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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Visions of China CNN TIME Asiaweek Fortune
SEPTEMBER 24, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 38

Revolution's Children
The collapse of ideology leaves generations adrift in a moral vacuum
By Rose Tang

    ALSO IN ASIAWEEK
Anniversary
Fifty years of Communist rule have brought both triumph and tragedy to China

Politics
From "class struggle" to village elections

The Economy
Backyard furnaces yield to enterprise reform

Diplomacy
The drive for world clout and national reunification

Society and Culture
Still searching for a modern identity

Journeys
Personal accounts of life in the People's Republic

  MULTIMEDIA
Immortal Quotes
50 immortal quotes from over 2,000 years of Chinese history

People to Know
50 Movers and shakers in today's China

  VISIONS OF CHINA
CNN
50 years of the People's Republic presented by CNN, TIME, Asiaweek and Fortune

TIME
China's Amazing Half Century
Navigate through the People's Republic of China and discover the 50 places where history was made

They hail from all strata of Chinese society. They include painters, a retired PLA officer, a peasant leader, a state banker, a laid-off worker - even a Taiwan couple who defected to the mainland. One thing unites them:They all witnessed China's touch-and-go experiment with communism. Surprisingly, despite the deprivations of the Great Leap Forward, the personal humiliations of the Cultural Revolution and the ongoing corruption of the Communist Party, most of the people you will read about here remain ardent believers in socialism with Chinese characteristics. Moreover, almost to a man and woman (with a couple of notable exceptions), these children of revolution believe that communism under Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping has proved to be a lesser evil than the governance of the defeated Kuomintang.

A Village Chief who Defied the Party
Upheaval Kept Them Apart for 20 Years
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Red
A Red Guard Looks Back in Anger
Caution and Obedience Helped Him Survive
They Defected to China - from Taiwan
A State Banker with Qualms


The Village Chief Who Defied the Party
In 1940, when Wang Jiufu was six, famine visited his village in China's northern Shaanxi province. Wang's father put the young lad in a basket on his back, and set off for Yanan city. It was an inspired choice. For Mao's Communists had set up there after the Long March and were eager to prove to peasants the superiority of communist rule over that of the Kuomintang. Mao and his lieutenants settled into a local resort called Date Garden and dubbed their temporary capital Revolutionary Mecca.

Wang's first contact with the Communists was pleasant enough; Mao's soldiers gave his family millet and land to grow crops. During the hardscrabble years that Yanan was besieged first by the Japanese, then the KMT, Wang recalls the Red Army troops being "very nice. They came to give us a hand in the fields and helped clean our houses before the New Year." In Yanan, the Communists built a mini society of young idealists from all over China - it had its own currency, banks, universities, newspapers. Two years before Mao's victory in 1949, the Wang family received more land. The future seemed bright.

Then came the excesses. In 1952, peasants were organized into communes and told not to cook in their own homes. "One village, one stove," says Wang. "Everyone had to eat in the canteen." During the so-called Great Leap Forward, Wang, by then village party chief, ordered his commune to make steel, as Mao had decreed. The people built crude smelting furnaces out of rocks and threw in stones they hoped contained iron ore. Wang laughs: "We cooked the rocks day and night for a year and couldn't make one damn piece of steel!" Later, the peasants were mobilized to build irrigation ditches and dams. Fields were deserted, drought descended, and famine returned with a vengeance.

photo
People wondered if he had connections in Beijing because the state seemed to be following his example
Rose Tang for Asiaweek
Over the next few years, one political campaign followed the next, though Yanan was largely spared the humiliations of the Cultural Revolution. Mao's death in 1976 profoundly shocked locals. People cried and lost hope. But Wang smelled change in the air and reformed local food production, allowing households to farm plots. He was criticized for perverting communism, but today asks: "Why did my village have more to eat after we went against the policy?"

In 1979, Deng broke up the communes and contracted out land to the peasants. Wang was redeemed. People started wondering if he had connections in Beijing because the central government seemed to be following him - not the other way around. There was more to eat; Wang's villagers were happy. Yet he wasn't satisfied.

