At the ‘university of green forests’

Chinese President Xi Jinping is arguably the most powerful leader of his country since Mao Zedong. During the 19th Party Congress last October, the ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ was inscribed into the party charter. Earlier, in 2016, the party accorded him special stature by making him the ‘Core Leader’. Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping by François Bougon, an Asia specialist and economics correspondent at Le Monde , traces the rise of Mr. Xi, arguing that in his quest to become the world’s most powerful leader, he must balance Mao’s Little Red Book with The Analects of Confucius . An excerpt: The idea of progressive and rational ascent towards the highest functions of power is not just marketing spin. It is both the cornerstone of the Chinese model and its justification. But is Xi Jinping truly the perfect illustration of this ‘meritocracy’? That Xi did indeed start off quite low down the hierarchy is undeniable, even if in truth he was put there by the regime. What the propaganda machine has turned into a significant feat — reaching the top of the hierarchy starting from nothing — glosses over the trials and tribulations involved. Xi was sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, where he endured difficult conditions. Before that he was a well-off Beijing schoolboy. In 1968, to put an end to the chaos he had himself brought about, Mao had decided to empty the cities of their youth and send them out amongst the peasants to be re-educated. ‘I studied at the university of green forests, that is where I learned something,’ he said in 1964, relaunching a 1950s movement known as shangshan xiaxiang (‘go up the mountains, go down to the countryside’). The directive that would affect Xi and millions of other students was read out on the radio on a winter evening in 1968, 21 December, and published the next day in the People’s Daily ( Renmin Ribao ): It is absolutely necessary for educated youth to go to the countryside to get re-educated by the poor and lower-middle peasants. We must persuade the officials and other inhabitants of the cities to send their children who are graduates of secondary schools and universities to the countryside. There should be an effort to mobilise. The comrades from all the rural areas should welcome these youths. Xi Jinping was fifteen at the time and got caught up in the movement. It was an exodus on an unprecedented scale in the country’s history, affecting about 17 million people in total. The same scenes were witnessed throughout the country: columns of young people heading towards the stations, to the rhythm of revolutionary chants and songs; the outpourings of enthusiasm; the farewells; the welcoming committees on their arrival in the country; and then the billeting. Those who left in 1968 or 1969 were keen to go. Many, like Xi, volunteered. And this decision was to prove fundamental to his intellectual development.

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