Political generations: memories and perceptions of the Chinese Communist Party-State since 1949

Author: ORCID icon orcid.org/0000-0002-3989-0616
Zhang, Hexuan, Sociology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Olick, Jeffrey, Sociology, University of Virginia

In this dissertation, I examine the three political generations that took shape during the rapid social changes and historical transformations in China since the mid 20th century. Drawing on Mannheim’s social-historical definition of generation, I identify these generations by the three major transformative events/processes each experienced during late adolescence and early adulthood: the founding of the PRC in 1949, the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, and the Tiananmen Crackdown in 1989. I address two research questions: how have the historical events and the Party-state shaped the life trajectories and generational habitus of each political generation, and how the concept of “political generations” can help analyze distinct views and narratives about “Guo Jia,” the state, and perceptions of state legitimacy.
To answer these questions, I rely on two data sources: historical archives of official documents and 56 in-depth interviews in Beijing across the three political generations. I adopt an interpretive approach and use textual analysis to provide the historical contexts of the formation of political generations and their explicit views and implicit beliefs towards their past lived experiences and the Party-state.
In general, I find that the historical events that happened during each generation’s formative years had a relatively more prominent and lasting impact on their moral values and worldviews, including their political and emotional engagement with the state and their perceptions and expectations of state legitimacy. The generation of the “Liberation” benefited from the educational and job opportunities provided by the newly established Party-state and embraced the construction of a socialist “New China,” but their expectation of a stable and prosperous life was undermined during the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution. The generation of the “Cultural Revolution” had a sense of ownership towards the Party-state and were first mobilized by Mao Zedong to overthrow the newly established bureaucratic system and then forced into different life trajectories during the Rustication movement. The majority of this generation was deeply influenced by the personality cult of Mao and the “great democracy” of the Cultural Revolution and expected a parent-children relationship between the Party-state and the individuals. The generation of the “Tiananmen,” however, matured during the “New Enlightenment” era in the 1980s and gradually lost their close relationship with the Party-state during the Tiananmen Crackdown in 1989 and intensive marketization and privatization in the 1990s. Their ideal relationship with the Party-state was to be treated fairly as citizens with rights being respected by the Party-state.
In addition to inter-generational transformations, I also lay out intra-generational specificities. As Mannheim argued, people from the same political generation often have different responses to the same historical events or destinies, which separate them into different generation units and endow them with somewhat different views towards the Party-state.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Political Generation, China, Party-State, Memory
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