Bombard the Past: Exhuming the Cultural Revolution

Graeme Smith: Welcome to the Little Red Podcast which brings you China from beyond the Beijing beltway. I’m Graeme Smith from the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs, and I’m joined by my co-host Louisa Lim, former China correspondent for the BBC and NPR, now with the Center for Advancing Journalism at Melbourne University. We’re on air thanks to support from the Australian Centre on China in the World. This month is the second part of our series on history and memory and we’re lucky to be joined by two authors who have published books on the Cultural Revolution. First, sociologist Xu Bin from Emory University and the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin, whose book is called Chairman Mao’s Children, and also Guardian journalist Tania Brannigan, whose book Red Memory came out in May. Tania, let’s start with you. You say it’s impossible to understand China today without understanding the Cultural Revolution. And yet, almost no one knows about what happened, especially in China. Why do you think it’s remained so taboo?

Tania Branigan: It’s always been a subject that’s been immensely politically sensitive, of course, it’s not been completely taboo there in the way that something like the massacre in 1989 of the pro-democracy protesters. But it’s certainly been something that’s been very policed from almost immediately after it happened. What I realized more and more, though, as I was writing the book is how much personal trauma has played a part in that story, too. And so it is very much about the unwillingness or even the inability of people to talk about that time. So often people would tell me, even within their families that they knew that something terrible had happened, but nobody would tell them what it was, for example.

Louisa Lim: Xu Bin in your work, you’re concentrating on the sent-down youth, those city youths who were sent to the countryside, and sometimes they spent a decade there living and working with farmers. And it really seems from your telling that it’s kind of the opposite, that there’s actually been a boom in memory. And memories of the sent-down program, why do you think there’s been that difference in treatment and the way that the fact that it has been remembered when the Cultural Revolution really hasn’t been remembered?

Xu Bin: There are several reasons, I believe one is that there’s overlapping between the Cultural Revolution and the sent-down program. So, it’s not entirely the same movement because before the Cultural Revolution the sent-down program had already started. And the second reason is that, you know, in some of the interviews, I compare the sent-down program to the so-called Lost Cause ideology in American South after the Civil War. The South claims that, well the war was lost, right, but the causes are good. So, we are pursuing the good causes. So, for the Chinese government it is pretty much the same. There are some useful elements for the Chinese government there in the sent-down program, for example, to construct the frontiers, to sacrifice your best years for the country’s higher purposes, and to contribute to this agenda, and so on. So, the Chinese government still wanted to use these kinds of ideological elements. And also, particularly, one big factor is that President Xi Jinping himself was one of the zhi qing 知青 (educated youth). And also you see, publishers have several books about his years in the countryside, seven years in Shaanxi Province. So, every leader needs mythical past and the sent-down years [are] actually President Xi Jinping’s mythic past. So that kind of a sort of a crevice from this historical memory is there, and then it began to boom. And also it started in the 1980s and continue to boom, very quickly. And the reason for the 1980s boom is a little bit different from now, because that was the time when even the Chinese Communist Party was trying to reflect on some of the problems in the Cultural Revolution. And then the sent-down youth memories actually emerged from that kind of a reflection.

Tania Branigan: It’s interesting as well, isn’t it, how they’ve managed to detach what happened to that experience of being in the countryside from the causes of it and from the surrounding context, and depoliticize it in that sense so it becomes a story, as you say, about honest toil and sacrificing for the country without reflecting on the sort of very pragmatic reasons why they wanted to clear 17 million young people out of the cities following the wars, really, between the Red Guards.

Xu Bin: Yeah, exactly. I think that one of the ways for them to do that is to promote it in a narrative that is about the people but not the event. You can talk about the people, their spirit, and their work ethic and things like that, and then praise the people, particularly praise the highest leader without talking about the event without evaluating whether the event is good or not, because you’re part of the Cultural Revolution, heavy overlap and things like that.

Louisa Lim: So, Tania why do you think people kind of fell into line with that? Is it that the past was just too painful to remember?

