The Red Guard generation enlisted by Mao to eradicate all vestiges of capitalism is now in the vanguard of China's entrepreneurial class.
Twenty years ago, Han Jing Ming was a face lost among the teeming masses in Beijing's massive Tian An Men Square. As Mao Zedong looked on approvingly, Han and some other 100,000 Red Guards pledged themselves as soldiers in the Chairman's last great attempt to eradicate individualism and capitalist tendencies in China.
Today, Han remains in the vanguard, but in a way that would probably have Mao turning in his mausoleum. Rather than chastising the "monsters and ghosts" of capitalism, Han now owns a small Sichuan restaurant in Beijing. For, like a number of other former Red Guards, Han has joined the ranks of China's burgeoning class of "red capitalists."
On the surface, this transformation from Marxist ideologue to aspiring bourgeois hints at hypocrisy. But an American, reminded of oversimplified stories of hippies who have turned yuppie, is cautioned about drawing conclusions that are too sweeping, too skeptical of motives, or too celebratory of the recent turn toward free enterprise. For Han and many like him, the ideological switch reflects the bitter experience of an idealistic generation scarred by chaos and political manipulation -- a generation still seeking to tear down a tired and rigid old establishment and replace it with one that is less hierarchical and resistant to modernization.
"I realized that Marxism-Leninism was a faith, like a religion," Han says today, sitting in his sparsely furnished Beijing apartment. "It's not the truth. The truth is always developing. You have to seek it yourself."
During the decade of the Cultural Revolution in China, from the great Tian An Men rallies of 1966 until the fall of the radical Gang of Four, just thinking such thoughts could have landed Han in jail or even worse. What had started out as a movement within the party bureaucracy to weed out "capitalist roaders" and Soviet-style bureaucrats soon became an all-out armed rebellion by China's youth against authority. deng Xiaoping estimated that as many as 3 million people suffered persecution at the hands of Red Guards and their radical party mentors. The estimates of Chinese who lost their lives range from 34,000 to 400,000.
At a middle school in Beijing, Xu Dong remembers leading his Red Guard contingent into the classroom of "revisionist" teachers, who were subjected to beating or protracted and humiliating self-criticism sessions. "We looked after the teachers and told them what to do. I enjoyed that. It was something like fun," remembers Xu, who is planning to open his own business this year. "I was in command, and it was a great feeling of power."
But for Xu and many other Red Guard leaders, this "feeling of power" soon evaporated. Anarchy spread through the country as Red Guard factions began fighting not only the establishment, but each other as well. Even Mao became alarmed. By 1968, army troops were rushed in to enforce order, and the heady era of brutalizing teachers and painting wall posters began drawing to an end. Mao's new orders downplayed formal education and sent China's youth -- an estimated 20 million middle-school graduates alone -- to the nation's farms and factories to work side by side with the masses.
Han Jing Ming, for instance, was forced into exile in Inner Mongolia, where he lived under primitive conditions in a desert known for its near-freezing temperatures at night and scorching heat during the day. The staple diet consisted of variations on a corn flour paste that a Beijing native like Han considered fit only for consumption by pigs. Han found himself scrounging for desert lizards to survive, while some of his female cohorts improved their lot by sleeping with soldiers of the local People's Liberation Army. Still others, like Han's closest friend (shown with Han in inset photo), Wu Guang, went mad and ran off into the desert, probably to perish.
When Han returned to Beijing in 1973, he had, not surprisingly, lost much of his faith in Mao and the communist system. "I learned out there in the desert that by being in the masses, I had no power. I didn't have value to anyone," he says. Although he took a degree at university and accepted a position with the Beijing subway company, he found it difficult to fit into the mainstream of Chinese society. Finally, when the reform program of Deng Xiaoping allowed for the establishment of small private enterprises, Han put together some money from family and friends and opened his restaurant.
"After all I had gone through, I wanted to have control over my life," he says. "I had to take the chance to show my own talent.I had had enough of the government."
That was in 1984. Today, his restaurant takes in $30,000 a month in the high summer season, from which he earns a profit of $13,000. And Han thinks it is only the beginning. He's already planning a second restaurant and has hopes of turning it into a popular chain. In the long run, he'd like to become something of a venture capitalist, investing in other Chinese ventures.
Such dreams may seem a bit impractical in a Chinese economy still heavily dominated by the state and the party. Last year, less than 1% of a work force of 480 million worked in the private economy. But that's millions more than a few short years ago. What keeps the private economy growing is largely the ambition and fortitude of the generation radicalized -- and victimized -- by the Cultural Revolution.
Former Red Guard leader Xu Dong, for example, believes that his revolutionary activities provided him and his colleagues with invaluable training in leadership and organization that stand him well in business today. And he credits his two years of working in the improverished countryside of rural Shanxi province, and four years in the People's Liberation Army, with giving him the toughness and independence necessary for entrepreneurship.
"My hardships during the 10 Years made me stronger," Xu says. "I think we are now a very pragmatic generation. We learned to adjust to reality. And although you can learn from the socialist system, you have also to think for yourself."
These days, Xu is thinking he'd like to become China's Nolan Bushnell and Walt Disney, rolled into one. His new company, launched with money from a state-owned enterprise that he once managed, seeks to establish a video-game industry in China through a chain of game parlors across the country. Like many in China today, Xu associates this sort of free enterprise with the modernization that is now the hallmark of China's official policy.
Wan Rennan also has big ideas about his role as a business pioneer. A veteran of the political battles at Beijing's Qinghua University, one of the early centers of Red Guard activity, he soon came to the realization that Mao and his radical allies were using his generation rather cynically, as pawns in a political chess game. In 1984, he quit his job at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and, with funds invested by a rural township government, he and several colleagues formed Beijing Stone Corp., a computer firm. "I intend to build the IBM of China," the 39-year-old engineer says matter-of-factly.
Wan still has a way to go, but Beijing Stone Corp. has emerged as among the most prominent of China's private companies. Already there are seven computer outlets in northern China. Annual sales, mostly of personal computers, have topped $10 million. The company has also started making its own software and marketing its own line of Chinese-character printers.
"In our generation, we have always searched for our own way," Wan explains as he maneuvers his Datsun through Beijing's crowded streets. "During the Cultural Revolution, we showed that the established cadres could be resisted. We weren't like the old communists, who followed the way of the Soviet Union. Now what we realize is that it doesn't matter what it's called -- red capitalism or communism -- as long as we find a way to modernization and progress in China."