Forty-five years before ambitious Chinese politician Bo Xilai (薄熙來) fell from power accused of flirting with Cultural Revolution extremism, he stood as a teenager in front of a baying crowd that accused him of defying former Chinese supreme leader Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) campaign.
Bo’s divisive rise and downfall has kindled debate about how the chaotic Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976) shaped him and his generation, which will assume power at a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) congress later this year.
At the start of the Cultural Revolution, the man at the center of China’s worst political scandal in decades was a student at the No. 4 High School in Beijing, an elite cradle for “princelings,” the sons of Communist leaders who had risen to power with Mao.
The school became a crucible for conflicts unleashed with Mao’s call to rebel in the name of his unyielding vision of communism. The era paralyzed the country politically, triggering social upheaval and economic malaise.
One day in 1967, Bo and two brothers were paraded at the school by an angry group of student Red Guards and accused of resisting the Cultural Revolution just as their father, then-vice premier Bo Yibo (薄一波), had been toppled along with dozens of Mao’s former comrades and accused of betraying their leader.
Their persecutors twisted their arms behind them and pressed their heads nearly to the ground while pulling back their hair to expose their faces, Duan Ruoshi, a fellow student at the No. 4 school, wrote in a memoir published last year.
“Despite the shouts of condemnation from all sides, Bo Yibo’s sons exuded defiance and twisted their bodies in defiance against their oppressors,” Duan wrote in the memoir published by Remembrance, an online magazine about the Cultural Revolution.
The ordeal was a lesson for Bo in the capricious currents of CCP power, which only a few months before seemed to promise him and other princelings a bright future as inheritors of the Chinese revolution.
Now the effects of the Cultural Revolution on Bo and his generation are in question.
In mid-March, Bo, who had ambitions to be elevated this year to China’s top decisionmaking body, was dismissed from his post as party secretary of Chongqing.
Critics, including Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶), have suggested that Bo, 62, flirted with reviving the extremes of the Cultural Revolution, a decade of zealotry and violence etched in the memories of tens of millions of Chinese.
Yet the era was a formative one for many Chinese leaders now poised to rise to power in a leadership transition later this year. Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) is due to retire as party leader and hand power to a generation that includes many leaders who were Red Guards — student militants fighting for Mao’s vision of a communism purged of compromise.
VICTIMS AND ENFORCERS
At many schools, gangs of the loosely organized Red Guards marched into a vacuum of authority in the summer of 1966, when officials were toppled and police retreated. Across Beijing in August and September that year, nearly 1,800 people died in attacks instigated by Cultural Revolution radicals, according to official estimates published in 1980.
A Reuters investigation based on interviews with 10 former students and recent memoirs from the No. 4 school shows that Bo, his brothers and many fellow princelings experienced the Cultural Revolution as both enforcers and victims of Mao’s wrath — a double legacy key to understanding its influence.