In 1983, Wang visited neighboring provinces and discovered a potential market for apples. He encouraged his people to grow them instead of grain. Soon the village was the richest in Yanan. By 1989, annual per capita income was some 1,000 yuan; six years later it was 5,000 yuan ($625). Wang was elected to represent Shaanxi at the National People's Congress.

Today Wang Jiufu is 65 and enjoying his retirement in a cave house overlooking verdant hills of apples. His second son is now village chief and oversees the fruit business. Villagers have new homes, motorbikes, cars. Telephones and cable TV are no longer novelties. The road to Date Garden is packed with tourists and lined with giant billboards pushing TVs and pagers. Wang puffs his Marlboro and reflects; yes indeed, much has changed in 50 years.

Upheaval Kept Them Apart for 20 Years


photo
Cui remembers how the PLA blew a hole in the wall around Xian
Rose Tang for Asiaweek
Cui Zhixiang was 13 the day the People's Liberation Army blew a hole in the wall around Xian. Lured by the explosion, he watched Mao's troops enter the city and demand the KMT's surrender. The PLA wore simple, yellow uniforms to demonstrate their oneness with the people. That afternoon, the downtrodden looted the homes of the rich; Cui followed around the Communist soldiers and played with their rifles. "The PLA has come," he thought. "Now we poor people will have a new life."

Cui joined the army and was dispatched to Qinghai province near Tibet. Like everyone else, he helped gather scrap metal to make steel and fulfill Mao's call to "bypass Britain in 15 years." Inevitably, Cui was sent with other army officers to "correct mistakes" of the Great Leap Forward. In the communes, he worked alongside the peasants. "We carried nightsoil to fertilize the land," he recalls. "We ate potatoes and wild horse meat." Cui's fingernails wrinkled from malnutrition.

One day, Cui met a nurse named Wu Fengxiu. Grateful to the party for providing her education, Wu had agreed to work in Qinghai after graduation. The harsh grasslands were unexpectedly romantic for the idealistic young communists. In 1960 they wed, unaware that war and politics would keep them apart for the next two decades. In the early 1960s, Chinese troops skirmished with the Indian army along the border. Cui's regiment was on full alert and he was not allowed to visit family. Called to army headquarters along with the wives of other officers, Wu was told to support her husband and sacrifice for the motherland.

Not long after, Qinghai was swept up in the Cultural Revolution, a virus that infected even the army. Soldiers were encouraged to have "big opinions, big character posters and big debates." Cui tried to protect his commissar from rebel factions but was himself dubbed a conservative. Working for a labor camp at the time, Wu one day found her office sealed to prevent her from doing her job. "We were scared all the time," she recalls. "Campaign after campaign; it was getting messier and more confusing." Wu kept Mao's Little Red Book with her at all times in case she was asked to quote from it.

After the madness ended with Mao's death, the couple finally reunited and moved to Xian in 1980. Their eldest son is a decorated detective; their daughter an accountant with a joint venture. Now retired, the couple enjoys a comfortable life. "We have everything," says Cui, "three TV sets, a VCR and video camera. We are very satisfied."

Yet like many who have experienced Communist rule over the decades, Cui laments today's corruption, crime rate and declining moral standards. He is nostalgic for the early years of the People's Republic. "People now focus on money too much," he says. Nonetheless, he is grateful to the Communists. "No Communist Party," he says. "No New China." Of course, he could have done with less politics. "If we hadn't had so many campaigns," he says, "China would have developed faster." Still, whenever he strolls along Xian's wall, Cui recalls the day, 50 years ago, that the PLA drove out the KMT - and changed his life.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Red
Zhao Youping was in Tiananmen Square when Mao declared the People's Republic. "It was a sunny afternoon," says Zhao, now 67. "We wore white shirts and blue trousers and carried red banners. The square looked so big, it was red everywhere: red flags, red lanterns." The exultant crowd's cheers were like the noise of the ocean. Fighter planes screamed overhead. "We thought China was going to be a fair world forever," says Zhao. "We liked Chairman Mao so much that we imitated his Hunan accent."

