Will China Have a 21st Century Cultural Revolution?

Probably not, but some interesting parallels are emerging.

By Daniel Drezner, Professor of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy

Last month the hard-working staff here at Drezner’s World wrote about the darkening in Chinese attitudes about the future due to the rising omnipresence of Xi Jinping. It included references to Evan Osnos’ long New Yorker assessment, “China’s Age of Malaise.” There was another part of Osnos’ essay that stuck with me: 

Historically, young people have been a volatile presence in Chinese politics. In 1989, students protesting corruption and autocracy led the occupation of Tiananmen Square. In the present moment, their distress takes other forms. For years, young graduates have streamed into China’s big cities in pursuit of wealth and stimulation, but, in August, state media reported that almost half of new graduates were returning to their home towns within six months, unable to afford the cost of living. Among those who stay, some are answering advertisements for “bedmates”—sharing a bed with a stranger—or living rent-free in nursing homes, in return for spending ten hours a month entertaining the residents.

A decade after Xi told young people to “dare to dream,” he now admonishes them to curtail their expectations; in recent speeches, he has said that disgruntled youth should “abandon arrogance and pampering” and “eat bitterness”1—basically, Mandarin for “suck it up.” The exhortations land poorly. Young people mock the implication that they are little more than a renkuang—a “human mine”—for the nation’s exploitation. As a subtle protest during college-commencement season, graduates took to posting pictures of themselves sprawled face down, or draped over railings, in a manner they named “zombie style.”

The lack of employment opportunities in China’s cities is leading to an interesting effort by Xi and the CCP to lure the young people back to the rural areas. The Wall Street Journal’s Brian Spegele has an interesting story on how this program is and is not working:

With youth unemployment recently hitting record levels—and deepening concern in Beijing about the hollowing out of rural China—Xi is calling on students and college graduates to embrace hardship and consider giving up city life for the countryside. 

Officials have rolled out a number of programs to lure young people to rural areas, where they are tasked with promoting the quality of local crops, painting walls and extolling the Communist Party’s leadership to farmers. 

The government hopes that deploying hundreds of thousands of young people to Chinese backwaters will give underemployed young people work while rejuvenating villages left behind by China’s economic rise. 

In reality, many young people are using the programs to postpone the potentially painful process of searching for jobs today in China’s big cities. The work they are doing often falls short of fixing the underlying problems of rural China, which include a lack of business and investment….

[Xi’s] vision is for more young people to settle in the countryside for the long run—not just for a year or two. With more than one in five young urban Chinese unemployed as of this summer, resettling people into towns and villages can take some of the heat off cities that haven’t produced enough of the white-collar jobs that many graduates want.

But many young Chinese would still rather scrape by in cities with low-wage work, often as shop assistants or delivery drivers. Others simply live off their parents’ money. 

For all the talk about how China and the United States are so different, it would appear that young, educated people the world over share one common preference: they want to live in the city. Similarly, Xi’s comments suggest that like many a Western parent, he thinks the kids are spoiled.

Anyone who has a passing familiarity with recent Chinese history should sense the Cultural Revolution vibes. More than a half-century ago Mao sent urbanized elites into rural areas to engage in agricultural work and maintain ties to the peasantry. It was chaotic but for Mao it had the advantage of exiling his rivals far away from Beijing. That included Deng Xiaoping — as well as a young Xi Jinping. 

There are also obvious differences, however. As closed off as China is feeling, the current program based on incentives rather than Red Guards dragging people out of universities. Similarly, in this case the hope is that these educated young people can help rural areas by using their knowledge to improve living conditions in the hinterlands. 

Perhaps the current program’s biggest commonality with the Cultural Revolution is that neither is likely to work very well. The hope seems to be that Chinese urbanites will follow the plot of a Hallmark movie and discover the beauty of a simple, rustic life. In the real world, however, “rustic” often means desolate. As Spegele writes, “Rural living conditions can be more primitive than in big cities. A video by one young graduate volunteer working in rural Guangdong of her living quarters showed a sparse room with cement walls and barred windows. She erected a tent of netting over the bed to keep bugs out.” 

The hard-working staff here at Drezner’s World supposes it is possible that Xi could revert to Cultural Revolution-style tactics to get people to move to the countryside. But in contrast to Mao, Xi wants the country to reap the benefits of a technologically advanced urban society. It is therefore much more likely that this incentive program, like the ones to increase China’s birth rate, will have minimal effect.

1 Note to self: add “eat bitterness” to my grading lexicon.

(This post is republished from Drezner’s World.)

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