China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2016/Aug

What’s eating the young?

On the one hand, the term Hong Kong Kids refers to a phenomenon of pampered children and young people who are unable to take care of their own daily needs. On the other hand, lately young people have become the catalyst of social movements in Hong Kong.

During the 2014 Umbrella Movement, students stole the thunder from seasoned politicians and political advocates. They did not target the Central (financial) district as originally planned by the adults. Instead, they pitched camp in more than one downtown area, in Admiralty, Mong Kok and Causeway Bay.

There they took charge of food-distribution for the multitudes, sanitation and recycling (for this generation ecological and social wholeness are one); they built study corners, where students did their nightly homework and they engaged in dialogue with local residents.

At the time of writing, 20 months after they were evicted from the streets, student leaders are being arrested and tried in court – just as an unprecedented number of young people are entering parliamentary politics for the first time. They are seeking a seat in the Legislative Council to have a say regarding the future.

The young of 1966

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of China’s Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976) that swept a whole generation off its feet – mostly middle- and high-school students, some workers and university students. They all grew up in Communist China after 1949.

Some have compared today’s politically awakened youth in Hong Kong with the Red Guards who ran amuck in China 50 years ago. But the context of the two youth movements differ sharply.

On the mainland, the anniversary of the movement that unleashed autocratic terror, political trials and endless recriminations has been marked by official silence. “What’s done, is done,” says Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s famous tragedy.

But “What’s past is prologue,” wrote Shakespeare in his last, ambivalent play, The Tempest.

Silence and amnesia offer no lessons. Instead, I wish to recommend a book, Footprints of the Missing: Trends of Thought of Young People during the Cultural Revolution, by Yin Hongbiao, from Beijing University. The Chinese-language book was published by the Chinese University Press in 2009.

The term missing in the title refers to people and trends of thought that were quashed, when they became more radical than the command centre and dared to pose fundamental questions about the system and leadership.

Yin interviewed surviving former Red Guards and student thinkers. He combed through primary documents, such as big-character posters (a mass medium during a period of Big Democracy or unfettered expression) used to denounce enemies or debate politics, long petitions and unburned diaries.

Some documents survived the era of wholesale destruction only because they were part of official indictments.

Educational pretexts

After calamitous campaigns in the 1950s and early 1960s that left people’s lives and the economy in tatters, more pragmatic party leaders, like Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, took the reins. Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution in a bid to regain power.

More than a decade after the founding of the People’s Republic, Mao lamented that education was still run by intellectuals and anti-revolutionaries.

In May 1966, the Cultural Revolution Group was formed, composed mainly of radical Mao supporters. Mao and the group called on young people nationwide to target reactionary leaders and bourgeois elements in the fields of education and culture.

Scions and rebels

On 29 May 1966, the first Red Guard organisation was established at Qinghua University Affiliated Secondary School. Within days, students at Beijing University Affiliated Secondary School set up the Red Flag Combat Unit. Other units quickly sprouted throughout the country.

Though they all swore loyalty to Mao and Mao Zedong’s Thoughts, the guards were split into many factions. Their affinities depended on their family background and their rise and fall in various campaigns and class struggles during the 17 years before the Cultural Revolution.

The first to rise up were the Old Red Guards, who were descendants of the Red Five Categories (workers, poor farmers, revolutionary cadres, revolutionary military and revolutionary martyrs). They enjoyed special privileges in education and social advancement.

They chanted slogans like, “The fathers are heroes, their kids are upstanding.” They believed in class struggle. Little did they suspect that many of their highly placed parents were the targets of the Cultural Revolution.

The Conservative Red Guards – from families of mid-level cadres – depended on the patronage of Work Teams that were sent by the state administration and the Communist Youth League to schools. Unlike the Old Red Guards, they obeyed the hierarchy.

The Rebels were children of class enemies or the Black Five Categories (landlords, rich farmers, counter-revolutionaries, bad-influencers and rightists). These opposed political heritage and saw the toppling of party elites as the only way to gain a foothold in the new republic.

The Cultural Revolution quickly descended into chaos and bloodshed. Radical Red Guard units soon raided military depots for arms. “Doubt everything!” some students shouted.

In late 1968, to rein in the young people, Mao and the Cultural Revolution Group launched a new campaign, Go up to the hills and down to the villages.