By then, Zhao and her future husband Li Tianxiang already were committed communists. Having witnessed KMT soldiers shooting student protesters a few years earlier, Li had joined the Communist underground. After Mao's ascension, the couple set to work building the new republic.

photo
Red guards stabbed this portrait of a Russian girl. Li and Zhao sewed it up
Ricky Wong for Asiaweek
The first few years were exciting. Old institutions were being abandoned or renamed, brothels shut down, opium addicts packed off to rehabilitation centers. Li and Zhao, both student leaders at Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Art, were preoccupied with spreading communism. "We felt so liberated," says Zhao. "The whole world was turned upside-down." Politics aside, they also were free to do their art again; the KMT had considered artists left-wing radicals.

Both agreed with Mao's view that art should serve the masses. "Art is not politics," says Zhao. "But it should be related to the nation and its people." During the Korean War, they performed street plays and drew cartoons about the "violent criminal act of U.S. troops." Art did not prove to be a shield against politics, however.

As the Cultural Revolution got under way, Li and Zhao became targets because they both taught oil painting. Big character posters vilifying them went up all over the Central Academy of Fine Art campus. The couple was dragged to struggle meetings, along with Deng Xiaoping's daughter, Deng Lin, a painter-lecturer. Li wore a placard labeling him a "revisionist" counter-revolutionary; Zhao was a "current" one. They viewed their punishment philosophically - even when Li was forced to wear a sign that said "Soviet revisionist disciple" 24 hours a day. "Even the president and Beijing party chief were tortured like that," says Li. "Did we dare compare ourselves to them?" Both obediently went for re-education.

Neither shed a single tear upon Mao's death in 1976. "Mao's position in establishing the republic is not to be ignored," says Li. "But the mistakes he made when he was old were unbearable." The couple's conviction for counter-revolutionary crimes was reversed in 1978. But its shadow haunted them for years. When Li took a teaching job in Shanghai, a jealous colleague sent a file of the case to the boss. Li shrugged it off.

Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms were another liberation. But as China's contemporary art scene takes shape, Li and Zhao fret that young artists are forgetting the past, abandoning communism and moral standards. Now both retired, they are preparing to build a private art school in the capital. "Our goal is to glorify China's art," says Zhao. And communism remains their abiding faith. "I've tried many things, Buddhism, Taoism and even folk superstition," says Li, 71. "No matter how many mistakes the party has made, I think I have chosen the right road."

A Red Guard Looks Back in Anger
Sun Wenqiang was born a month after Mao proclaimed the People's Republic. At 16 he became a Red Guard and joined classmates in a partial re-creation of the Long March. Later, he caught a train to Beijing; the transport was free, and food was provided at each station. In the capital, Sun joined millions of fellow guards bent on meeting Mao and spreading his message throughout the land. Every day, he visited campuses and copied down big character posters. "I was so serious," Sun sighs. "I thought I was protecting Mao."

photo
After sacrificing for the revolution, Sun now works for people half his age
Rose Tang for Asiaweek
Sun returned to Sichuan, province of his impoverished childhood, and joined street battles against other Red Guards who also claimed to be protecting Mao. Sun and his comrades ransacked army barracks and built barricades. He fought with whatever he could lay his hands on: rifles, automatic weapons, anti-aircraft guns. The skirmishes lasted a year until Mao switched gears and ordered youths to the communes to work alongside the peasants. Sun lived in a makeshift dormitory and learned to farm. "Boys and girls shared beds, but we were so innocent back then, very few of us dated," Sun says. "If it were kids today, they would have produced many illegitimate babies!"

After the Cultural Revolution, Sun went to work for a truck component factory where he joined a group of young workers trying to boost production. Their enthusiasm went unrewarded:When Sun and a dozen colleagues demanded a raise from the provincial government, he recalls, they were told to sacrifice for the revolution. Later his activism got him in trouble, and he was branded a spy for listening to foreign radio broadcasts. Sun was detained for six months.