Tania Branigan: Yes, I think for a lot of people, they just wanted to draw that line underneath it and leave it behind. I mean, what’s interesting about the people that I spoke to in Red Memory, that they’re all people who chose to remember or perhaps who couldn’t help remembering, when everybody else wanted to forget, but I think that instinct to try and move on was immense. And then, of course, Chinese society was changing at such an extraordinary rate, there did seem to be almost something perverse about looking back, when everybody was saying, look, there’s this bright future ahead of us, we’re all going to charge ahead. So, it was easier, it was less painful, people were having to live with these incredible contradictions in terms of going back into workplaces with people who had persecuted them or who had persecuted their spouse, for example. So, to simply draw a line under that seemed, in some ways, easier or necessary, I think. And then, of course, it was difficult to talk about. And if the Cultural Revolution taught people anything, it was that speaking out and voicing your true feelings was incredibly dangerous. So why would you return to those things? All that said, of course, as you said, there has in some ways been a return to memory in recent years, as people have got older, particularly with the sent-down youth, we’ve seen this grassroots nostalgia movement, but also a lot of people who either wanted to come to terms with their past or perhaps more often, who were quite nostalgic about the Cultural Revolution, and who saw it as standing for a sort of purer time with more meaning and less corruption. And so, it became a sort of a reflection on the present day as well.

Graeme Smith: I’m really finding it interesting what you said Xu Bin about Xi Jinping being sort of the model sent-down youth, but his experiences seem to be totally atypical. I mean, their accounts say, basically, unlike all the other people who were sent down who were devastated about being torn apart from their families, he was smiling on the train, he was delighted to be going to the countryside because he’d had such an awful time in Beijing, of being kidnapped, having his own mother denounce him. And, you know, he had all those things that you associate with sent-down youth: the cave house, there’s the hard toil and all that kind of stuff, but what do other sent-down youth make of his experience, given it is such an outlier?

Xu Bin: Yeah, that’s a very good question. So, in the book, I talk a variety of ways people actually reacted to a President Xi’s sent-down experience. Many of them were very proud of Xi Jinping, regarding him as one of their representatives or the representative of their experience, particularly they agreed [with] the official narrative, which is mainly a character-building narrative, which means that, you know, we build our character in the suffering, in the difficulties, and then now we’re back! We are actually the backbone of the society, and things like that. So, this kind of suffering-to-success narrative had its audience, [it] resonated with a lot of people. As you can imagine, probably the winners in this generation, those people who have higher social economic status or official ranks probably would agree more to this kind of idea. But also, I have interviewees who basically are still suffering from the past. In other words, for example, the pension problem, hukou [户口 household registration] problem and also medical insurance problem. They’re petitioning the Shanghai government. Every Wednesday morning they’re lining up outside the laodong ju 劳动局 the Labor Bureau in Jiangsu Zhong Lu 江苏中路 in Shanghai and trying to solve all these problems. They probably don’t buy this kind of a narrative, but still some of them agree to the ‘suffering for the success’ [narrative], just unfortunately I’m not one of them. So, there are a variety of reactions to Xi’s mythic narrative about his past and also agree that he’s just such an atypical case, and in terms of outcome, he was recommended to Tsinghua University, one of the very, very lucky ones who can enter not only college [but] such an elite college at the time, and then later became the most powerful person in China.

Graeme Smith: And there’s some wonderful details in your book. But one thing that really stays with me are the strategies that were used to make reluctant parents send their children down to the countryside. Can you maybe share with us some of those strategies that were used?

Xu Bin: Oh, yeah, there are quite a lot of strategies. Some of them are pretty theatrical. So, they actually send a whole team to your door and to celebrate your kids going down, and put up a poster, a red poster to say, ‘Oh, this is just such a revolutionary family, sending their kid down to the countryside voluntarily.’ Actually, the family didn’t do that. So, it’s more like creating a pressure on the people who are reluctant to go down to the countryside.

Louisa Lim: That’s such a shaming strategy, isn’t it?

Xu Bin: Yeah, it’s a shaming strategy. But it’s a very comical sort of shaming strategy. That actually happened in a lot of places. And also I would recommend another book by Emily Honig and Zhao Xiaojian [Across the Great Divide: The Sent-Down Youth Movement in Mao’s China, 1968–1980]. And they recorded many, many details of these strategies. And also, there are some differences in terms of the socioeconomic status and class, for example, the red families, the workers, the poor peasant chusheng [出生 born to] family background families, they dared to resist this kind of campaign, because the chusheng, the family background, protected them from further political persecution. Of course, at the end of the day, everyone should go down, but they are able to resist to some extent and can vocally air their grievances.

