Compte rendu : The Lost Generation et China’s Sent-Down Generation

Pan, Yihong. Compte rendu de China’s Sent-Down Generation : Public Administration and the Legacies of Mao’s Rustication Program par Helena K. Rene, et The Lost Generation : The Rustication of China’s Educated Youth (1968–1980) par Michel Bonnin. China Review International, 2013, 20 (1), pp. 175-179. Project MUSE. URL : (Consulté le 25 février 2016)

China's Sent-Down 2hr.inddMuch has been written in English on China’s Cultural Revolution and the Red Guard. However, not much has been written about the rustication movement, which put an end to the Red Guard movement by sending its members into the countryside to work as peasants. The longest-lasting mass movement under Mao, rustication (1955–1980) sent over 16 million urban youths and a much larger number of rural school graduates to become peasants in the rural and frontier areas of China. In her discussion of this movement, Helena K. Rene examines two conflicting views on how to build a socialist state that had existed since the early days of the People’s Republic—the antibureaucratic Maoist Marxians championing radical egalitarianism, and the bureaucratic Chinese Weberians emphasizing rational organization and hierarchical authority. In contrast to the Maoists, who stressed being red, or political correctness, the Weberian Chinese Communist Party (CCP) functionaries emphasized technical expertise and accepted socioeconomic inequality as a necessary price for China’s development. In a continuation of these conflicting views, the Cultural Revolution was Mao’s final effort to eliminate bureaucratic privilege and foster egalitarianism against the efforts of the Chinese Weberians. Rene presents Mao as a visionary and the rustication movement as the capstone of the Cultural Revolution. Although she recognizes a variety of motivations for the rustication, including reducing urban unemployment, developing the rural economy, and banishing the student Red Guards to rural areas once they had outlived their usefulness as a tool for Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Rene argues that the most important of these was Mao’s attempt to radicalize China’s youth into revolutionary successors in the struggle against the bureaucratization of the Communist Party.

How was it possible for the rustication program to be implemented on such a large scale? Rene chose the public administration of the movement as her focus of study. She concludes that the administration was successful in mobilizing and transferring the youth. Therefore, despite Mao’s intention, rustication actually empowered rather than weakened the administration, which, in turn, led to increasing internal corruption. In the end, however, the administration failed to integrate the sent-down youths with the peasants, protect them against abuses, and promote their socialist reeducation. Ironically, Rene argues, had the rustication been better administered, “Mao would have been closer to attaining the goals he sought for it” (Rene, p. 179).

The Maoist Marxians versus Chinese Weberians framework of this succinct book offers a useful key to understanding the complex political history of the Mao era. It maps out the cooperative as well as competitive interactions between the public administrators and the Maoists in the rustication movement. The author’s use of interviews as a major source for the study lends strong support for her arguments. The participants’ life experiences and authentic voices enhance the book’s persuasiveness and its readability. One wonders, however, why the author does not explore the public administration and its policy changes throughout the whole movement in more depth. Government documents clearly show, for instance, that between 1968 and 1980, the administration implemented a series of policies intended to eliminate corruptions and abuses. Although engaging with all this evidence would have certainly complicated Rene’s analysis, it may have also strengthened her arguments regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the public administration.

lostgenerationIn contrast to the narrower focus of Rene’s volume, Michel Bonnin’s comprehensive study demonstrates that the failure of rustication had more causes than just the failure of the administration. The changing responses to the program among the millions of sent-down youths and Chinese peasants were also decisive factors. Bonnin first became interested in the rustication as a student in Hong Kong in the mid-1970s, when, by chance, he met some sent-down youths who had just fled from the mainland. This hefty volume, originally published in French in 2004 (reviewed in this journal), in Chinese in 2009, and now in English, is a multidisciplinary study of the movement that employs a variety of primary sources, such as government documents, newspapers, literature, interviews, and photographs.

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China Review International est disponible en version papier à la bibliothèque du CECMC

Voir aussi

  • Présentation de The Lost generation : the rustication of China’s educated youth (1968–1980) dans les Carnets du Centre Chine (16 octobre 2013)
  • Présentation de China’s sent-down generation: public administration and the legacies of Mao’s rustication program dans les Carnets du Centre Chine (26 janvier 2014)

Monique Abud

Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine, EHESS, Paris, France

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Monique Abud

Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine, EHESS, Paris, France

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