During decades of reading and reviewing books on China I have learned a great deal, even from those I didn’t like. Only a few have surprised me. Mao’s Lost Children is such a book, and those like me who believe that the Mao period was bad for China and the Chinese will also be surprised—although, as I note below, some of the surprise is negative. It starts with the cover, which shows laughing girls being drawn on an oxcart. Since I supposed that young middle school graduates, or zhiqing, “sent down to the countryside and up to the mountains” to “learn from the peasants” must have had a bad time, I thought initially that the cover was misleading. But in this book, most of the former zhiqing recall happy, or at least nostalgic, years of rustication.
Much of this book was published in China in 2011, and all the contributors appeared in a later Chinese edition in 2014. The editors, who both live in China, as do most of the contributors, supply a concise and admirably clear explanation of what happened to the 15 million zhiqing, who were sent to the countryside between 1968 and 1980 partly to mitigate the depredations of violent young Red Guards. Sending them “down” would bring them into contact with “the rural masses,” and save the government money for food and education that would not extend to the countryside. It was thought, too, say the editors, that they could help defend China from foreign invasion.
Conditions in the countryside, assert the editors, were “extremely harsh”; this does not emerge in most of the testimonies in the book. There may be other cases, but in these “unfamiliar” or “tough” might be better terms. The entire scheme, the editors conclude, was a “resounding economic failure.” The sent-down youngsters added little or nothing to production and ate up food that was in short supply because of Mao’s economic reforms, which were so ruinous for peasant agriculture. But some of the testimonies show that rural children, for instance, learned a good deal from the zhiqing, and went on to better lives than they would have had without such education.
One of the editors, Ou Nianzhong, was such a sent-down youth who, like all the others who testify in this book, went to Hainan, a large island just off China’s southern coast. He…
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