BEIJING (Reuters) - Forty five years before ambitious Chinese politician Bo Xilai fell from power accused of flirting with Cultural Revolution extremism, he stood as a teenager in front of a baying crowd that accused him of defying Mao Zedong’s campaign.
Bo’s divisive rise and downfall has kindled debate about how the chaotic Cultural Revolution (1966-76) shaped him and his generation, which will assume power at a ruling Communist Party congress later this year.
At the start of the Cultural Revolution, the man at the centre of China’s worst political scandal in decades was a student at the Number Four High School in Beijing, an elite cradle for “princelings”, the sons of Communist leaders who had risen to power with Mao.
The school became a crucible for conflicts unleashed with Mao’s call to rebel in the name of his unyielding vision of communism. The era paralyzed the country politically, triggering social upheaval and economic malaise.
One day in 1967, Bo and two brothers were paraded at the school by an angry group of student “Red Guards”, and accused of resisting the Cultural Revolution just as their father, Vice Premier Bo Yibo, had been toppled along with dozens of Mao’s former comrades and accused of betraying their leader.
Their persecutors twisted their arms behind them and pressed their heads nearly to the ground while pulling back their hair to expose their faces, Duan Ruoshi, a fellow student at the Number Four school, wrote in a memoir published last year.
“Despite the shouts of condemnation from all sides, Bo Yibo’s sons exuded defiance and twisted their bodies in defiance against their oppressors,” Duan wrote in the memoir published by “Remembrance”, an online magazine about the Cultural Revolution.
The ordeal was a lesson for Bo in the capricious currents of Communist Party power, which only a few months before seemed to promise him and other princelings a bright future as inheritors of the Chinese revolution.
Now the effects of the Cultural Revolution on Bo and his generation are in question.
In mid-March, Bo, who had ambitions to be elevated this year to China’s top decision making body, was dismissed from his post as party secretary of Chongqing, a crowded municipality in southwest China.
Critics, including Premier Wen Jiabao, have suggested that Bo, 62, flirted with reviving the extremes of the Cultural Revolution, a decade of zealotry and violence etched in the memories of tens of millions of Chinese.
Yet the era was a formative one for many Chinese leaders now poised to rise to power in a Communist Party leadership transition later this year. President Hu Jintao is due to retire as party leader and hand power to a generation including many leaders who were Red Guards - student-militants fighting for Mao’s vision of a communism purged of compromise.
At many schools, gangs of the loosely organized Red Guards marched into a vacuum of authority in the summer of 1966, when officials were toppled and police retreated. Across Beijing in August and September that year, nearly 1,800 people died in attacks instigated by Cultural Revolution radicals, according to official estimates published in 1980.
A Reuters investigation based on interviews with 10 former students and recent memoirs from the Number Four school shows that Bo, his brothers and many fellow princelings experienced the Cultural Revolution as both enforcers and victims of Mao’s wrath - a double legacy key to understanding its influence.
“They experienced both attacking others and being attacked by others, and then counter-attacking. Their role underwent a massive reversal,” said Zhu Jingwen, another student at the Number Four school during the Cultural Revolution.
Some see parallels between what Bo did or saw at his school and his controversial policies in Chongqing, where he encouraged “red” choirs exuding nostalgia for Mao’s time and an anti-crime gang crackdown that critics said revived elements of Maoist mobilization which trampled on legal protections.
“Bo Xilai is one example of the effects of growing up in the Cultural Revolution,” said Yang Fan, a professor at the University of Political Science and Law who was a student at Number Four at that time and knew the Bo boys.
“He’s the negative side of that experience,” said Yang.
Many princelings who studied at the Number Four school in the 1960s remain powerful in politics or business. They include Chen Yuan, president of the China Development Bank; Yu Zhengsheng, the party chief of Shanghai; and Liu Yuan, a military commander who stayed close to Bo.
The Cultural Revolution-era elite alumni of Number Four are part of a generation marked by chaos that has made them less conformist than their predecessors. While Bo’s brash ambition was rare among Chinese politicians, his sense of destiny and pragmatism are seen by some as shared princeling traits.
“Overall, I think, their experience has made them more independent-minded and less trusting of central authority,” Yin Hongbiao, a student at Number Four at the start of the Cultural Revolution, said of politicians from Bo’s generation.
