- Rise of the Red Engineers: The Cultural Revolution and the Origins of China’s New Class by Joel Andreas
The students in my Olympic science class in Changsha, Hunan Province, did not stand out visibly from their peers at the keypoint middle school where I was an English teacher in 2000. Yet the special science class was the elite of each grade; the students were recruited by competitive exam, they had the best teachers, and their accomplishments were feted by the school administration. The school’s publicity materials headlined “Olympic” gold medals in computer science, university entrance exam scores were posted at the school gates, and every year an even more select few would be offered direct admission to key universities. A less obvious marker of elite status was the science students’ Communist Youth League pins; though their politics classes were sometimes omitted in favor of extra math, almost every science student sported a Youth League pin.
During the tender age of their early teens, my students were being funneled through the two systems of credentialing that form the backdrop of Joel Andreas’s Rise of the Red Engineers: The Cultural Revolution and the Origins of China’s New Class. Andreas refers to these two systems as the “academic credentialing system” and the “political credentialing system.” In the former, students in China pass through increasingly selective keypoint schools for which the state devotes significant resources. In the latter, parallel system, increasingly selective organizations—Young Pioneers, Communist Youth League, and Communist Party—choose their members. In today’s China, Andreas explains, it is the engineers who occupy the highest positions in Party leadership and state bureaucracy, and they have come to their positions through their academic and political credentials. Eight out of nine members of the Standing Committing of the Political Bureau are such “Red Engineers,” and it is this class that rules China today (p. 1).
The goal of Andreas’s study is to understand class transformation in China since the Communist Party came to power in 1949. How did China’s technocratic class come to be, and what does this historical trajectory tell us about the twentieth-century Communist experience in China and beyond? In his preface and introduction, Andreas presents us with a paradox. China’s Communist Revolution, though rooted in an agrarian revolution and premised on the destruction of class hierarchy, created a technocratic class. While George Konrad and Ivan [End Page 310] Szelenyi have argued that Communist parties intended to build a technocratic society, Andreas argues that China’s history does not follow the same pattern (p. 3). Rather, the Communist Party attempted to eliminate class distinctions, and the experience of class leveling in the Cultural Revolution—with its attack on the Party itself—shows that the Party dramatically changed course to become the technocracy that it is today (p. 4).
Rise of the Red Engineers uses Tsinghua, China’s premier engineering university, as its case study. It begins with the way in which new China had two classes of elites: an old educated elite and a new political elite. Borrowing from Pierre Bourdieu’s class distinctions based on economic, cultural, and social capital, Andreas explains that in the early People’s Republic of China (PRC), the old elite (with economic and social capital) was undermined by a new elite (with political capital). Despite conflicts, however, old and new elites coexisted, and a new elite of Red experts came into being. Andreas argues that the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) was a turning point, an attack on cultural capital, but also on the political power of the Party elite. Because Mao and his followers attacked both cultural and political capital, the two kinds of elites were ultimately brought together (pp. 11–14) and later formed the basis of the post-Mao technocratic elite. Andreas brings his final chapters into the era of reform, when economic capital had reentered the picture. In a study that is thoroughly...