But the Deng reforms were gaining strength, and by the late 1980s the truck factory was making 4,000 jeeps a year. Sun recalls a Beijing apparatchik praising the auto-maker as a "golden phoenix from the remote mountains." But once again, Sun's fortunes were about to reverse. The "golden phoenix" was in a debt tailspin, and management was busily spending the state-owned enterprise's revenues on cars and houses. By 1996, the factory had begun to hemorrhage, and 3,000 workers were laid off. Sun was one of them. He received 115 RMB ($14) a month. Then the bamboo furniture factory employing Sun's wife went under. Today he photographs projects for a Chengdu decorating company and runs errands for bosses half his age.

Sun is understandably bitter and sums up his generation this way: "When we were young, we were hit by famine. Then the Cultural Revolution broke out and we missed our education. When we hit marrying age, out came a birth-control policy. When we finally had the chance to achieve something, there was corruption everywhere. Now we're old and should be enjoying a pension but are forced to look for jobs."

Caution and Obedience Helped Him Survive
When Wang Yingfu worked at an optical shop in wartime Xian, customers were few and far between. The KMT's currency was devaluing by the hour, and buying a pair of spectacles was prohibitively expensive - three silver dollars, the price of a bag of flour. Not until long after the PLA marched into town did prices stabilize; only then could the shop afford a trained optometrist.

In 1956, the Communists launched their "socialist reconstruction" campaign and began to absorb the private sector into the state apparatus. Xian's commercial bureau automatically became a shareholder in the optical shop. At first Wang and his colleagues rejoiced at the news. "We were never that revolutionary," he recalls. "The party's policy seemed promising."

The jubilation was short-lived when it became apparent that management-by-committee had definite downsides. The shop ultimately fell under the jurisdiction of the district government, which oversaw a plethora of industries and businesses. Authorities allocated resources and set prices; business was a mess. Meanwhile, Wang found himself being drawn into a seemingly endless series of political campaigns.

"Every night after work we had to attend meetings studying current affairs and party policies," he recalls. "If we focused on work too much we would be seen as 'pulling the cart without looking at the road.'" For three months, Wang toiled at the shop's work-unit farm. The land was barren, and the workers had to import produce from the city to stay alive. "All the seeds were wasted," Wang recalls.

During the Cultural Revolution, staff at the optical shop split into factions, and one group ousted the managers. Wang was considered a capitalist who had "sneaked onto the revolution team," so no faction accepted him. It was not a time to stick out so Wang, a naturally cautious fellow, followed the herd. Party slogans replaced ordinary greetings, and woe to those who said the wrong thing. Wang the pragmatist memorized the simplest Mao quote: "Be united, alert, serious and active." It helped keep him relatively unscathed throughout the period.

Even after Deng's economic reforms, Wang remained cautious. Following his retirement in 1980, friends urged him to open his own optical shop. Wang would have none of it. "I am frightened of political campaigns," he says. "I just want to live a simple life." That he does. Wang and his wife, Zhang Shumin, both 74, reside in a decrepit Xian complex on his meager pension of 300 RMB ($37) a month. Meanwhile, their five children, all factory workers, live in constant fear of retrenchment.

They Defected to China - from Taiwan
Before Xie Yuchen's father died, the old man told him to return to "Tang Mountain" - or the mainland. Although the Xie family had lived in Taiwan for 12 generations, his dad had always yearned to return to the ancestral village in Guangdong province.

Years later, in the 1970s, Xie, by then a successful film director, recalled his father's dying wish. To Xie it made more sense than ever. He was thoroughly disenchanted with the KMT regime; martial law was still in force; the U.S. had recently recognized the mainland and severed ties with Taiwan; and Triads practically ran the film industry.

But defecting to China required a significant leap of faith, since Xie had spent years absorbing the official line about the Communist "bandits." In 1979, he was in a Hong Kong taxi and heard a radio broadcast of Beijing's announcement that it hoped to unite with Taiwan peacefully. "For the first time Irealized the Communists were pretty rational," says Xie. "For a long time, we thought they were inhuman." At about that time, Deng unleashed his reforms and began what Xie considers "the real liberation."