“At a time when they should have been studying, they were embroiled in political turmoil,” said Yin, who is now an historian of the Cultural Revolution at Peking University.
At Number Four and other elite high schools, children of party officials were the core of students who threw themselves into Mao’s initial movement and formed gangs of “Red Guards”.
The Number Four students paraded teachers around the sports ground. Some mocked students lacking their “red” revolutionary pedigrees as “bastards.” They built a jail, with a slogan written in blood on one of its walls, “Long live red terror”.
Yet princelings often became victims of the next phase of the Cultural Revolution, when Mao turned on their parents. Bo’s father was toppled. His mother killed herself in the hands of Red Guard radicals. Bo and two brothers spent years in jail.
“They experienced the Cultural Revolution from the very top to the very bottom,” said Zhu, the former student, who is now a law professor at Renmin University in Beijing.
“But I don’t think they ever lost their belief that they are privileged and deserve to have power,” he added. “There was never any reflection on their misdeeds, they chose to dwell on only their own suffering.”
Fighting for his political survival in March this year, Bo challenged opponents of his campaign against organized crime by quoting a poem from the first years of the Cultural Revolution.
“We’ll dare to fight for the high-ground with these devils. We’ll never give an inch to the overlords,” Bo told a news conference at China’s parliament, citing words from a verse that in the mid-1960s was widely but wrongly believed to be by Mao.
Those words recalled an era when a young Bo and other students wore spare blue and green clothes at Number Four, a collection of squat brick buildings near the walled Zhongnanhai compound where Communist Party leaders worked and often lived.
Another large group of students included children of intellectuals, professionals and engineers, some of whom had worked under the Nationalist government before 1949.
“Number Four was special among Beijing schools because of the number of cadre children, so the school students formed into two camps,” said Wang Zu’e, a former student and Red Guard at the Number Four school who became a Beijing government official.
As Mao placed growing emphasis on ideological struggle and class into the mid-1960s, “children of senior cadres began to feel like they were different from the rest of us and began to enjoy more privileges and higher status”, said Yang Baikui, a former student at Number Four whose father was a translator.
Nowadays the widespread impression of the Cultural Revolution is a convulsive revolt against all authority. Initially, however, its most fervent supporters in high schools were the children of officials, who saw Mao’s call as a test of their mettle, said former Number Four students and staff.
“At the start, to become a Red Guard, you virtually had to have a red family background,” said Zhou Xiaozheng, a former Number Four student who is now a professor of sociology at Renmin University in Beijing.
At the school from June 1966, fervent students turned on teachers and the principal, accusing them of hiding “bad” and “reactionary” class backgrounds and failing to heed Mao’s demands.
They searched homes and patrolled the streets, forcing youths to get rid of John F. Kennedy-style haircuts, sharp shoes, denim trousers and other signs of deviance, recalled former student Yin.
The sense among officials’ children that they boasted proud revolutionary pedigrees - and futures - passed from their fathers inspired a slogan that spread among the children of officials at Number Four and other high schools.
“If the father is hero, the son is a real man. If the father is a reactionary, the son is a bastard,” ran the slogan painted on a wall at the Number Four school, former students said.
On August 4, 1966, students paraded the 20 or so teachers around the school sports ground, the victims’ heads bowed and weighed down with high “witch” hats and placards that declared them to be “cow-ghosts and snake-demons” - the phrase used to describe people deemed beyond the revolutionary pale.
“Their clothes were spattered with ink, and their faces showed scars from beatings,” ex-student Duan Ruoshi wrote.
In the middle of this uproar, Bo Xilai was a shy, gangly boy squeezed between two lively brothers, schoolmates recalled. His older brother, Bo Xiyong, was a star athlete who became a deputy head of the school’s Cultural Revolution committee. His younger brother, Bo Xicheng, was a boisterous junior secondary student.
Bo Xilai “was the shy one among the Bo family boys”, said Yang Fan, the professor and former schoolmate, who later kept in touch with Bo’s brothers. “His face would go red when he spoke.”