Louisa Lim: I’m interested in that whole aspect of suffering and how people have rationalized that. Xu Bin you talk about this sort of suffering for success. Tania, in your interviews with people, did people who have suffered either because of their own actions, or because of other people’s actions, how did they then go about rationalizing what had happened to them or what they had done to others?

Tania Branigan: I think what’s so striking is the fact that when you got to the end of the Cultural Revolution, for some of those who had suffered immensely, it was actually almost a trauma in itself to be rehabilitated. Because people need to find some sort of meaning and sense in their experience of the world. And so, some people had somehow convinced themselves, you know, I wasn’t a good enough person, I wasn’t a true enough believer, yes, I’ve been punished but that’s because it’s gone wrong. And then suddenly, to be told, actually, you didn’t do anything wrong was almost another trauma. So, I think that really tells us how deep rooted the need to find meaning is and so many people now look back, I think, particularly as they’re getting older, just trying to make sense of that experience. And they do it in a variety of ways. So, for some of them, it really is about delving deep, talking to others, trying to think about what it was about themselves and their environment that made them susceptible to these influences. For other people, they have stopped at the point at which they say, I did something terrible, it was the atmosphere of the time, we were all indoctrinated, there wasn’t really anything you could do about it. So, it is a really wide range of responses, and certainly again, for people who suffered, I think a lot of people would really ascribe it to the system of the time. And certainly for them, part of the point of remembering it was trying to ensure that you couldn’t go back to that time. But when I spoke, for example, to Red Guard sort of veterans in Chongqing, where the factional fighting became particularly grim, it was really sort of striking that you would speak to the same people about the same events and they had these profoundly different accounts of what happened and why they played that role in it. And for some people, it was very much an argument about why you need reforms within China and liberalisation and people thinking for themselves above all. And then for other people it was about why you really need just a very calm status quo, and it’s much better to keep the Party in charge because you just want to a very calm overall situation, so there’s a hugely divergent range of responses, which is one of the fascinating things. And also one of the troubling things in some sense.

Graeme Smith: There’s a real range of characters in your book. There’s even some quite amusing characters. There’s a female Mao impersonator, there’s a Lin Biao impersonator who forms quite an attachment to you, but possibly the most disturbing character in the whole book is this lawyer from a small town in Anhui who takes you to his mother’s grave. Could you maybe share that story with us, because for me, that was possibly the most disturbing part of the whole book.

Tania Branigan: So, Zhang Hongbing was 17 when he denounced his mother for criticizing Chairman Mao. And she was executed very shortly after, as he had known she would be. He and his father went to the authorities. He has since come forward to talk about his guilt and about how he has carried this burden his whole life, as of course you would. When you talk to him, he has a very specific explanation, which is simply that the indoctrination of the time was such that when his mother criticized Mao, he just didn’t see his mother, he saw a monster, he saw someone who was an enemy and so it was his duty, above all. And what struck me about his story, in his experiences was perhaps something slightly different, which was that he was a very young boy who’d been through a series of traumas, ranging from his brother being sent away when the Great Famine struck. So, the family had already been disrupted. And then with the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution, his grandmother who’d been living with them was sent away. His father was persecuted, his sister was a very enthusiastic Red Guard, but ended up dying in the big meningitis outbreak that spread among many of the Red Guards who’d taken these packed trains up to the huge rallies in Beijing. And then on top of all this, his mother had then been hounded and was taken away from their home and held for a couple of years. And it seemed to me that you had a teenager who must have been profoundly distressed and disturbed by all of those events and it’s really impossible to understand what happened if you don’t also factor these things in. But that’s obviously not his explanation. What I wanted to do with this book was to try and talk about people’s understandings of their situation and what they had done and examine that, scrutinize that, but not in any way judge people for what they did, because I think, for any of us to sit in judgment on the decisions people made at that time would be profoundly wrong. And foolish, in a sense, because the political pressures, the political dangers of the time, the series of horrific events that China as a whole and so many families had been through, I think all of that left society in a very battered and vulnerable place, and I think very susceptible to political forces and to these mass campaigns.

