As China’s governement celbrates 50 years of communist rule, across the country, there are many reminders of the turbulence and change of the past five decades.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Shanghai has long been China’s window to the world. It is the country’s commercial and industrial capital, and it’s seen billions of dollars in construction and economic development over the past decade. The modernization is so vast that Shanghai is hardly recognizable to someone like Xinshu Zhao, who left the city 15 years ago to study in the U.S. He now lives in North Carolina.
XINSHU ZHAO: Yeah, the school is gone. This is a new building. I don’t know if we can find new … my old buildings anymore. They probably have been all taken down. So the only thing that’s left now looks like just the place.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: We followed Zhao on one of his periodic visits to his native land. He saw several landmarks of his youth, landmarks which reflect the turbulent history of communist rule.
XINSHU ZHAO: And I still remember the buildings here, the old buildings here and the old buildings there.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But now everything has changed.
XINSHU ZHAO: Yeah, right.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But that’s your house right over there?
XINSHU ZHAO: It’s right behind us, yeah.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: OK.
XINSHU ZHAO: I will take you into it. (Speaking Chinese.)
Remembering the Cultural Revolution
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In the home where he grew up, the present-day tenants and old neighbors welcomed the unannounced visitors.
XINSHU ZHAO: My younger brother and I, when we grow up, after we grow up, we live –we slept on this bed — 24 square meters, six of us. Then two families shared the kitchen, and this was used as a bathroom.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Zhao’s father was a railroad worker, his mother a teacher, and spartan as life seemed, his family was considered middle class. That made them a target during the Cultural Revolution. The slogans of that period three decades ago, like the memories, haven’t faded easily.
XINSHU ZHAO: Yeah, “Loyal to Chairman Mao,” and “Loyal to Mao Zedong’s thoughts.”
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Under Chairman Mao Zedong, China endured several campaigns that caused widespread social upheaval, famine, and millions of deaths. The decade-long Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966, was Mao’s attempt to recreate the long march and revolution he’d led in the ’20s and ’30s. Richard Bohr is a China historian at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in Minnesota.
RICHARD BOHR: He wanted these young people, these so-called Red Guards, to relive revolution, but as he gave them the power to live their own revolution, to experience their own revolution, they got a hold of guns and arms, and they became militant.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Zhao vividly remembers when he was 11 the night Red Guards showed up and their campaign against the so-called elite. They took jewelry and the family’s entire savings of about a thousand U.S. dollars.
XINSHU ZHAO: My grandfather was a landlord, and so — actually, it was against the policy at the time to ransack the second generation or the third generation’s house. But they did it anyway, and I still consider it as a turning point in my life. You know, I began to realize life was not supposed to be fair.
A clandestine education
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Zhao and his older brother, Xin Yun, spent four years doing rural farm labor, the entire curriculum for Chinese schoolchildren during the Cultural Revolution. A third brother was too young to be conscripted.
RICHARD BOHR: These are the 10 years which the Chinese call the 10 lost years, when most young people in China could not get an education; when virtually all the schools were closed; and when the only opportunity for any sort of education was self-study at home in the middle of the night, in clandestine ways.
XINSHU ZHAO: During the night, in order to read, I sit on the stair and use this side of some table as my reading — just about this side for reading and use this light.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: At a time when education was frowned upon, Zhao says his parents encouraged it. The elder Zhao couple have lived in Shanghai since the 1940s. Both are now retired.
JUNGHUI MIAO: (speaking through interpreter) I experienced the same thing during World War II, during the Japanese occupation. I lost the opportunity to get an education. Eventually, I was able to go to night school and complete college. During the Cultural Revolution, the slogan was, “The more knowledge you have, the more antirevolutionary you are,” so education was not encouraged. But I knew from my own experience that my sons would someday be educated. That’s why I encouraged them to read.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: When he turned 18, Zhao was placed as an assembly worker in the 27th radio factory of Shanghai. Under the controlled economy, he didn’t have a choice. In any event, during the Cultural Revolution, the university education he’d wanted was reserved for children of so-called workers and peasants. Still, Zhao persevered, as coworkers at the plant still recall.
