Niall Ferguson on China's Great Leap Backward

Members of the Red Guard hold the Little Red Book and cheer Mao during the Cultural Revolution, 1966. Apic-Getty Images

"To understand China you have to think in generations," my Chinese friend explained. "And the key is that after 2012 the Cultural Revolution generation will be in charge."

While antiwar protesters clashed with the National Guard on American campuses and Czechs defied the Red Army in the streets of Prague, China had the Cultural Revolution. In some ways it was the ultimate '60s teen rebellion. In other ways it was totalitarianism at its worst: a bloody revolution from above unleashed by one of the 20th century's most ruthless despots.

That it disrupted the lives of a generation is clear. Only consider its effects on the two men poised to inherit the top two positions of president and premier. Xi Jinping was a "princeling," the son of one of Mao Zedong's loyal lieutenants. He was just 15 when his father was arrested on Mao's order. Xi spent the next six years toiling in the countryside of Yanchuan county in central China. Li Keqiang had a similar experience. No sooner had he graduated from high school than he was sent to labor in the fields of impoverished Anhui province.

To get an idea of what exactly this means, imagine Barack Obama feeding pigs in Iowa or Mitt Romney mending a tractor in Wisconsin. Except that no American farm could ever match the grinding hardship of a Chinese collective farm.

One of China's leading economists put it to me like this: "The one thing I learned on the collective farm"—which in his case was out west on the Chinese-Soviet border—"was to judge a person's character inside 10 seconds." (As he said this, he gave me a piercing look.) "I also learned what really matters in life: to think freely—and to have friends you can trust."

Generational Civil War: The Cultural Revolution began in the summer of 1966, when posters appeared slamming senior party figures as "takers of the capitalist road." Mao chimed in, expressing his "passionate support" for protesting students, whom he christened the "Red Guards." This was the cue for young people all over China to flock to Beijing, dressed in identical uniforms and brandishing Mao's Little Red Book.

Mao's stated ambition was to remove the capitalist elements that were impeding China's progress. More likely, he intended to implement a ruthless purge of his critics. Yet the Cultural Revolution soon grew into an all-out civil war between the generations.

Not only party officials but also academics were targeted. In the summer of 1966, more than 1,700 people were beaten to death in Beijing alone, including elderly former landlords and their families. Some victims were killed by having boiling water poured over them; others were forced to swallow nails.

But it did not take long for the revolution to consume itself. Buried in a dingy corner of Chongqing's Shapingba Park are the bodies of 537 Red Guards from different factions who, after dealing with their teachers, killed each other.

By the end of 1968 it was clear that China was in a state of anarchy. So the Great Helmsman gave the rudder another swing. Now he ordered the "educated youth" to go to the countryside to receive "reeducation" on collective farms. The Red Guards were broken up. The Army reimposed order in the cities. The universities emptied. And a generation of young Chinese exchanged the library for the pigsty.

Revolution Reversion: More than 40 years later, the historian Xu Youyu calls for a "total condemnation" (chedi fouding) of the Cultural Revolution. Yet his is a minority view. If you visit the National Museum of China in Beijing, you will find almost no reference to the Cultural Revolution. When I tried to interview Xu on the subject last August, we were kicked off the campus of the university where he teaches.

Even more remarkable is the evidence of a growing nostalgia for the Cultural Revolution. During my last visit to China, I ate dinner at a themed restaurant where the waitresses dress up like Red Guards and the floorshow features propaganda songs from the period. Incredibly, just 200 yards away from the graves of Cultural Revolution victims in Chongqing, I saw a group of middle-aged women singing some of these songs, including "Chairman Mao Is the Sun That Never Sets."

Until last week, such nostalgia was being encouraged by the Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, who was hoping for promotion to the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo. The strange thing is that in 1966, Bo and his family were imprisoned for five years, after which they were placed in a labor camp for a further five.

China's '60s generation has every reason to remember the years of their youth with bitterness. That many of them feel something more like "Maostalgia" is just a little scary. But even scarier was the headline in the Financial Times on March 15: "Bo Xilai Purged." Just like old times.

Niall Ferguson on China's Great Leap Backward | World