Louisa Lim: Xu Bin I was going to ask, what Tania has just presented [to] us as a kind of very holistic, a very sympathetic attitude, but do you think the people you were talking to see things in that kind of very sympathetic non-judgmental kind of way themselves?

Xu Bin: I will say some of them do have this kind of attitude. More common is a self-congratulatory sort of attitude, to celebrate their achievements to say like, ‘We are the strongest generation in Chinese history, and we are the important people.’ The reason for that kind of pompous attitude was really the prevalent narrative that is ‘people but not event’ which was encouraged by the state and even by companies which actually want to make money from this population, aging population. Health products, retirement homes and so on and so forth. So, try everything to praise them to say, ‘You guys are just you know, a very, very special generation and then come to buy our products.’ That kind of thing.

Louisa Lim: This is like a marketing strategy, basically?

Xu Bin: It is. It is a very good marketing strategy. I was on a trip with a group of zhi qing [知青educated youth] who revisit their sent-down place, of course many of them…

Louisa Lim: …and when you say zhi qing, you’re referring to that generation, the former generation who were sent down to the countryside?

Xu Bin: Yeah, the sent-down youth. So, when I was on a trip to revisit their sent-down place, I see the local governments sent a sort of envoy to receive them. And the local real estate companies actually send people to sort of promote their condos and then arrange a bus for them to visit a condos to see well, such a beautiful place in the scenery and air and everything. Buy our condos for your retirement and things like that. So, this kind of a pompous attitude was promoted and encouraged by the state, by the market, and by zhi qing themselves. So, I rarely saw people or heard people talking about their deeds, talking about responsibility as Tania’s book actually demonstrates, and only one person among my interviewees said that he actually beat his teacher in school. And then he apologized for that.

Louisa Lim: And this is one person out of more than 100 interviews, right?

Xu Bin: 100 interviews. That’s right. And other people, I pressed them to answer the question, what do you do in the first several years of the Cultural Revolution, they will say, like, ‘Oh, I didn’t do anything’, or ‘I just came out there’, or ‘I just forget, I participated in some activities’. And then I asked them, ‘What kind of activities did you participate in?’ And they were like, ‘Okay, we have just, you know, some revolutionary activities, or we’re just following big kids and observing their stuff’. And then when I further ask the tough questions, and they just refuse and change topics, and then that kind of attitude, you can see there. So overall, I think, every generation has a generational label. In other words, what kind of labels put on yourselves is a choice from the memory perspective, not really, from the past, we all know, for many of the people in that generation, Red Guards and the sent-down youth are just two sides of the same coin. They’re the same group of people. Before being sent down, they’re probably the perpetrators in their schools. After being sent down, they’re probably the victims of this wrong policy. Now, when they’re looking back, they’re emphasizing this sort of victim part and then they turn themselves from victims to heroes, ignoring their being perpetrator, or at least, some unsavory past, attached to them. So, they don’t mention that. So, this is how memory is constructed from their personal and historical past, which as actually is more like an extension of what Tania just said, it’s really about a guilt problem.

Graeme Smith: Possibly my oldest friend in China is one of these sent-down youth. And when I reflect on her life and the life of people in China today, you can have a rural life and an urban life. And they’re almost on completely separate tracks, they’re in completely different worlds. But she met her husband in the countryside, a man that in any other era, she would not have met, except possibly for this guy to fill up the tank in her, fill up her car or something like that. There’s no way these social classes would meet today. And yet these two totally different people, this uneducated guy from the countryside, and this woman from a very privileged family in Guangdong, came together and formed a family. Do any of them reflect on that, that this sort of social mixing that is not possible now was part of their lives?

Xu Bin: Yeah, when they look back, and some of them regretted about this kind of marriage, because you know, the huge gap between this class status and also its kind of a reversal of the class system from the Mao years to the post-Mao years. Because in the Mao years it’s all about politics, right? And then the workers and poor peasants at the top, while in the post-Mao years, it is quite the opposite, the poor peasants and workers at the bottom. So that created quite a lot of problem for those couples who married in the countryside between the person who [was] from the urban area but has problematic family background, and with the person who [was] from the countryside, poor family, but have very good privileged political class background and then that changed after the post-Mao years. So, it created a lot of problems with those kind of marriages.

