Chinese Whispers

How the Cultural Revolution shaped China’s leaders today

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All eyes are on the Communist leadership this year, as the months count down to autumn’s National Party Congress, where Xi Jinping may be crowned for a third term. But how much do we really know about the Party’s leadership? In particular, can we better understand them through looking at the experiences that they've had?

Take Xi Jinping, who is what is known as a 'princeling' – his father was the Communist revolutionary Xi Zhongxun, one of the Party's early cadres. Growing up, the younger Xi would have been steeped in Communist lore.

Yet his father's downfall, at the hands of a paranoid Mao, as well as the Cultural Revolution must have humbled the young man. He spent seven years doing manual labour in the Chinese countryside as one of the 'sent-down youths'. This is a life-changing experience that many of this generation – the Politburo Standing Committee's average age is 67 – would have shared. When reflecting on those years in 1998, Xi said:

'Later in life, whenever I ran into difficulties, I would think of that period. How could I not carry on now when I could work under those extremely difficult conditions? The difficulties now are no comparison to the difficulties then.'

This is just one of the many gems in Professor Kerry Brown's latest book Xi: A Study in Power. Kerry joins this episode, together with Professor Steve Tsang, a historian at SOAS. Together, we muse about the impact that the Cultural Revolution would have had on today's leaders. We also discuss how much these later generations believe the propaganda of earlier generations ('We are now talking about a generation of leaders who grew up after the Communist Party had gained power and after the Communist Party has set the historical narrative', Steve points out) and whether the Party's tendency to send rising stars to the country's regions, away from Beijing, can shed light on their priorities.