LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
China's Communist Party marks its 70th year of ruling the country this week. It's a moment of celebration for the party and a moment of reflection. NPR's Emily Feng talked to two men who experienced firsthand some of the major twists and turns in modern Chinese history and ended up with very different opinions of the Communist Party.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The People's Republic of China, the world's most populous country, was proclaimed a communist state.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: The Chinese Communist Party sought to make China a socialist paradise. It went through a series of turbulent political purges that rocked the young country throughout the 1950s and '60s.
Su Wei remembers one of the most vicious of these periods, the cultural revolution beginning in 1966. He was one of millions of youth exiled to China's countryside during the next decade of ideological struggle that killed thousands. Su Wei did a decade of hard labor on the tropical island of Hainan.
SU WEI: (Through interpreter) We planted rubber trees. Every day, I lugged hundreds of jugs of water. The weight of the jugs pressed against me so much that I'm short today.
FENG: But then reforms under Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping opened up China to the rest of the world. And Deng restarted universities, which had closed during the Cultural Revolution. Everyone including Su Wei rush to take the qualifying exams called the gaokao, making 1977 one of the most competitive year's ever and its top scorers some of the most successful people in China today.
Su Wei aced the literature section and flunked the math. But some well-connected editors and professors who liked his writing pulled strings. The last minute, Su Wei was offered a choice, go to university or join the Communist Party.
SU: (As interpreter) I jumped up and said, I don't want to join the Communist Party then. I want to go to university.
FENG: Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away in southern China, Victor Gao was still in high school in 1977. He convinced authorities to let him take the gaokao despite not having graduated. He remembers very clearly the moment a teacher called him out to tell him he'd been accepted.
VICTOR GAO: It's like a drama. You were caught up in this whirlwind of events.
FENG: Both Gao and Su Wei, class of '77, went onto university. After graduation, in a twist of fate, Gao became an accomplished interpreter, including for Deng Xiaoping, the very man who made it possible for him to attend university. Gao remembers the former Chinese leader this way.
GAO: He was short. But he was full of energy.
FENG: Throughout the 1980s, Gao sat at the elbow of Deng and many other Chinese leaders, whispering Chinese into their ear during key meetings with U.S. presidents.
GAO: My role was a very small one. But I think the meetings themselves really helped China and the United States better understand each other.
FENG: And while Gao was meeting world leaders, Su Wei moved to Beijing, working for the state social sciences academy, which gave him the luxury of a private room. This quickly became a de facto salon for Beijing's young intellectuals and writers in 1987 and '88.
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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Foreign Language).
FENG: Then 1989 came around. Students began occupying Beijing's Tiananmen Square demanding democratic reforms. Su Wei went to the square to represent the state academy's intellectuals. And that put a target on his back when Deng Xiaoping sent troops to clear the square. They are believed to have killed thousands.
SU: (Through interpreter) And I was smuggled to the U.S. through Hong Kong and what is now called Operation Yellowbird The operation saved more than 300. And I was one of them.
FENG: Gao, the interpreter, was studying at Yale Law School in 1989. He was traumatized by the violent crackdown. But he was conflicted. He'd worked intimately with Deng Xiaoping and other leaders who supported the crackdown.
GAO: I knew them all. I felt I understood their aspirations and their strengths and weaknesses. And I was very much deeply immersed - soul-searching about rise and fall of countries and what would happen to China.
FENG: As China's economy flourished in the '90s, Gao went on to be a lawyer, a banker, a markets regulator and, later, general counsel for one of China's biggest state energy firms. And that has given him the unshakable opinion that the Communist Party's cardinal principle, to maintain stability at home and keep peace abroad, is the right one.
GAO: China cannot afford to have another revolution. That will be the end of China. That will be the suffering of the Chinese people.
FENG: That's why he firmly supports a controversial detention effort in China's western region of Xinjiang that has effectively imprisoned at least 1 million Uyghur Muslims and other minorities.
GAO: Extremism and terrorism and separatism are a real scourge in Xinjiang. They should be stamped out.
FENG: Su Wei struggled for years after Tiananmen to find a teaching position in the U.S. but settled at Victor's alma mater, Yale University. He's now a well-regarded Chinese literature professor there. And he has a different view on how China should develop.
SU: (Through interpreter) China's political reform is always one step behind economic reforms. Even now, there are signs of regression.
FENG: Unlike Gao, Su Wei sees the Communist Party's efforts to maintain social control today as a return to the political struggles that led him to planting rubber trees throughout the 1960s.
SU: (Through interpreter) For instance, universities even encourage students to report intel on their professors. This is like going back to the Cultural Revolution.
FENG: But Su Wei is hopeful for China. He's been able to visit China in recent years and thinks the pain he went through, that China is going through will pay off.
SU: (Through interpreter) The struggles that China went through during the Cultural Revolution and the past few decades were not in vain. There are negative aspects of China that I don't appreciate. But I'm sure they will change one day.
FENG: And so both Victor Gao and Su Wei agree that China's future is bright, if for very different reasons. Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOSS OF AURA'S "NEVILLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.