Hu Jintao 1984 = Hu Jintao 2009

For reasons which will be made clear to me only gradually, yesterday I managed to pull a 9-5 shift at the Bundesarchiv in Berlin.  I say “will gradually become clear” because most good archival visits are like making wine: one stamps through fields of grapes, leaving with pungeant feet and drunk on fumes, yet it takes months or years for the product to age properly and for the full value of the research to become known to the researcher (the eventual author) and those he entreats with the new data.  But in the meantime there is the euphoria of another notebook scarred with black pens filched from French librarians in Beijing, of knowing that the harvest has only begun, of having been kicked out of yet another research facility by archivists raring to get in their Volkswagen turbochargers.

Now, the intention of my research is never to discredit the great Communist Party of China; I only long to create social harmony and aid China in its rise as a strategic partner to any and every country in Orient or Occident who is wise enough to befriend the leaders of the Middle Kingdom.  Yet sometimes in my research I dig up little bits of what might be considered “dirt”: a good example is Peng Zhen chortling to a French delegation in 1956 that China would be glad to wipe Chicago and San Francisco off the map once they finished work on the Chinese atomic bomb.  Oops!  But let it never be said that China scrubs scrubs scrubs its historical image; Peng simply made a gaffe and the Party historians of the Foreign Ministry (more liberal by most accounts than those of the Central Archives) let it ride.

And, although I had no intention of digging up dirt on Hu Jintao, I nevertheless crossed paths with the man in the Bundesarchiv in Berlin.  The context was via  documents he created in his earlier capacity as President of the All-China Youth Federation.  (As reading previous entries will make clear, among other things this summer I have been delving into youth group and cultural connections between China and Europe during the Cold War.)

The German archives are incredibly rich in their portraits of Chinese society and particularly Chinese students in the period from 1979-1989.  One report by the East German embassy in Peking, dating December 18, 1979, notes the student disatisfaction centered around the “Unzufriedenheit mit dem materiellen und kulturellen Bedingungen, mit der Perspectivlosigkeit und der politischen Rechtlosigkeit.”  (In other words, the regime had lost its perspective, and the students have lost their rights.)  And thus a cultural battle followed in the early 1980s, which continues today.

And I love learning about China in the 1980s for lots of reasons: trying to discern the continuities from the total ruptures, for one.  But here, with Hu Jintao, we have a case of pure continuity.

To the excerpts from Hu Jintao, circa 1984!  The context is a hard-hitting interview with reporters from the Xinhua News Agency on the subject of a reading campaign Hu was heading up.  I think you will appreciate how little his attitude has changed since that time, a quarter century ago:

Q: What is the guiding ideology of the reading drive?

A: It is a traditional hobby of our youth to read books, especially good books.  We hope reading will enrich the spare-time activities, deppen their general and technical knowledge, and raise their ideological and political awareness.  We do not think that all books are beneficial to the youngsters who are maturing and have not got their outlook on the world and life into shape.  We should therefore reisist the bourgeoise ideological contamination spread by such books that advocate sex and violence and the pornographic hand-copied stories.  Proceeding from education in patriotism, we will guide the young people to foster a firm communist world outlook and become a new generation with ideals, moral integrity, good education, and a sense of discipline.

Q. How long will the reading campaign last?

A. Considering the needs of the youth, the reading campaign is by no means a temporary expedient and will be carried on permanently.

Q. What measures will you take to guide the reading?

A. Youth organizations at all levels should encourage extensive and lively activities such as guidance lectures, tests on the books…The talks…at present should stress the significance of resisting the bourgeoise cultural contamination.  Their contents need to be continuously renewed and their forms diversified.

And thus we have Hu Jintao today.

At the same time that this interview was occuring, Hu’s newspaper, the Zhongguo Qingnianbao, published an editorial (“Desire for Fuller Life is No Ideological Contamination”) in which some confusion among the masses was pinpointed.  What the hell was meant by “ideological contamination” anyway?  The editorial answered this question simply enough: “pornography” and, in a last gasp of jumbled nonsense, “and bourgeoise liberalism in the theoretical and cultural fields whereby cultural products are turned into a commodity.”

