Legacy Of The Cultural Revolution
With China’s upcoming 19th Party Congress in mid-October, approximately half of the people known as the Lao San Jie （the “LSJ”）老三届, or the Three Oldest Classes, will begin to retire from China’s top leadership. Born between 1947 and 1952, the LSJ were the oldest kids in junior and senior high schools when the Cultural Revolution erupted in 1966. They would have graduated in 1966, 1967 and 1968 (a total of six classes) had their schools not been disrupted by the Cultural Revolution. They were instead sent to the countrysides and factories, to be “educated” by the peasants and workers. Most of them would spend the next seven or more years there.
When Deng Xiaoping reinstated the entrance examination for the country’s universities in late 1977, the LSJ were initially excluded because of their age. After appeals by the professors, the entrance age limit was raised to 30, allowing the LSJ to take the exams. The professors knew that the LSJ were more educated than the younger generation, who did not have proper schooling during the ten years of turmoil of the Cultural Revoultion. They would learn much faster and become useful resources for the country the soonest. （When I went to China in 1980 to train the first batch of government personnel in Western finance, I experienced how difficult it was to teach those younger than the LSJ who did not get proper schooling after primary school and had to catch up. The LSJ were far more literate and obviously much more mature.）
So overnight, the most unfortunate bunch in China became potentially the most fortunate. Still, the successful ones had to make it through the most selective university entrance process probably in the history of mankind, with candidates from 15 years lumped together to compete for spaces in one class-year of reduced size. After passing a local screening, an initial evaluation of scholastic aptitude, and on the strength of recommendation by their work units, a total of 5.7 million candidates were eligible to sit for the examination, from which 267,000 （4.7%）were admitted into university in 2/1978. They became famously known as the Class of 1978, referring to the year they finally entered university, as a mark of undisputed excellence.
The Class Of 1978
All told, from 1981 to 1988, approximately 1million LSJ got their university degrees. They formed the creme-de-la-creme of their generation, and excelled in every field from science to government to art and cinema. Their networks, including those who did not make it through universities, had all spent time in the countryside and/or factories. That made them very resilient, and successful later in business as well as all kinds of endeavor. Today, they are easily the most influential and powerful group of individuals in the world.
Xi Jingping, Li Keqiang, Wang Qishan, Wang Huning are some of the notable names in China’s top leadership positions today that were members of the Class Of 1978. In fact, the main speculation in the overture to the upcoming 19th Party Congress is whether Wang Qishan, aged 69, will remain in the 7-member Standing Committee of the Politburo, China’s top executive body. Renouned for heading the fight against corruptions and irregularities in China, Wang is highly revered by the people, and regarded as Xi Jingping’s Tweedledee in the anti-graft campaign known as “whacking tigers, swatting mosquitoes”. Given Xi’s own popularity and firm grip on power at the moment, the retirement of Wang may not affect his administration critically. But there is something more intricate involved.
Eight Down Seven Up
The Chinese Communist Party has a “customary practice” since the retirement of Deng Xiaoping called the “Eight Down Seven Up” criterion. To prevent gerontological phenomenon in the top leadership, there is a generally accepted rule that if one had reached 68 years of age in the year of the Party Congress (held every five years), one would no longer be eligible for the top executive body. But if one were 67, one would still be eligible.
Born in 1948, Wang Qishan is 69. No question, he will retire under the criterion. But he is much desired by the vast majority to stay on. (Wang is a multi-talented man who can easily handle the Prime Minister’s portfolio plus more. I had the pleasure of dealing wth him in 2001-2002 in the financial restructuring of Guangdong Investments, and he was absolutely brilliant.) This highlights a new issue – should the country retire its valuable LSJ so early? Or let the talents of the Class of 1978 go to pasture well before their expiry date？ So, is it time to relax the Eight Down Seven Up custom (it is not a written rule anywhere)？ If so, how should it be done？
Xi Jingping – A Premature LSJ
Xi Jingping was born in 1953. Chronologically, he was one class below the LSJ. But in real life, he was a “premmie”, having already gone down to the poor countryside when he was 13. Xi Zhongxun, his father, was a senior member of the CCP and ranked as high as number five in the top leadership. He was purged (wrongly accused as it turned ouy) four years before the Cultural Revolution. As a result, his entire family in Beijing was in jeopardy. Xi Jingping chose to leave Beijing, carried a heavy sack of books on his back, and trekked down to a poor village in Henan for refuge, where he would work with the peasants for his food (he recalled a time when he did not get to eat meat for months).
For that, Xi earned his badge as a LSJ ahead of the throng. In fact, Wang Qishan who was his senior by 5 years, would become his reading pal and book-exchange fanatic when both were formally assigned to countryside brigades in 1969. Even though separated by distance spanning days of travel, they would exchange books and reading notes. Both became extremely well-read, in Chinese as well as foreign classics.
Now, the fates of these two great men are intertwined. If the retirement protocol were to be waived at the upcoming Party Congress, in order for Wang to remain officially in the top leadership at age 69, it might affect Xi and China’s destiny. At the next Party Congress in 2022, after what would be 10 years as Chairman and President already, Xi will be 69. Given the precedent set for Wang, if Xi remains as popular and powerful then as he is today, he will likely be appointed the top leader for another term through 2027. He would be like our FDR. The Chinese people would love that.
Viva La LSJ
Even though I did not live through the terrible years of the Cultural Revolution in China, my age is smack in the middle of the LSJ pack. Now that I have transplanted myself to China for almost 15 years, most of which spent in idyllic contemplation, I have connected up with the LSJ in the most serendipitous ways.
Much of my discoveries in the notion of a Renaissance in China are derived from their lives and accomplishments. In the full spectrum of human endeavors, they have not only produced tangible results in social progress that are unprecedented, but also left a vast ocean of cultural documentation of their marks in civilisation. I am referring to their scholarship, the mountains of books on all sorts of subjects that are being written with depth and new insight; their creation in art, literature, audio-visual and architectural works; their research and innovation in science, technology, and pioneering projects in all fields; their enterprise in the businesses they built and managed, and the trails they have blazed for those that followed; their public service in forging ahead with the continual reforms, the application of a whole new paradigm in public governance, and systems approach to solving problems and creating solutions of all sorts.
As Xi Jingping said：“ To forge iron in fire, the hammer and anvil must themselves be strong.” For the LSJ, the hardships they endured in their years shared with poor peasants and workers had turned them into solid hammers and anvils.