When current Chinese President Xi Jinping was fourteen years old, Red Guards accosted his father. They dragged the old man before a crowd and forced him to declare that he was a horrible person. Then they threw him into prison. The crime: Xi’s father, one of the original communist leaders who had followed Mao since the Long March, was now suddenly considered not revolutionary enough.
It was a stunning reversal. Just a few years earlier, the elder Xi had been vice premier and a confidant of Mao. Xi Jinping attended a prestigious school for the children of the elite. Suddenly he was without parents and sent to a village in the countryside to work as a farmer and build dams and roads. As Xi himself explains, he slept on “earth beds,” and had no meat in his diet for months at a time. Many teens in this situation would conclude that communism was a dangerous system. Xi begged to join the Communist Youth League and became a lifelong party stalwart.
A few years later, across the Himalayas, India’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi, went into hiding to avoid arrest. In 1975 he was a young organizer for the Hindu nationalist organization RSS when the country’s prime minister, Indira Gandhi,* suspended India’s constitution. She jailed many of her political opponents, including many of Modi’s associates.
Disguised as a Sikh with turban, full beard, and sunglasses, Modi continued to distribute banned opposition pamphlets and organize protests. After India’s democracy was restored, he ran for political office in his native state, and was ultimately elected prime minister.
In the face of political persecution, these two young leaders responded to these traumatic events very differently. The chaos of China’s Cultural Revolution taught Xi and many of his peers to value the stability of the system and economic prosperity above all else, even if it meant sacrificing individual freedoms. Although India’s democracy was only two decades old when Indira Gandhi suspended most democratic institutions, it was strong enough to survive. The press defied censorship, police and judiciary refused the government’s orders, and opposition parties, including Modi’s BJP, banded together to reject authoritarian rule. These divergent reactions explain much about the underlying values in each society that maintain China’s and India’s political systems today.
* Despite the name, Indira Gandhi was Jawaharal Nehru’s daughter, and not related in any way to the Mahatma Gandhi. By chance, she married a man also named Gandhi.