For the next few years, Xie and his wife Zhang Jinfeng plotted their defection - even though their eldest daughter Yihua was against it, believing KMT propaganda that, as girls, she and her younger sister, Yiwen, would be put to death. Finally, in 1984, with their daughters and son in tow, the Xies made their escape via Hong Kong. Guangzhou was a shock. "There were many people, all wearing drab blue and gray," Xie recalls. "They looked like armies of blue ants." Suddenly he regretted his decision.

The Xie family quickly learned that nothing worked the way it did in Taiwan. One required coupons to buy most things. Fortunately, as defectors, they got red-carpet treatment - coupons to buy a car, washing machine and TV. People of privilege, the Xies gave their coupons to less connected families. "I felt the party controlled people's everyday life," says Xie. "Iwondered why they didn't complain."

Xie's wife found herself the center of unwanted attention. Zhang wore dresses in a land where most women wore trousers. Makeup also was rare. One time she asked for a manicure and no one knew what she was talking about. Public toilets were another shock; there were no cubicles, so the family used umbrellas for privacy. Directing films was also a new experience; Xie recalls teaching star Jiang Wen to use a knife and fork.

But nothing stood still on the mainland; when he wasn't missing clean toilets and consumer choice, Xie reveled in the great leaps forward. "Ten years on the mainland is equivalent to 30 years in Taiwan," he says. By 1987, people had stopped asking the Xies for coupons; in 1997, the state held a clean toilet competition.

Today, Xie and Zhang, 55, advise the govenment as members of the Political Consultative Conference. Their daugher Yihua, 31, was not killed by the Communists as she feared, but rather received a free education and now runs a successful advertising agency with her brother Tianxiang, 29. Not that their father is blind to the party's failings, but he says: "Taiwan under Lee Teng-hui is a more corrupt dictatorship." As for regrets, Xie no longer has any.

A State Banker with Qualms
About the time of the Great Leap Forward, Wu Nianlu went to work for the Bank of China. His first task typified the political mood of the day: to research "revisionist economics" and the "capitalist crisis." Wu, 24 at the time, gathered information about the black-market economy in Yugoslavia to prove that the nation was backtracking on socialism.

But Wu's most important task was to show how "the paper-tiger capitalist society was rotting by the day." The research worked this way: "First we drew a conclusion that capitalist society was going to die, then we went out to find evidence to support it. Ithought the method was wrong, but didn't dare raise it." He and his colleagues deliberately chose data from July and August, slow months in Western economies, to reveal capitalism's fatal illness.

Wu didn't actually learn how a capitalist bank worked until 1969 during the "Strike, Criticize and Reform" campaign aimed at cracking down on, yes, capitalists and revisionists. Wu was sent to the bank's cadre school in the countryside in Henan province after he got into trouble for defending a prominent economist. There he ran the canteen, giving out food coupons and keeping the books. "It was quite a complex job," says Wu. "Ilearned accountancy that way."

He also learned the price of doing things his own way. Caught cycling to neighboring provinces to buy meat and eggs for the canteen, Wu was criticized for "introducing the capitalist lifestyle" and sent to grow vegetables for the next four years.

In 1973, back in Beijing, Wu was assigned by then vice premier Chen Yun to research foreign exchange and trade. Wu was puzzled; such a notion was anathema to the Communist mandarins. And it wasn't long before Chen was roundly criticized and the idea dropped. Years later Wu learned that Chen was proposing to learn from Western countries and use their capital to develop the People's Republic - an idea whose time was coming.

When Deng's reforms took off, Wu finally had a chance to contribute his decades of experience to the nation's economic overhaul; he was asked to edit textbooks that were once devoted to Marxist dogma.

At the bank, Wu promoted the sale and manufacturing of gold jewelry and watched shops spring up around the nation. In 1992, he was sent to oversee a branch in Luxembourg, where he was amused to discover that managing it wasn't much different from running the canteen during the Cultural Revolution. Now retired from the bank, Wu is writing, lecturing and advising the central bank and government. He frets about the mismanagement at mainland lenders and says: "We have gone through a huge detour in the last 50 years." A detour with plenty of ups and downs along the way.

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