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China Turned Upside Down

Life During Mao’s Bloody, Chaotic Cultural Revolution

A portrait of late Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong and a photo of Chai Ling, one of the student leaders during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, at a museum in Hong Kong, April 2014 Tyrone Siu / REUTERS

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between China and the United States and the start of China’s “reform and opening up.” In the late 1970s, China was still emerging from the shadows of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, which had swept away most of the country’s social and political institutions and had brought its undeveloped economy to its knees.

China has made remarkable progress since then; today’s China bears almost no resemblance to the China of that period. But the experience of the Cultural Revolution—a chaotic and brutal time of social upheaval—is still fresh in the memories of those who lived through it, including myself and many members of China’s contemporary ruling class. Although most of them rarely discuss it publicly, the Cultural Revolution had a defining impact on many of the people who now lead China and the country’s biggest firms.

Two schools of thought about how to govern China and manage its economy emerged in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. Some senior party leaders favored limited political liberalization and market-friendly reforms. Others insisted on the suppression of dissent and unwavering support for old-school, statist policies. This debate still roils China and serves as the main prism through which most foreign observers view Chinese politics. But outsiders sometimes fail to grasp how the debate itself has been shaped by the participants’ shared experience of the Cultural Revolution. Living through social disorder has left a profound mark on many Chinese elites. It has led them to a wide variety of conclusions about what kind of society China should be. But to understand their thinking and their competing visions, it helps to have a sense of what life was like in those dark, intense times. My own experience was fairly typical.

SCHOOL’S OUT

It was the early summer of 1966 in the western suburbs of Beijing. I was 12 years old and preparing to graduate from elementary school. All through the broiling

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