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Red Guards' New Revolt as Capitalists

June 12, 1988|Joel Kotkin | Joel Kotkin, West Coast editor of Inc. magazine, is co-author of "The Third Century: America's Resurgence in the Asian Era" (Crown), due in September. He recently returned from China.

Over the last 70 years of Chinese history, the district near the campus of Beijing University has been a center for revolutionary ferment. In the early 20th Century, the campus area served as a favorite meeting place for nationalist and communist revolutionaries, and in the 1960s it was a launching pad for the Cultural Revolution.

Today the tree-lined streets are again abuzz with talk of radical change. This time the revolutionary mood revolves not around slogans and ideology, but about entrepreneurialism and the power of technology. With its numerous computer stores and software houses, the Beijing University district is rapidly emerging as China's "Silicon Valley," the premiere center for high-tech venturing within the People's Republic.

Ironically, many of those now heading up the scores of fledgling technology-oriented firms in the area are themselves veterans of China's last revolutionary outburst--Mao Tse-tung's Cultural Revolution. Scores of one-time Red Guards--the school-age shock troops of Mao's final attempt to create "permanent revolution" in China--have now turned, in their 30s and 40s, into "Red Capitalists," operating the software houses, computer retail stores and training centers concentrated throughout the district.

Perhaps the most prominent of these Red Guards-turned-capitalist is Wan Runnan, who in 1984 left his academic position to found the Beijing Stone Group. A once-active Red Guard leader and son of a Shanghai accountant, Wan has turned Stone into China's premier privately owned company. With more than $138 million in sales last year, Stone--manufacturing its own Chinese-character electronic typewriters as well as maintaining computer sales and technical-service operations in 14 of China's 29 provinces--now stands as the country's top-selling computer firm.

Like many of his former Red Guard colleagues, Wan sees a natural connection between earlier political activism and current business launchings. By encouraging rebellion among the youth, he believes, Mao inadvertently spurred the development of a generation willing to challenge conventional wisdom, the basis for entrepreneurial activity anywhere.

"During the Cultural Revolution, we showed that the established cadres could be resisted," said the 41-year-old, baby-faced engineer. He was talking about Mao's official policy, starting in 1966, to encourage the young to oppose the accepted party Establishment. "We have also wanted to experiment, to find a Chinese way to move our country ahead. We weren't like the old communists, who followed the way of the Soviet Union."

Experiences during the Cultural Revolution, Wan explained, led many former Red Guards not only to start questioning the party leadership but the efficacy of Marxist ideology as well. Instead of the revolutionary utopia promised by Mao, for many Red Guards the Cultural Revolution turned into an alienating experience. After heeding the 1966 call of the "Great Helmsman," the guards soon found themselves embroiled in bitter, often violent internecine conflicts, manipulated by feuding party factions.

Later, as the party leadership attempted to restore order, many guards were sent to remote countryside regions--under the guise of "serving the people." For many in China's baby-boom generation, particularly for those from elite families connected to the party Establishment, this exile exposed them, for the first time, to the harsh realities of socialist life as lived by hundreds of millions of China's rural masses.

Han Jing Ming, who owns a restaurant in Beijing's Beihai Park, underwent his capitalist conversion while spending three years at a farm in remote inner Mongolia. A one-time Red Guard leader and son of prominent party officials, Han lived in unheated barracks--in a region where nighttime temperatures often drop well below freezing. Used to the relative affluence of official Beijing, Han had to adjust to a diet without oil or meat, his only staple a corn-flour paste generally considered fit only for pigs to eat. To fight malnutrition, Han caught lizards and roasted them secretly.

More distressing to Han, however, was the corruption and cruelty he witnessed in Mongolia. Faced with near starvation, some female Red Guards improved their situations by sleeping with local soldiers from the People's Liberation Army. Others who failed to obey minor instructions or showed the slightest sign of dissent--including Han's closest friend--were never heard from again.

By the time Han returned to Beijing, in 1973, he--like many former Red Guards--had lost much of his faith in both Mao and the communist system. "I learned out there in the desert that by being in the 'masses' I had no power. I didn't have value to anyone," Han recalled. "I realized that Marxist-Leninism was a faith, like a religion. It's not the truth. The truth is always developing. You have to seek it yourself."

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