I hope that in future debates over the Chinese internet and censorship, that my colleagues recognize that, while the internet is a new channel of communication, it did not create some giant crisis for the CCP.  Simply apply the old methods consistently enough, treat the people like “youngsters who are maturing and have not got their outlook on the world and life into shape,” and everything will be fine.

A wonderful contrast, a spark of hope from the 1980s, is found in the same communist journal.  In 1985 the party experimented in its normal laboratory for such reforms, the middle schools of Beijing.

(This is true: Beijing is the launching pad for everything, including the Cultural Revolution of course.  Myself, I recall publishing some work based on anti-American songs from the early Korean War whose first singers were just that audience, but in 1950.  Oh indeed! to have been blessed with a fatherly danwei, a Beijing hukou, and an education from the Fourth Middle School of Beijing city!  To be the first to sing a new song!  To sing, and then to hammer out the gaokao, annihilate various assignments as if one were conducting guerilla warfare {surround, outwit, and destroy piece by piece of the larger body of troops/the homework}, get into Beida, marry a girl with some serious guanxi in the PLA, and clamber up the ranks of the elite.  Or, get a gig teaching “Deng Xiaoping Theory / the Three Represents.”  But I digress…)

Yet it should be remarked that the CCP at least experimented with a more open communications environment for youth in the same epoch.

In 1985,  one hundred student journalists at the No. 35 Middle School of Beijing founded a news agency, led by Yang Yixin, an upperclassmen.  While Yang and everyone else were working under the leadership of the Beijing Qingnian bao, they were bold in their pronouncements.  Their goal, as stated in the China Youth Bulletin, was for China to become “a cradle for famous journalists in the 21st century.”  This is bold stuff!  China returning to its great tradition of journalists, gaining a foothold on the world stage as they had during World War II via such flinty and persistent reporters as Wang Yunsheng.  And seeing the development of student journalism as part of the Four Modernizations is even more bright.

Going on, the 1985  bulletin noted that “[the policy’s’] aim is to tap intellectual resources, foster students’ creative abilities and keep themselves well-informed so as to bring up a new generation of jounalists and student activists.”  The students were authorized to send a tongxun, or circular, to all middle school students in Beijing.

What became of this group and Yang Yixin?  Did this activity expand and thrive, only to be cut short by the events of 1989?  And can you imagine the CCP today allowing access to any part of its communications appartus to even the most loyal middle school students?  The whole notion of student control over newspapers and their ability to command school or government printing presses is one which remains highly contested in the U.S., but in the context of the PRC with its endemic censorship and information control policies, such tentative essays toward reform are worth noting, even if they amount to nought.

I’ll conclude with the students’ own triumphant procolomation of 1985, most likely drafted by the ambitious teenage hand of Yang Yixin: “The current economic reforms have opend up a bright future for us.  We should find a new way to enhance our abilities.  Our slogan is ‘Go our own way hitherto untrodden, forward to a magnificence never attained before.'”


Hu Jintao, “Answering Questions On the Reading Drive,” Chinese Youth Bulletin (Zhongguo qingnian tongxun 中国青年通讯) Vol. 4 No. 1 (Jan. 1984): 4. {Referenced at Bundesarchiv, Berlin.}

“The 1st Student News Agency,” Chinese Youth Bulletin (Zhongguo qingnian tongxun 中国青年通讯) Vol. 5 No. 3 (Jan. 1984): 15.  {Referenced at Bundesarchiv, Berlin.}


  1. Were you joking about the part where you wanted to be a party cadre starting in the 50s? You know that would put you either as a victim of the Cultural Revolution or (much, much worse) one of its perpetrators?

    1. I think the point of that particular paragraph was to highlight the notion of Beijing’s centrality in the 1950s, and to note furthermore that any number of advantages accrue to those so fortunate to be in “the center.” (I was also pumping up interest in a series of fascinating and rather optimistic middle-school songs from the Korean War which you can read about in the May 2010 issue of the journal _Popular Music and Society_.) Certainly you’re right to point out that when things get stormy, Beijing isn’t necessarily where one wants to be, and that most people who participated in “building socialism” in the 1950s also were witnesses to or participants in its near destruction in the 文革。 As for the victim/perpetrator question, it’s an important consideration which I alluded to briefly in my recent post on memories of 1989 in China, calling for more implementation of European paradigms such as “cultures of complicity” into studies of the Cultural Revolution.

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