“He was there as an old Red Guard, but he followed others, including his big brother,” a former official who grew up as a near neighbor to Bo’s home. The ex-official spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Old Red Guard” is the term for the first wave of such activists, mostly from politically privileged families.
But Bo Xilai was no mere bystander, said Song Yongyi, a historian of the Cultural Revolution who works as a librarian at California State University in Los Angeles. Bo joined in the rallies and home searches that spread in 1966, said Song, citing an interview with a classmate of Bo.
“One day they had an argument about family background, or the blood lineage theory, and Bo Xilai slapped him on the face two times, and also Bo Xilai called him a son of a bitch,” said Song, using the phrase common among “red” students to disparage students from “bad” class backgrounds.
At Number Four, the Red Guards turned a teachers’ canteen into a jail, or “labor re-education team”, to hold teachers deemed foes of the revolution, and then “riff-raff” and “counter-revolutionaries” rounded up from nearby neighborhoods.
Some ex-students from Number Four take pride in pointing out that none of the school’s teachers were killed, and students rarely brutalized each other, unlike at other schools.
But four Number Four teachers killed themselves, according to the memoirs of Wang Xingguo, an ex-teacher, published by “Remembrance.” Two or three people detained from outside the school died in its jail, said former students.
Some of the young guards used blood to write “Long live red terror!” on one of the jail walls, and inside they used thick belts to whip inmates, one of the students who was in charge, Liu Dong, wrote in an essay for “Remembrance”.
“The jail reeked from blood,” said Zhu, the law professor at Renmin University. “There were some things done there that were unforgivable. People had skin flayed off their backs so the bones showed.”
As Mao’s campaign escalated, however, Bo and other princeling students experienced what it was like to be a victim.
Mao had become convinced that top officials, including President Liu Shaoqi, the officer Liu Yuan’s father, were seeking to hobble the Cultural Revolution.
Students from “bad” class backgrounds, spurned and criticized during the first months of the Cultural Revolution, now had their chance to counter-attack.
By 1967, Bo Xilai’s family was engulfed in Mao’s fury. His father, Bo Yibo, was a veteran of the revolution who after 1949 took up a job as a senior financial official.
On January 1, 1967, Bo Yibo was seized by Red Guards while he was in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou and taken back to Beijing where he was jailed for eight years.
Bo Yibo’s wife, Hu Ming, was taken back on another train two weeks later but died before she arrived. An official account said she “committed suicide for fear of punishment”, said Warren Sun, an historian at Monash University in Australia.
Since Bo Xilai’s downfall, some online accounts have repeated allegations that he beat his ousted father in a bid to protect himself. But former Number Four students, including several critical of Bo, said they doubted the story was true.
Glimpses of Bo and his siblings in 1967 suggest a rootless existence on the margins. His older brother Xiyong and younger brother Xicheng were caught after stealing a car and colliding with a mule, said Yang Baipeng, a former schoolmate.
Bo Xilai was caught stealing a book from a store on Beijing’s main shopping street, according to “Memories of the Storm”, a collection of memoirs about the Number Four school during the Cultural Revolution published in Hong Kong this year.
In 1967, radicals at the Number Four school rounded up Bo, his brothers and other sons of officials, said Yang Baikui, a former student and a brother of Yang Baipeng.
“They were targets not just because of what they did, but because of who their fathers were,” said Yang Baikui.
“The struggle meeting went on for two or three hours. They weren’t hit, but we shouted slogans and demanded that they admit their errors.”
In late 1967, Bo Xilai and two of his brothers were jailed, and later sent to Camp 789, a prison for children of disgraced senior officials. They were released in 1972, and Bo later became a worker.
He now risks another stint in jail. He was suspended from the party’s top ranks in April, when his wife Gu Kailai was named as a suspect in the murder of Briton Neil Heywood, a long-time family friend. Both Bo and Gu could later face trial.
After Bo’s dismissal, his wife’s sister told friends not to worry about him, said a retired academic who said she overheard their comments at a funeral in March of a fellow princeling.
“Don’t worry about Bo Xilai, he’s been through much worse than this,” the academic said, citing the sister’s words. “He’s been through the Cultural Revolution. This is nothing.”
(This story is refiled to fix typo in the fourth paragraph)
Editing by Brian Rhoads and Neil Fullick