Louisa Lim: And Tania how do you find that the people you interviewed rationalize their behavior? I mean, this is very chilling moment when one of your interviewees says, ‘It was people being barbaric to each other. That was all.’ I mean, how did you interpret their attempts to make meaning?

Tania Branigan: Her reaction was that the attempts to justify it and make sense of it as a political movement, for somebody, from someone who at that time would have been at the top of the pile, you know, she just thought that was completely spurious, that there was no real political or sort of moral justification for anything that happened beyond cruelty. And I guess we know that human nature is capable of extraordinarily wonderful things and extraordinarily terrible things and it’s the context that really determines what happens in so many cases. That you have a country which, as I said, had been through this series of profound traumas, that you had people who felt vulnerable, that you had a moment of turmoil. And then because you had this intense propaganda and Mao being not only revered, but so ever present as a sort of moral force in your immediate life, that particularly sort of for young people reared in this atmosphere of struggle, sacrifice, of the nation being under threat, it seems to me in some ways profoundly unsurprising that they would rise up on his demand. So above all, it’s the political context, of course, which makes this happen. It clearly is Mao’s desire to assert his power which sets all this in motion. But we know that anywhere in the world, if you have a mass campaign, if you draw people in all sorts of other motives will come into play. So beyond political zealotry, you had personal grudges within families, where you sometimes had children turning on their parents, you might have children who very much resented their parents’ domineering behavior, for example, that you had people who were jealous of others within the workplace, even on a very sort of petty level. One of the things that’s striking about one of the very good studies that’s been done on mass killings in the countryside is the role that this rather sort of banal ambition seems to have played in putting things into motion. So, you had people, essentially, who saw no way of moving up the Party hierarchy except that, of course, if you remove somebody above you, suddenly new opportunities began to open up. So in any movement, whatever the things that begin it, I think once a lot of people are involved, all sorts of other motives creep in. And in terms of how people understand it themselves, I mean, one of the things that struck me was that often the people who were most thoughtful, and most willing to talk in depth about their guilt and their culpability. Other people who really didn’t do anything, very terrible by the standards of the time. But of course, that’s not really surprising when you think about it, because it’s one thing to come to terms with perhaps, denouncing a teacher who survived and then made it through the Cultural Revolution. It’s quite another to admit that you beat somebody to death. And so in a sense, I suppose it’s entirely predictable, that people who perhaps did less are more able to really get to grips with what they did.

Graeme Smith: Can we maybe reflect a little bit on intergenerational trauma and suffering and in many ways, you seem to come to quite different takes depending on who you’re looking at. So, Xu Bin in your book you say the children of the sent-down youth almost have no interest in what their parents experienced at all. Whereas Tania you write about this sort of almost epigenetic passing on of trauma of this sort of violent trauma to the next generation. How did these things exist side by side, because there’s a fair bit of overlap between the groups you’re looking at?

Tania Branigan: I think it exists beneath the surface, largely, because this is one of the things that often the instances where you see this trauma playing out, are these families where nothing has been said. And so the story that stays with me is that of the young boy who seemed like a very nice, well behaved young man. And then suddenly at university [he] writes this very graphic account of attacking and killing one of his tutors. And eventually, the family ends up seeing a psychotherapist and the boy learns for the first time that his father watched his own father, so the boy’s grandfather, being murdered by Red Guards. And at no point in their lives has the father ever spoken about this. But what he has done is bring this boy up with an acute sense of caution, of repression of all emotion, that you must not let anybody see any of your emotions, you certainly can’t let them see your anger in any way. And he does all of this, of course, because he wants to save his son from this horrific inheritance of trauma, and yet, in some way, these things get passed down. And a lot of the work on transgenerational trauma was originally done with the children of Holocaust survivors. And what we’ve seen certainly from there is that even in the third generation, in grandchildren, we are seeing these effects play out in some way. I mean, if you’re a parent whose experience of the world is that the world is fundamentally unsafe, and that nobody can be trusted, it is very hard to send your children out into the world with anything other than a complete sort of shell of impenetrable self-protection, I suppose. Having said all of that, it was striking, certainly talking to a younger psychotherapist, that she said she felt that through the generations, although it persisted, it also diminished in the sense that the children and the grandchildren were more able to step away from the subject or to step outside it, to consider it, perhaps to have therapy and so forth. Whereas for many of that first generation, it was simply too dangerous and too painful to speak about it at all. And one interesting thing actually is that in her case, she said she started working with survivors of the Cultural Revolution. And she didn’t really know why. And then after she started doing this work she discovered that her grandparents had suffered in the Cultural Revolution as well, and nobody else had ever told her. But there’s this sense I think you so often have with family secrets that people don’t know what it is that’s there, they don’t even necessarily consciously know that there’s something there, and yet it’s in some way present in their lives and playing out in the choices they make.

