Buck on Bonnin, 'The Lost Generation: The Rustification of Chinese Youth, 1968-1980'

Author: 
Michel Bonnin
Reviewer: 
David Buck

Michel Bonnin. The Lost Generation: The Rustification of Chinese Youth, 1968-1980. Translated by Krystyna Horko. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2013. 576 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-962-996-481-8.

Reviewed by David Buck (University of Wisconsin=Milwaukee) Published on H-Asia (May, 2014) Commissioned by Sumit Guha

Chinese Youth in rural exile

Michel Bonnin has produced a thorough and damning study of the rustication of urban youth that followed the Cultural Revolution. He became fascinated with the movement when he was a student in the mid-1970s and met some rusticated youth who fled to Hong Kong from their assignments in neighboring Guangdong province. That encounter became his scholarly interest over the next three decades until the French-language edition of this book was published in 2004. The Chinese University Press of Hong Kong produced a Chinese-language edition in 2009 and Beijing’s Encyclopedia of China Publishing House produced a simplified character version in 2010. Finally this English-language translation appeared in late 2013.

Bonnin’s research and analysis are highly impressive. His book will become the standard reference on the rustication movement. He has interviewed hundreds of former rusticated youth, read their stories, novels, and diaries, scoured Chinese newspapers and magazines for reports relating to rustication, and studied official compilations and studies. In addition to an extensive bibliography the book includes indices of people, places, and topics. The text is tightly organized into five sections—motivations, policies, experiences of rusticated youth, social resistance to rustication, and a concluding assessment.

Rustication of educated urban youth began in China on a small scale in the 1950s as an experiment based on Soviet efforts. The hope was to eradicate what the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) labeled “the three great differences,” meaning the differences between agriculture and industry, city and countryside, and physical and mental work (p. 13). Under Mao Zedong’s leadership, efforts became focused on a whole series of utopian goals such as these. 1968, the third year of the Cultural Revolution, left the CCP and China reeling from the chaos produced by the student-age Red Guards. These Maoist-inspired revolutionaries had split into anarchistic factions and frequently engaged in armed struggle with arms acquired from People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and police caches. The leadership decided the PLA’s intervention and a policy of rustication of educated urban youth age fifteen and older might restore order. Orders went out that almost all urban youth above the age of fifteen still in school should be transferred to the countryside to learn from the peasants. 

Bonnin estimates 17.8 million such youth were sent to the countryside over the next twelve years, until the policy was abandoned in 1980. An initial high tide took place in 1969-70 when several million urban youth were resettled to borderlands, particularly the Northeast (Manchuria), Xinjiang, and the Southwest (Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi). Some big-city youth went to exurban communes, as did many rusticated youth from smaller cities. Almost all provinces took some educated youth for resettlement.

This phase contained the standard characteristics of Maoist campaigns. Policies and goals were clearly stated and repeated endlessly. In this case, young people were to be reeducated by the Chinese peasantry to correct the wrong set of values they had unconsciously absorbed during childhood from their families and teachers who were under the influence of revisionist elements in the Party. In this aspect the rustication seemed to continue the aims of the Cultural Revolution.  

The practicalities of what these young people would do once they were resettled, how peasants might reeducate them, and how long they needed to remain in the countryside remained largely undefined. Following the CCP’s Ninth Party Congress in April 1969, rustication along with the PLA’s new role of direction of government administration did restore a semblance of order in Chinese cities.

Yet from the very start, the resettled youth and the whole rustication movement faced great difficulties because the gaps between “the three great differences” were so large and so real. The results were so unsatisfactory that rustication rates dropped sharply after 1970 until 1973, when a national conference revealed that more than one third of the rusticated youth needed income supplements from the government or their parents in order to survive and even more were inadequately housed. Bonnin argues that Zhou Enlai led the efforts for more rational policies based on a program used in the Zhuzhou district in Hunan province. The selection of a model approach and its wide application was a primary feature of CCP rule in China and the Zhuzhou case is just one manifestation of this general principle. Previously, many rusticated youth had been assigned to individual villages where they were supposed to blend into peasant life. From the very beginnings in 1969 some rusticated youth were sent to state farms, reeducation camps, or frontier settlement units created and controlled directly by state organs. The Zhuzhou model simply codified this practice and added supervising cadres to manage groups of one hundred students. Satisfied they had found a solution to shortcomings of rustication, the rates of rustication rose dramatically from 1973 to 1976. 

Yet, the problems with the rustication movement only increased. As years passed more and more resettled youth wanted to return to the cities. They had had enough of the countryside or frontier living and wanted to reunite with their families, marry, and take up careers suited to their education. They had come to view their resettlement as a defined period of service after which they could return home. As early as October and November 1974, organized discontent emerged in Guangdong in a largely spontaneous gathering of youth at Mount Baiyun, followed by public protests by a small group of rusticated youth in Guangzhou. The CCP leadership responded with a series of conditions by which some youth might return home, but never adopted a uniform standard for finishing rustication. In fact, the Party intended that as many of the rusticated youth as possible should remain permanently on the farms or in the villages. Only a small number of the resettled youth accepted that premise. Following Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 and the adoption of the Four Modernizations national strategy, pressure increased to permit all who wished to return to the cities.

In October 1978 rusticated youth assigned to state farms in the Xishuangbanna prefecture, a Dai minority region in extreme southern Yunnan, began a protest movement that broke the back of the rustication movement. After their representatives managed to travel to Beijing and meet with Deng Xiaoping and other leaders, the head of the State Bureau of Agricultural Land Clearing was sent to Xishuangbanna to calm the situation. A crowd of urban youth met him with cries of, “We want to go home!” (pp. 146-47). By early 1980 most had returned home. Similar organized movements for return appeared in farms and settlements in Xinjiang and the Northeast .

Bonnin believes the “return to the city wind” (huichengfeng) proved irresistible because it mirrored the policies of rehabilitating disgraced CCP members that had accompanied Deng Xiaoping’s return to leadership in 1979-80 (p. 148). Bonnin estimates only around 1 percent of the rusticated youth remained in the countryside after 1980. 

In the assessment section, Bonnin argues that rustication did not have a significant impact on reducing urban employment, reducing urban delinquency or bridging the urban-rural gap. Although the better-educated youth did bring some new knowledge to backward rural villages, the hope to transform educated youths into a new type of socialist peasant failed, as did Mao’s hope to train a generation of revolutionary successors. Indeed, Bonnin concludes that the rustication movement “induced changes in the mentalities of that generation that were … radically opposed to what Mao intended” (p. 437). He notes that rusticated youth came to realize their lives had been spent in service of a ideological scheme that could not accomplish its declared aims and left them with few prospects. They and their parents back in the cities lost faith the promises of Communism and began actively to subvert the intent of rustication in any way that might improve their own prospects.  He sees the 1978-80 years as marking the time when the CCP abandoned its utopian dreams to concentrate on rational economic development (p. 455).

Bonnin's arguments lead to the conclusion that the remarkable drive for economic success that has characterized China since 1980 is fueled in part by the quest of the lost generation of rusticated youth to create something for themselves and their children from the failures of the Maoist era and their experiences during rustication movement in particular.

 

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Citation: David Buck. Review of Bonnin, Michel, The Lost Generation: The Rustification of Chinese Youth, 1968-1980. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. May, 2014. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=41028

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