An unremarkable Communist Party directive has sparked painful memories of past trauma for millions of people across China, with many drawing parallels with one of the most notorious policies of the Cultural Revolution.
The ruling Communist Party’s Youth League detailed plans in late March for 10 million volunteering trips for China’s urban youth to the countryside in the next three years.
Under the guideline, university and vocational school students will be expected to spend their summer vacations participating in technological, medical and cultural development in impoverished villages nationwide to deepen a “rural rejuvenation” championed by President Xi Jinping.
While the scheme is supposed to be voluntary, given Xi’s personal endorsement of the plan it is likely to be seen as compulsory for many university students keen to advance in the party and the government.
Up to 100,000 young migrant laborers will also be encouraged to return to their rural hometowns by 2022 for work, including starting their own businesses with the help of “youth entrepreneur organizations,” set up by local authorities.
All this may sound like just another ambitious government initiative, perfectly in sync with Xi’s emphasis on eradicating poverty and redressing imbalanced economic growth between urban and rural regions.
However, the document caused an immediate backlash online, with numerous commentators calling it a step backwards. To many parents or grandparents of the target demographic, it triggered painful memories of another government youth initiative in the tumultuous days of the founder of Communist China, Mao Zedong.
Known as the “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement,” the original policy was launched by Communist leaders in the 1960s, ostensibly to move privileged urban youth to the country’s far-flung corners to learn farming and political lessons from poverty-stricken peasants.
That movement reached its peak in the early years of Mao’s decade-long Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966. With most schools and the all-important college entrance examination suspended, some 17 million high school students and graduates from cities nationwide were sent to rural communities to farm and learn – effectively on a permanent basis.
The result: China’s “lost generation” who squandered their best years in the countryside – and a scarred nation that would see its talent pool and social cohesion suffer for years to come.
My parents, who belonged to that generation of “sent-down youth,” have recalled stories of peers trying to kill themselves upon learning that their years of academic preparation would be wasted on tilling land instead of attending university.
One of my uncles, Yimin Zhang, was sent to a farm in the province of Heilongjiang that borders Russia. He still remembers vividly that summer day in 1969 when he boarded a crowded train in Shanghai with dozens of other teenagers for the 1,500-mile journey north.
Like countless others, it would take him years to find his way back to the city as a grown man without a proper education or job.
Having gone through that experience, my uncle says he understands the negative reactions online to the recent Communist Youth League directive – ranging from being incredulous to infuriated.
“It just wasn’t worthwhile,” he said of the Mao-era policy. “No one liked it – and no one wants to see their children ever have to go through it.”
The authorities and state media, stressing the voluntary and part-time nature of the new initiative, have strongly rejected the comparison. But some analysts have detected economic parallels faced by China’s top leaders then and now.
Zhang Lifan, a prominent Beijing-based independent scholar of modern Chinese history, said Xi is under mounting pressure from urban unemployment amid a markedly slowing economy, just as Mao was decades earlier when his failed economic policies meant there weren’t enough city jobs to accommodate graduating students and returning veterans.
“There has been a ‘social purification’ drive aimed at preventing the overpopulation of migrants and unemployed youth in the cities,” he said. “These are elements of social instability in the minds of the authorities – they ‘sent down’ the youth back then and they probably have the same mentality now.”
Notably, President Xi – himself a member of the “sent-down youth” – has depicted his time in rural central China as a rewarding, life-changing experience that toughened his body and mind. The entire village where the leader once lived has been turned into a Communist shrine dedicated to him, attracting officials and tourists from across the country.
“He seems to want others to emulate his successful experience in the countryside,” said analyst Zhang, voicing his doubts that the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao would roll back the initiative because of the backlash. “His personality means the stronger the opposition, the more determined he is.”