jinping, and Zhang Yimou (Left to right)

What is common between Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China, Wang Jianlin, the richest man of China according to Forbes, Tie Ning, the chairlady of the China Writers Association, and Zhang Yimou, a world-renowned film director? They are all powerful people who can contribute to China’s rapid and steady development. Moreover, they share an identity as part of a network of “educated youth” who created a certain social distribution of power after the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). The formation of their shared identity in the late 1960s and the political changes after the death of Mao Zedong reveal why the educated youth were more influential than any other group in shaping contemporary China.

In fact, these four Chinese figures all travelled from cities to the countryside in response to Mao Zedong’s call for rustication during the late 1960s to the early 1970s. According to French sociologist Michel Bonnin’s perspective, in 1968, Mao Zedong motivated all the urban students to work in villages or military farms in order to dismiss Red Guards.

Designer: Luo Erchun (罗尔纯)
1958, February
“Comrades! You are welcome to support the construction of agriculture”
Publisher: Chaohua meishu chubanshe

Red Guards were a leftist student mass that helped Mao disempower political dissidents through violence and later caused frequent riots in cities. Once the Red Guards had served their purpose of overturning the old order, these restive young people were exiled from the cities to be re-educated by the peasants in the countryside. Mao took advantage of their loyalty and his claim that “the countryside is a vast expanse of heaven and earth where we can flourish” to facilitate their migration. Other urban young intellectuals either voluntarily joined or were compelled to enter the rustication program. From 1968 to 1978, the central government sent 12 million urban young intellectuals, termed as “zhiqing” (officially translated as “educated youth” in English) to rural villages and frontier settlements. Many did not return to the cities until the late 1970s; some never did. Bonnin regarded this group of people as a “lost generation”, as they lost both freedom and education opportunities.

In early 1979, most of the educated youngsters returned to their urban homes following the Great Xishuangbanna Strike, which led to a series of protests covering 21 out of 29 Chinese provinces. They were no longer subordinate to peasants and could work without official appointment. The ideological reform of Deng Xiaoping, generally recognized as the paramount figure of the second generation of the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership, significantly changed the career path of the educated youth. Originally, the youngsters were supposed to permanently stay in the countryside; however, Deng approved of their return and his capitalization of the Chinese economy and relaxation of freedom of speech made cities hubs of new ideas and communication that welcomed their contribution. Since the late 1970s, the influence of this network of educated youth rapidly penetrated into all strata and facets of Chinese society.

In the cultural arena, educated-youth writers, such as Tie Ning, Liang Xiaosheng, Wang Anyi, and Han Shaogong, were much more competitive than the rural writers at the same age. They were not only better educated before rustication, but it was also easier for them to connect with publishers, academic institutions and recognized writers due to their intellectual identity. The personal networks of the educated youth allowed for their literary works to be distributed more widely to readers and critics, who determined their commercial and critical success. Their success, in turn, helped new educated-youth practitioners enter the cultural industry.

In 1996, Tie Ning was elected Vice President of the China Writers Association, and, in 2006, became the youngest and first female president of the association. Her career success was founded on the attention of Chinese critics, who paid greater attention to writing by educated youngsters in the 1980s. In the same decade, Chinese critics also favored the films directed by the educated youngsters who graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in the early 1980s. Zhang Yimou’s early cooperation with other educated-youth directors, such as Chen Kaige, granted him a local and international reputation. In the 1980s and 1990s, Zhang Yimou won awards in the “Big Three” film festivals (Venice Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival and Berlin International Film Festival). As the director of the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Summer Olympic Games, Zhang Yimou was awarded a runner-up for Time Magazine’s Person of the Year distinction in 2008. Tie Ning and Zhang Yimou represent the impact of Deng Xiaoping’s remedy for Mao Zedong’s rustication policy. Deng’s permission for the educated-youngsters’ collective return and his relaxation of ideological control enabled this group of people to play increasingly important roles in creative industries and official cultural institutions.

In the Chinese political and commercial arenas, the synergistic effect of the educated youth came later. Wang Jianlin built up his own property business in the early 1990s, after working for the government and a state-owned enterprise for around six years. Xi Jinping had to accumulate political experiences for decades in order to show senior cadres that rural experiences had given him solid knowledge about governing people. Xi’s case is different from Wang’s case, because Wang’s success relied on connecting to the state after rustication. To increase personal power, Xi needed to act like Mao’s rustication efforts were justified or beneficial. Xi’s economic policies and anti-corruption measures in Zhengding county, Fujian province and Zhejiang province seemed to demonstrate the fruitful outcome of his training in the countryside, and afterwards, he won the support of a majority of senior cadres. His success consolidated the cadres’ belief in the importance of obtaining political experiences in rural counties.

Nanjing University (Photo credit: Gabriel F. Y. Tsang)

Certainly, we cannot simply attribute the success of the educated youth to their shared identity, personal networks, and political loyalty; however, these aspects can show how individuals with a similar background could benefit from drastic political changes. They also offer a further explanation for the post-2000 rise of China, as an outcome of the effective, but implicit, communication of an elite group. A major question we have to answer next is whether subsequent generations of intellectuals can sustain the growth of China. If the strength of this network is the key, how can Chinese youngsters, under intense competition, create a cohesive and influential identity in a country that has doubled the number of colleges and universities in the last decade and hence depreciated the value of the intellectual identity?

For more information about the Center for East Asian Studies, or its visiting scholar positions, visit their website.