Louisa Lim: I mean, Xu Bin, how do you see it? Because of course the trauma goes back long before the Cultural Revolution, this sort of generation after generation of sort of traumatic events. When you talked to the sent-down youth, and they described how their children have had no interest in their experience. Do you think they believe their children had kind of dodged the trauma? Or how do you think they see it?

Xu Bin: I think it depends on which part of this population you’re talking to. From most people from that generation the traumatic experience was just a very small percentage of people who actually experienced that, at the time during the Cultural Revolution. So, the traumas were mainly their parents. In other words, this Red Guard / sent-down youth generation’s parents, and they committed suicide, they were reported by their own children, and so on and so forth. That story is that in Tania’s book. And their children or their grandchildren are the people who suffered the most in the Cultural Revolution, so they’re like two generations away. And the second is that most of the people who were sent down did not actually experience a lot of the traumatic events. They heard the things, they saw things, but many of the things didn’t happen to them. So, for them, they’re kind of easy about their past, and even bragging about their past in the countryside, and use their sort of eating bitterness spirit in the countryside to educate their children and their children got fed up and didn’t really want to listen to that kind of things anymore. And particularly, one thing that I wrote in the book is that the sent-down youth, or the Red Guard generation’s cultural repertoire was inherited from the Mao years, which is outdated, which is not really liked by anyone today, but they stick to that because they have no alternatives. So, playing the same song, singing the same song and dancing the same dance, and all the time it became really repetitive, and then the children didn’t really want to hear that anymore. So generally, the cultural influence of this generation has been diminishing since the Cultural Revolution. And one thing that their children didn’t say, didn’t say explicitly, but it’s mainly from other intellectual’s comments on this generation is that, ‘You bragged about your experience. And you believe you’re heroes, you’re good people, but you are Red Guards. How do you deal with this dilemma?’ So that actually occurred in the 1990s, when quite a lot of literary critics are talking about the so called shanghen wenxue 伤痕文学, the trauma or scar literature, and you only talk about your good side, your dramatic side. And you’re not talking about the things that you did in schools. And you’re not even talking about the peasants in the countryside, who lived that kind of life for hundreds of years, and you only lived there for seven years or ten years.

Graeme Smith: In my time in Anhui I came across a few people who had been sent down, but through lack of family connections or things that had happened, never went back. And they really still, you know, decades later stood out in the countryside as being not from round here. Is that a widespread thing? Or is that just a really rare case?

Xu Bin: It’s a very rare case, statistically only, like, under five percent of the people who still live in the countryside. But there’s a sizable population of the sent-down youth who didn’t get a chance to go back to their home cities, let’s say Shanghai. But they went back, got the urban hukou, household registration in the city of their sent-down province, let’s say you were sent down to Heilongjiang province, and then you marry someone, or you got a job in the SOE, state-owned enterprise in Harbin, and then you’ve got a Harbin urban hukou. And then you retired from [your] Harbin danwei [单位 work unit] and then you returned to Shanghai; that trajectory was pretty common. And these people encounter quite a lot of problems after they retired, because the pensions and insurance they got was in Heilongjiang or in Xinjiang, in Anhui, which are significantly lower than those in Shanghai, but they want to return to Shanghai to reunite with their families. So, after they arrived in Shanghai they all of a sudden they found that the money is not good enough. And then they decided to petition the government to say, ‘You actually sent me down, I was forced to go down, was reluctant to go and then had to go’, or some people use more heroic narratives to say like, ‘We made contributions to the frontier construction, we answered a call from Chairman Mao. And then now you abandoned us’. And one of the comical sort of interactions between the staff of the Labor Bureau and those petitioning sent-down youth was the staff members said, ‘Okay, since Chairman Mao called you down to the countryside and you can, you know, talk to Chairman Mao.’ Which actually was the starting point of sort of a fistfight between the zhi qing and the staff.