Students and the urban young were sent to remote areas to learn from the peasants. This policy (lasting well into the 1970s) produced a lost generation across China, known as the sent-down youth.

But this campaign also had the effect of incubating New Trends of Thought (later criticised as Ultra-Leftist).

In remote thought villages – far away from party surveillance – educated young people gathered to study and discuss socio-political issues.

The transplanted young people tasted first-hand the crushing rural poverty and were shocked.

Some were motivated to study the causes. They recognised inept agricultural and economic policies that were making matters worse.

Whither China?

On 8 January, 1968, Yang Xiguang, a high-school student in Changsha, wrote an essay entitled Whither China? The son of senior cadres who were disgraced in anti-rightist campaigns, Yang was well educated. He joined the Hunan Sheng-wu-lian, a rebel faction.

In the essay, Yang synthesised New Trends analyses and offered one of the most comprehensive critiques of the Cultural Revolution. “Everyday we talk about rebellion, relentless rebellion, but the goal is vague,” he wrote.

Yang maintains that the old contradictions between landlords, bourgeois capitalists and the proletariat no longer existed in New China. What triggered the Cultural Revolution was the basic contradiction between a new bureaucratic class and the people.

He pointed out that 17 years after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, 90 per cent of senior cadres had become red capitalists. What began as an egalitarian relationship between leaders and the people changed to one between ruler and the ruled, or exploiters and the exploited.

The goal of the Cultural Revolution should not be the overthrow of particular officials. “Completely break up the old state machinery”; “redistribute property and power”; build a “new society without bureaucrats” – after the Paris Commune – the New Trends students argued.

The short-lived Paris Commune (18 March to 28 May 1871) was run by workers against government forces and Prussia, which had just defeated France. The Commune boasted universal suffrage and multi-party rule. Officials received the same wages as workers. People had the right to monitor the government and dismiss incompetent officials.

Unfortunately, this blueprint of proletarian democracy has not been realised in any Communist regime. It was the Leninist-Stalinist model of one-party rule that prevailed.

The Cultural Revolution was the worst of times. Products of an education system that stressed class-struggle and personality cult, many Red Guards were personally responsible for the carnage.

Yet the descent into darkness also awakened some intrepid young thinkers. Many were thrown into prison and some executed or driven mad.

Raised on classical Marxist theories, they used these very tools to analyse and assess the state of the country.

They roused vigorous debates about China’s system and policies that continue to this day.

Whither Hong Kong?

In a recent article, Professor Hui Po Keung, from Lingnan University, called attention to the “scarcity of hope” that afflicts many young people in Hong Kong (Mingpao, 14 March 2016). He cited:

.the unequal distribution of hope (hope is now a luxury for those who lack wealth, resources and opportunities)

.the compression of hope (society and family recognise only upward mobility; other paths become unthinkable)

.the deferment of hope (“wait till I get into university / find a good job / buy a flat, then I will …”)

Compared with those who grew up in a closed society, young people in Hong Kong have one distinguishing feature, I think. They have faith in the judicial system and the law.

They seek to repair injustice and inequality in court. They try to bring about change through parliamentary means. They are willing to accept the legal consequences of their symbolic acts of civil disobedience.

In 2012, Kemal Bokhary, a retired permanent judge of the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal, warned that a “storm of unprecedented ferocity” was gathering over the rule of law in Hong Kong. (South China Morning Post, 25 October 2012).

Time has proved his forecast to have been accurate.

In 1929, as the storm of Fascism was gathering over Europe and the world, Pope Pius XI published the encyclical, Catholic Education (Divini Illius Magistri). He warned:

(Without proper religious and moral instruction) every form of intellectual culture will be injurious; for young people not accustomed to respect God, will be unable to bear the restraint of a virtuous life and never having learned to deny themselves anything, they will easily be incited to disturb the public order” (24).

Pope Pius’ warning was as relevant then as it was in the heyday of the Cultural Revolution and today.

He reminded us, “In the City of God, the Holy Roman Catholic Church, a good citizen and an upright man are absolutely one and the same thing” (54).

Those of us who are Christian parents and educators have an important duty: Walk with the young people.

Teach critical thinking. Model religious values. Debate with them the merits of their positions and arguments. With hope, there is light at the end of the tunnel.