China's `lost generation' searches for a niche. As teen-agers during the Cultural Revolution, millions like Zhang Guosheng were swept up in the violent idealism of Mao's Red Guards. Today, they feel betrayed by a China racing toward prosperity.

PALMING the steering wheel, Zhang Guosheng whisks his sedan between an old woman and a night-soil cart with the aplomb of one who has sped through the gray-brick alleyways of Peking for a decade. A company driver, Mr. Zhang moves through the zigzags of the city's huddled ghettos as smoothly as his shadowboxing martial-arts routine at sunrise. He knows all the shortcuts.

Yet, even as he bursts back onto the bright expanse of the capital's avenues, Zhang feels lost. He is one of the millions of Chinese who, as youthful Red Guards, violently overturned society in the radical Cultural Revolution (1966-76), only to be stigmatized as China launched a pragmatic campaign to build its economy in 1978.

During the past decade of economic reform, Zhang has seen communist leaders repudiate the Maoist ideals for which he sacrificed his education and risked his life. He has worked at what he feels is a dead-end job while younger, educated Chinese leapfrogged him for better work and pay.

``I was confused during the Cultural Revolution and I'm confused today,'' he said, speaking on condition that his real name not be used.

Zhang is a member of what is known as China's ``lost generation.'' As China races toward prosperity, he and other erstwhile Red Guards have been nudged into the slow lane by the older Chinese they persecuted and better-trained, younger Chinese. At first abused and now neglected by the Communist Party, the group is a persistent source of social discontent.

Zhang does not want to return to the political purges and turmoil of Maoist extremism. But like other members of his generation, he condemns today's Chinese for pursuing riches instead of the ideal of self-sacrifice that drove him in his youth.

Zhang's ordeal during what Chinese call ``the 10 years of turmoil'' demonstrates how Mao Tse-tung abused the idealism and energy of Chinese youth for his personal political gain. Zhang's experience also shows how, as in revolutions elsewhere, the victimizers became the victims, either by those they had persecuted or by their own guilt. Few families were spared the terror in which an estimated 1 million Chinese were killed and 30 million persecuted, according to former Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang.

Mao rallied Chinese youths in 1966 in an effort to revive his power and redirect the Communist Party onto a radical path. He threw his immense charisma behind the aim of Red Guards to ``turn the world upside down - smash it to pieces, pulverize it, create chaos and make a tremendous mess, the bigger the better.''

Just 16 years old, Zhang answered Mao's call with an exuberant, youthful zeal, plunging into a political cause he did not fully understand. He and other Red Guards raided homes of innocent Chinese who were labeled as enemies of Mao's effort to create a communist Utopia.

In one of many sorties under the direction of the local police or party committee, Zhang and his band ransacked the home of a former mistress to a major in the Kuomintang (Nationalist) Army, searching for a hidden machine gun.

Zhang and his cohorts forced the woman to reveal the weapon by beating her. After digging up the rusted gun from the backyard, they killed the woman by wrapping a wire around her neck and dragging her into the street.

``It was all very adventurous and exciting, because we believed we were doing something good for society,'' Zhang said. ``Mao and other party leaders told us that by getting rid of these `bad elements' in society, we would speed China's progress.''

With the Cultural Revolution growing more and more chaotic, Zhang joined millions of other Red Guards on the road, ``making revolution'' in a dozen cities throughout China in five months.

Like many young rebels who had never been more than a few miles from home, Zhang considers the footloose months of free railway travel the only bright break in the dark decade. The teen-agers were thrilled with a certainty that they were stirring China for achievements as profound as the 1949 revolution.

Still, at the start of his second rebel walkabout, on a train from Peking to Canton in 1968, Zhang realized that the cataclysm would only destroy society.

Red Guards from Peking and Wuhan started an argument that quickly exploded into a rumble. Zhang and his comrades barricaded themselves in one of the carriages. Before crossing the Yellow River, the conductors, also from Wuhan, halted the train and told them either to surrender or be thrown into the river. The Peking radicals refused, repulsed another assault, and at the next stop jumped from the train and found safety with the Army.

Throughout the next several weeks Zhang's band continued to take refuge with the Army, which Mao had mobilized nationwide to halt factional fighting and restore order.

In Canton, they held out in a prison against attacks by local radicals. After a month-long siege, the Army assigned Zhang and his comrades carriages on daily trains to Peking. When the first two trains reached Wuhan, locals pulled many of the Peking Red Guards from the carriage, beat them to death, and hurled their bodies into the Yangtze River. Scheduled to ride the next train through Wuhan, Zhang returned home via Shanghai.

Mao tried to quell the violence by exiling Zhang and an estimated 16 million other Chinese city youths to the countryside, aiming to sober them with peasant hardship. For the next decade Zhang labored on a farm in Inner Mongolia and at a coal mine in Hebei Province. He found relief from the anarchy of the cities in the impoverished countryside, eating flour ground from chaff and potato peels.

After consolidating power in 1978, China's current leadership condoned an outpouring of cathartic censure against the Cultural Revolution. The condemnation hobbled remaining ultra-left extremists in the state or party, ensuring they could not launch a comeback.

The party also tried to rehabilitate many of the former Red Guards by setting up ``spare time'' schools and social programs like matchmaking. But it soon halted efforts to help Mao's former minions, concerned that its credibility would be further eroded if it kept alive public reminders of its past abuses.

``The government has completely neglected my generation,'' said Zhang. ``Only the children of cadres who survived the Cultural Revolution have gotten an education or other benefits.''

Ignoring the former rebels, the state tolerates a constant source of discord. Former Red Guards still living in the countryside have demonstrated in Peking against the party's unwillingness to allow them to return to their city homes.

Although officials declined to discuss the ``lost generation,'' they acknowledged that the group is a frequent cause of conflict. ``Very many people have retained a rebellious outlook from those years and have very quick tempers,'' said Wang Bingkun, a Peking official.

Zhang feels contempt toward society for its betrayal of selflessness and egalitarianism, however warped these ideals were during the Cultural Revolution.

``Some people are doing some very good things for the country today,'' Zhang said. ``But most people are merely working to make more money - they don't care at all about the country.''

The party has failed to institute the political checks that would prevent another period of tyranny and chaos. Still, Zhang believes Chinese gained an acute political skepticism and would reject another call for mass, blind obedience. ``Chinese people are wiser today. All they want is to be left alone to live in peace.''

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