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Issue # 1418      8 July 2009

The plight of “Educated Youth”

Updated book sheds new light on a “Cultural Revolution” phenomenon

The image of millions of young people trekking from the cities to the countryside to work alongside farmers in the fields is an enduring part of China’s history. Known as zhiqing, or “educated youth,” these young people were a mixture of those who volunteered to go to work and those who were forced to go there during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76).

Under a directive from Mao Zedong, then leader of China, the movement of “going to mountain areas and the countryside” set off on December 12, 1968.

In March 2009, the book History of Chinese Zhiqing was revised and republished after its first publication 11 years ago.

Containing two volumes – First Waves, which tells the history of the movement between 1953 and 1968, and Big Tide, which covers the period from 1966 to 1980, the book records the whole course of this social phenomenon that spanned more than 20 years and involved around 17 million young Chinese. Ironically, although zhiqing referred to young people with knowledge, the vast majority of those who migrated had only received elementary to high school education, and only a small portion of them had the opportunity to have studied at a university.

Clouded history

The authors of the book are Ding Yizhuang and Liu Xiaomeng, who were actually among the army of “educated youth” and are now renowned scholars at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

They said it is regretful that few Chinese today know much about the history of that period – and that includes the millions directly involved and their families.

“This period of history was a heavy one in the process of human evolution and by being ignorant of it we will pay the price someday in the future,” Liu said in an interview with the Beijing-based Oriental Outlook magazine. “What we can do is to disclose the truth of history.”

Both authors said that the root of the movement resided in the economic contradiction of China at that time. The unemployment pressure in the cities was the basic driving force behind the movement. Partly caused by the population expansion, the increasing unemployment interwove with other problems occurring in the labour management system, economic system and economic structure of China since the middle of the 1950s.

In 1956, the socialist transformation in China had been basically completed, and the urban areas of the country carried out a single state-owned economy. Former private businesses, small-scale handicraft workshops and the service industry that formerly could provide a good number of jobs became public-owned bodies, state-owned institutions or enterprises, whose capability to absorb labour was limited. Thus, more and more young people in cities found it difficult to find jobs after graduation.

At the same time, after the agricultural cooperative movement was launched in the rural areas, the problem of surplus rural labour became more prominent throughout the country.

The central government therefore adopted two measures: one was limiting the rural population from pouring into cities through strict regulations on the registered permanent residence system; the other was moving urban residents to the countryside on a large scale, making the rural areas a reservoir of urban surplus labour.

“Although the root of the movement was the economic pressure, the political enforcement and push increased the graveness of the matter,” Ding said. As a result, a total of 17 million urban youth participated in the movement, she said.

Differing views

Ding and Liu severely oppose the opinion held by some people today that the original intention of the movement was right, and only because of the manipulation by the Gang of Four, the ultra-leftists who held the top leadership during the “cultural revolution”, did the movement deviate from its original intention.

“A general law of the development of human society is that no matter in which country, economic development, especially when accompanied by agricultural and industrial modernisation, will inevitably lead to the transfer of rural surplus labour to non-agricultural sectors and the urbanisation of the rural population,” Liu writes in the book, “while the movement in China did exactly the opposite, trying to turn the large group of educated urban youth to be farmers.”

He quoted some statistics, which show that from 1950 to 1980, the proportion of urban residents in the world increased from 28.4 percent to 41.3 percent, and that of developing countries increased from 16.2 percent to 30.5 percent, while in China, the number only increased from 11.2 percent to 19.4 percent.

Liu’s conclusion is that the movement neither changed poverty levels in the rural areas of China, nor reached the original goal of alleviating the unemployment pressure in the urban areas with the returning of many educated youth to their own cities.

Both Ding and Liu pointed out that some people try to whitewash that period of history just because they failed to regard the movement as a disaster on the whole.

“The group of ‘educated youth’ was complicated. The political treatment at that time, the way out and the life in later years, were different. Some people became the beneficiaries of the movement,” said the authors.

Today, many Chinese know the history of this period of time through literary works by people who were “educated youth” at that time or from movies or TV series reflecting this movement. Since the 1980s, quite a number of literary works or memoirs have appeared on Chinese bookshelves, but the historical books on this subject are still few and far between.

First completed in 1996, the book History of Chinese Zhiqing was published in 1998. Now the new version is seen by critics as the best work about the movement published to date on the Chinese mainland.

The movement of going to the mountain areas and the countryside

In December 1968, Mao Zedong, then leader of China, gave a directive that it is necessary for “educated youth” in cities to work in the countryside. Since then, a large scale movement of students going to the mountain areas and the countryside had been carried out throughout the country. In more than 10 years, around 17 million middle-school students in cities were sent to rural areas, most in the remote and underdeveloped regions.

Since 1979, the majority of those “educated youth” began to return to their own cities, while some stayed in the countryside permanently.

The movement rewrote the destiny of a whole generation of Chinese, as they lost the best years of receiving a normal education.

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