OIT Specialist Recalls Cultural Revolution

Adam Wang, who grew up during the Mao Era in China, missed out on several years of education.
Adam Wang, who grew up during the Mao Era in China, missed out on several years of education.

This past Thursday, China celebrated the 60th anniversary of the communist state, and for one Eph, the event hit close to home. For Adam Wang, technology specialist at the Office of Information Technology (OIT), the celebration is a reminder of his past life in China during the Cultural Revolution, a time of national chaos resulting from Mao Zedong’s movement to remove any elements of capitalism from society.

Born in Shanghai in the late 1950s, Wang grew up during the Cultural Revolution. However, he was sheltered from many of the most painful consequences of Mao’s persecution of suspected capitalists, thanks to his father’s participation in the military. “My mom worked in the bank and my dad served in the air force – he was a veteran of World War II – so in that sense I wasn’t that affected by the Cultural Revolution because of my dad,” Wang said. Although his mother was from a family close enough to the working class to be allowed to keep her job, “The bank got reformed,” Wang said. “So whether you kept the job or not, everyone got the same salary because the government controlled it.”

During the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976, “[The government] classified all people into different classes,” Wang said. “If you’re working class, you’re good. The world is not actually that way, but in order to keep Mao in power, he had to create a kind of tension.” All of a sudden, Wang said that schools and banks stopped operating and the people had no choice but to support these policies. “Either you do it, or you’re in prison,” Wang said.

For Wang, some of the most significant consequences of the political climate were on his education. “There was no school,” Wang said. “In the early stages of the Cultural Revolution, there was no ‘teaching’ except for brainwashing, part of the educational reform associated with the revolution. When schools restored teaching kids what they were supposed to learn, I was already in the third or fourth grade.”

In high school, the goal was “to be educated by the core of the working class.” In the late 1960s, Mao instituted the Down to the Countryside policy, during which millions of urban youth were sent to rural areas to learn from farmers. Wang and his classmates divided their high school years between learning to farm, training in the army and observing factory workers. When asked if the Cultural Revolution had any positive effect on him, it’s those days on the farm that Wang goes back to. “The only positive thing that I can see is those days in the rural areas learning to work as farmers, because that’s more like a real world experience,” he said. “I also learned to survive with nothing. The negative thing is I lost all those years of a good education.”

Wang was a member of the last class to be assigned a job upon graduating from high school, but he soon benefited from a major change in government policy. In 1978, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping reinstituted the Open Door Policy, which promoted foreign relations, and also restored university entrance exams in 1979. Previously, only students of the working class and those who had been re-educated in the countryside were permitted to enter college. “At the time when we could register for the college entrance exam, the age range was about 18 to 35 or 40. I was kind of at the young end of that, so someone sitting next to me could already have two kids.” Because so many people were taking the entrance exam, the process was highly competitive. “There were a couple hundred kids [vying] for each spot. I actually failed the first time. I was disappointed, but in retrospect I am pretty impressed with myself – I didn’t have any formal education, and I was still one of those lucky ones.”

Wang said, “When they opened the door, we started reading things that came from abroad . . . then in the early ’80s, you had many foreign investors come to set up joint ventures, so then you could see how Western people do business, and you see the Western world is so developed.” Wang graduated in 1982, and followed most of his friends to Western nations.

Wang’s experience has given him an interesting perspective on Chinese and American politics. “I don’t think people understand, especially in the Western world, the system that is in place in China because they still label it a communist system,” he said. “China has a very strange identity, it’s neither communist, nor capitalist. It’s a strange mix. China is not a country like America; I think it works for them right now.”
Interestingly enough, if Wang were a young person in China today, he wouldn’t choose to leave. “The future is more broad back in China because they are still developing,” he said. “For young people, I would say yes, you may have a brighter future there then you would have here. That doesn’t mean that China is better than America, but one is booming and the other is not.”