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'Lost generation' of China poised to lead the way
Publication Date : 29-10-2012
They had no childhood, no education, no family and, in the eyes of many, never felt happiness.
Aptly labelled China's "lost generation", they were young Chinese in their teens thrown into the decade-long turmoil of the Cultural Revolution that Mao Zedong unleashed in 1966.
Now, nearly five decades later, the reins of power will soon be passed to a select handful from this 50-something cohort, who will be led by Vice-President Xi Jinping, 59, and Vice-Premier Li Keqiang, 57.
The changing of the guard will take place at the Chinese Communist Party's crucial leadership meeting - the 18th Party Congress - which opens on November 8.
But the shadow of the Cultural Revolution will loom large in the lives of the new leaders and in the decisions they make, experts say.
Unlike President Hu Jintao, 69, and Premier Wen Jiabao, 70, who are slated to retire at the congress, Xi and Li belong to the generation most affected by Mao's call to rebel against all authority and tradition.
"The worst ones are those who were about 10 or 15 at the start of the Cultural Revolution," American author Paul Theroux cited an unnamed Chinese man as saying in his book, Riding The Iron Rooster. "They were robbed of everything... they are... very angry - angry with everyone."
Xi was 13 when Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in the name of building a new communist utopia. Li was only 11.
Among the strong contenders for top leadership posts next month, organisation chief Li Yuanchao was 16, Vice-Premier Wang Qishan, 18, and Guangdong party leader Wang Yang, 11.
Former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, who was in the running until his fall from grace earlier this year, was 17.
Most would have been Red Guards who, in those tumultuous years, were given free rein to attack - including torture - "capitalist roaders" and intellectuals in the name of eradicating bourgeois elements.
Many young Chinese saw their parents tortured and locked up on dubious charges. Some were even forced to denounce their family members in public. And as the winds blew according to Mao's whims, some of the tormentors became victims themselves.
Toiling in the countryside was one of their common rites of passage.
Xi and Wang Qishan, for instance, were sent to impoverished north-western Shaanxi province to become farmers.
The years spent in the countryside imbued in them some common traits, according to analysts.
One of these is greater empathy for those in the lowest tier of society.
There is also a dark side, said consultant Sidney Rittenberg, 90, who spent 35 years working alongside Chinese leaders including Mao and was locked up for most of the Cultural Revolution.
The lost generation, he told The Straits Times, has a distrust of great leaders and instead places "strong emphasis on stability, and fear of turmoil".
"They are reluctant to adopt even clearly necessary reforms, if they think the reforms might lead to turbulence and resistance to unified leadership," he said.
The formal education they never had is also likely to have an impact on their policies, decisions and styles.
Not having gone through school, where they sit in class learning with children of a similar age and following a proper syllabus, they are likely to have ideas that are less conformist than those of their predecessors like Hu, according to Cultural Revolution historian Yin Hongbiao.
"They went through the 'university of society'. They saw a great collision and confusion of ideas and reality," says the Peking University expert.
They are thus less likely to spout lines from Chinese classics the way Wen does.
"Instead, they are very good at chanting Mao slogans. Just look at Bo Xilai," said Professor Yin.
The scars from the Cultural Revolution will not fade.
As Xi himself told state broadcaster China Central Television in 2003: "In the past when we talked about beliefs, it was very abstract. I think the youth of my generation will be remembered for the fervour of the Red Guard era.
"But it was emotional. It was a mood. And when the ideals of the Cultural Revolution could not be realised, it proved an illusion."