Louisa Lim: So, we’re also seeing a lot more talk nowadays. We’re seeing more propaganda with Xi Jinping talking about rural revitalization and telling young people if you can’t find a job, you should learn to eat bitterness, you should go and look in the countryside. How do you, both of you, maybe starting with you Xu Bin, how do you interpret that? Are we going back? Is there a possibility that there might be some kind of new sent-down youth 2.0 coming up?

Xu Bin: I think it is, again, it goes back to what I said [about] the Lost Cause. So, in other words, the event, the sent-down program is a failure. But the government believed that there’s some elements in this failed event, failed campaign [that] are still useful today. And the calls now for the kids to go down to the countryside actually is an effort to salvage these elements from the sent-down program, to solve some of the problems today, for example, the employment problem of the youth that is one of the biggest troubles now for the Chinese government. And the ideological elements are pretty much the same. You need to jingshou duanlian 经受锻炼, experience the toughness and the building of character that’s exactly in the narrative, but I don’t think that’s a very serious plan, because one thing that you cannot force people to go down now, regardless of how hard they have tried. And second, today’s youth are totally different from the youth in the 1960s and the 70s. They like Black Pink, they’re fans of TFBOYS. They watch K-drama. How could you expect those people to answer your call to construct the frontiers, go to rural areas, stay there for seven to ten years, that’s almost impossible. So, this is also more like a reflection of a bigger problem. The current regime is trying to use the resources from the Mao years to solve the current problems. This is a very anachronistic mismatch.

Tania Branigan: No, absolutely. I mean, it just seems to me that, as you say, there was a lot of resistance, even in the 60s to this, but there were a few people who were genuinely idealistic and [it] wore off pretty quickly. But they thought, ‘Okay, we’re gonna go down to the countryside and transform this country’. The idea that you’re going to get your average 20-year-olds sitting in a Starbucks, in a nice big city somewhere to throw down their iPad and pick up their hoe, it just seems to me absolutely laughable. I wonder if perhaps, as well, it’s directed at their parents, in terms of trying to sell a particular kind of story about what China is and how the Party-state will lead it and where you should ascribe the blame if things aren’t working out quite as well as they should.

Graeme Smith: So, in terms of hangovers of language, people often look to make comparisons between Mao and Xi Jinping. And they look at language such as the Great Helmsman and things that are borrowed. But perhaps the most disturbing thing that I’ve seen picked up from the Cultural Revolution would be Xi’s revival of this term, the Fengqiao experience. Can you tell us what the Fengqiao experience is? And how could it possibly be useful today?

Xu Bin: It seems to me that it’s not surprising because Fengqiao experience was basically to mobilize people to watch each other and to struggle [with] each other at the grassroots level. So, which was not actually raised by any of the leaders before Xi, because of the generational experience thing. If you look at Hu Jintao generation, Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao generation and then the Jiang Zemin generation they’re significantly older than Xi. So, they are not the people who really believed in some of the indoctrination in the Mao years, or sometimes they could be the victims, Zhu Rongji himself was a victim in the 1950s. So, they stayed a little bit away from the indoctrination, they were already adults. You know when the Fengqiao was a part of the shehui zhuyi jiaoyu yundong 社会主义教育运动the socialist education movement in the 1960s. While Xi at a time was indoctrinated into that kind of ideology. So that was sort of in his political and cultural repertoire, which was picked up now as a way to solve the problems today, let’s say corruption or you know, lack of participation from the grassroots level, to do self-governing and things like that. Some of the goals sound interesting, people need to govern themselves, and things like that, which could be used as another way for civil society. But it’s not really in his repertoire to build a civil society, his repertoire was mainly from the Mao years. And then it’s again, very, very much depends on how he was indoctrinated into that kind of ideology, which was not surprising. So earlier we talked about that so-called sent-down 2.0, which could also be another case to revive the things that he was educated into, and then to use them to solve the problems today.