XINSHU ZHAO: She remembered one detail that I didn’t remember. She said I studied so hard, I put English words on my hand, in order to work and at the same time and recite the English words.
A role model for Chinese kids
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: To his former workmates, Zhao is now a role model for Chinese kids. But 25 years ago, few shared his aspiration to attend university.
XINSHU ZHAO: Some people openly commented that I was being foolish for spending so much time studying just to go to college, because you lose the salary and you risk leaving Shanghai. You know, this was considered a very good life.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: And college graduates earned about the same wages as other workers. Still, Zhao persisted, and his break came after Mao died and the Cultural Revolution ended. Zhao was admitted into Shanghai’s prestigious Fudan University. The imposing statue of the chairman quickly went from being a metaphor for Chinese thought to a historic relic.
XINSHU ZHAO: I remember that there was some talks, even amongst Fudan students, that this particular statue might be removed. But it stayed.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The towering influence at Fudan and throughout China soon became Deng Xiaoping, a pragmatist who had survived two purges. Deng quickly began to open China’s economy to the outside world, and made it possible for young Chinese to seek training in the West.
XINSHU ZHAO: It was somewhat by accident that I was later picked to be a so-called preparatory student, to be chanting English and then have a chance to apply for the scholarship and university admission in the United States.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: It was followed by Stanford University, then Wisconsin. Today Zhao is a tenured professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina, where he lives with his wife Peilu and two daughters. His younger brother became an engineer and settled in Ohio. His older brother, Xin Yun, is a manager in a Shanghai bicycle factory. His wife is a business executive who was away when we visited the Shanghai high-rise home they share with daughter Ii Ping.
Economic advancement before political change
XIN YUN ZHAO: (speaking through interpreter) The best would be one girl and one boy, but it’s enough to have one. She’s a good kid. We have to think of the next generation. Look at our family when we were growing up. Because we had so many children — there were three of us — it was so crowded.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: He notes that Ii Ping already enjoys more space than her father’s entire family once did. The prospects are also looking good for the radio factory, after a long struggle at the edge of bankruptcy. The aging plant was saddled with debt and outdated equipment until it was recently purchased by a state-owned electronics conglomerate. The new owners infused cash, new products and a market-savvy manager. Unlike in many Chinese factories today, Huang Zhuziang says attrition made layoffs unnecessary here. Still, there are no longer guarantees of employment or equal pay for all — hallmarks of the old system.
HUANG ZHUZIANG: (speaking through interpreter) Today we can choose our workers, and at the same time, they can choose to work for us. In the controlled economy, workers were assigned here, and all the jobs paid the same. But in the market economy, some jobs require more skills and should be paid more salary. Of course, some of our older workers will have difficulty with this, but this cannot stop us from joining the market economy. For people who don’t have the skills, we’ve tried to find lesser jobs, like cleaning.
XINSHU ZHAO: Now, this would be similar to what I did. Most of this is done by the machine now, so she can focus on one thing.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Overall, wages and living standards for most workers have improved significantly since Zhao worked here. It’s a symbol of the economic advancement, especially in China’s eastern cities, achievements Zhao says he’s proud of.
XINSHU ZHAO: I’m sure that this city and this country will have a bright future, when I look at the progress that it has made in the past 10 or 20 years.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: At the same time, Zhao says progress on the political front has been much slower to take hold.
XINSHU ZHAO: People cannot recognize the importance of freedom of speech, does not recognize the importance of freedom of press, does not recognize the idea of letting ideas freely compete with each other eventually, since we’ll — the good ideas will come, and the society will improve, and a lot of ideas like that has not been widely accepted by the people. It’s not that one government does not allow it. It’s not that one official does not allow it. It will take a long while. It has to be a natural process.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Zhao says his children’s generation may enjoy those freedoms someday, including the option to live either in China or the United States. For now, his own freedom to write and publish, especially on the Chinese media, is guaranteed only in the United States, where he now has permanent residence.