Tania Branigan: I think is striking as well, isn’t it that we have seen this sort of revival of this idea of watching your neighbour, both in terms of things like the fact that there’s a hotline to report acts of historical nihilism, but also, particularly with the pandemic years, the number of people from China talking about that sense of your neighbors watching you and reporting on you. I mean, actually something that people talked about in the West as well, of course. But particularly when you hear people sort of talk about their experience of the zero-COVID policies, it’s that sense of your neighbors, essentially, spying on you and being encouraged to spy on you and monitor you again.

Louisa Lim: Actually, it’s already been 60 years since the Cultural Revolution, has the time for a reckoning passed? Given the lack of historical knowledge of what happened even amongst those who were involved with it, and then, even less amongst their children, do you think there can ever be a reckoning in their lifetimes?

Tania Branigan: Well, very possibly not certainly within China, primarily for political and self-protection reasons. But also perhaps, because it’s such a fraught subject and they fear the social consequences, it’s clearly not going to happen as long as the Communist Party is in power, I would have thought. What we have seen, however, if you think of some of the broader debates that we’re seeing is that these things leave a trail which will be followed at some time in future. I remember a psychotherapist saying to me, this is one of the most extraordinary things about some of the interviews that had been recorded with victims of the Cultural Revolution. And he said to me, absolutely seriously, you know in a hundred years someone will find it, somebody will go back. And so, he had that absolute confidence in a sense that there would not be a discussion at any time in the near future, but that there would be one day. It’s the great quote from Lu Xun that I know you used yourself in your book, that blood debts will be have to be repaid. So, I do think it will be returned to at some point in the same way that we are seeing, for example, these discussions of chattel slavery, and the fact that the issue of reparations is back on the agenda in a way that would have seemed sort of impossible, 50 or even perhaps ten years ago. There’s a very long tail to history. I don’t think the Cultural Revolution will disappear in that sense, it will still be felt, and it will be returned to and perhaps I hope, one day, there will be a more open discussion of it. And the extraordinary work that Chinese scholars have done over the years to record and scrutinize and make sense of what happened, I hope will really finally come to its full fruition.

Xu Bin: I agree. So, I think some of the elements from the Cultural Revolution in the Mao years will be rehashed to suit the need of today, but I don’t think there will be a full-fledged revival of the Mao years now because the society is so different. And also I think the dominant ideology heavily relies on nationalism, instead of communism, which is a huge difference in the current administration’s sort of a frame, mental frame that competing with the United States for the world leadership probably is the number one goal, or many of the policies are just, you know, designed to achieve that goal. One Belt One Road, and even the COVID policy. is to compete with the United States, ‘Look how bad the United States have done, how well we have done’, and things like that. So, the nationalism is very big thing today, while the communist ideology has pretty much already died. And so even some of the elements are used, it’s used to suit that need. And if you’re looking official narrative of Xi Jinping, about his sent-down years, so it’s basically if you draw a trajectory it’s from the lower point of his personal life and career to a high point today. Past suffering has been redeemed into success. So that trajectory also is the one in the official narrative about the so-called China dream: China was at the lower point, toughed through all these difficulties, [and it’s] now at a high point. So, the purpose is to show that China has already been at the high point and can compete with the United States instead of doing another revolution. So, this kind of sort of a sense of superiority is there, which is very different from the mentality in the Mao years.

Graeme Smith: So, it sounds like you don’t think there’s going to be any sort of reckoning with the reality of what happened?

Xu Bin: No.

Graeme Smith: Xu Bin, Tania, thanks for joining us.

Xu Bin and Tania: Thank you very much. Thank you.

Graeme Smith: You’ve been listening to the Little Red Podcast, which brings you China from beyond the Beijing beltway. Many thanks to our guests Xu Bin and Tania Branigan, as well as my co-host, Louisa Lim. Our editing is by Andy Hazel. background research by Wing Kuang, our theme music is by Suzy Wilkins and our cartoons and gifs are courtesy of Seb Danta. Bye for now.