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Post-Mao China

Page history last edited by Bob Andrian 9 years, 5 months ago

Post-Mao China: Deng Xiaoping the Revolutionary


Ever the reform-minded pragmatist versus the utopian dreamer, Deng Xiaoping as China's paramount leader from 1978-1997 was determined to "set [the Chinese] people free to improve their lot as they saw fit rather than force them to conform to some grandiose vision of his own." (MacFarquhar, "The Demolition Man," NYReview of Books, 3/27/97) As we indicated at the end of our last class, Deng's economic reforms were immensely successful in growing the economy, making many Chinese rich, and propelling the country forward to become the world economic giant it is today (taking a "great leap forward" ahead of Japan).


As China has modernized over the last three decades, first under Deng's leadership, then under his technocratic successors, Jiang Zemin (1997-2005), and present leader, Hu Jintao (2005-2013), it has essentially come to abandon Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideology. Huge numbers of successful Chinese entrepreneurs, for example, belong to the Communist Party. "Maoist utopianism, egalitarianism and collectivism" have been replaced by 21st century "materialism, self-enrichment and competitiveness." (Fairbank & Goldman, 438)


From left to right: Hu Jintao, Jiang Zemin, Deng Xiaoping



The idea that getting rich is glorious has led to rising expectations for all Chinese. Rapid economic development has certainly raised the standard of living but as with all market economies, gaps between the "haves" and the "have-nots" have arisen, notably between state and private workers, city dwellers and those in the countryside, (in education as well), coastal (where "Special Economic Zones," so-called "SEZ's" had been created) and inland regions, migrant and established workers, and female and male literacy. In the first decade of the new millennium, complaints from ordinary people about various inequalities have resulted in demonstrations against


widespread corruption, official abuses of power, burdensome local taxes, demolition of housing for development of modern infrastructure, layoffs at failing state-owned enterprises, unpaid health care, pensions, and wages, environmental pollution of the air and water caused by unregulated industrialization, and confiscation of land without adequate compensation. (Fairbank & Goldman, 438)


The incomparable social safety net, the "iron rice bowl" as it was called in Mao's China, no longer existed to rescue those in despair, especially rural women and the elderly. Data indicates that in 1997, China had the highest female suicide rate in the world. (Ibid, 439)  (Suicide rates for rural women are still very high today.)


Though many believe that China's economic liberalization begun under Deng Xiaoping was not accompanied by any political liberalization, that view is not entirely true. There were indeed some political reforms that Deng initiated and that have continued to the present. Most prominently in Deng's conception of a "socialist democracy," there would be a distinct lack of concentration of power in one leader's hands so as to eliminate any chances of a personality cult forming. While the CCP continued to determine public policy, the National Peoples' Congress became more assertive in challenging Party goals. The principle of constitutionalism was not really invoked; despite the absences of any checks and balances however, the state bureaucracy was to function more fairly. Even the exam system returned to help ensure that merit would replace political loyalty in the civil service.


The devolution of power also meant that at least at the village level, local elections would be free and open to all candidates. Citizens would decide who would lead them. Deng imagined that such local autonomy would paradoxically strengthen central stability. But without a separate independent judiciary and without any regulations on local officials, corruption became endemic in the system as evidenced not only by the number of lawsuits against such officials but also by how few were settled in favor of the plaintiffs.


Dissenters were to be treated more moderately by the Party; for example, in the 1980s two prominent advocates for more transparency and a freer press, the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, and the investigative journalist, Liu Binyan were stripped of their membership in the Party but not imprisoned or sent to a labor camp. (They had suffered mightily doing the Cultural Revolution, however.) It would be rampant corruption within the Party (which Liu investigated and wrote about as a People's Daily reporter) along with high inflation, and the death of Party member, Hu Yaobang, a political reformer in the eyes of Chinese students, that catalyzed the massive demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989.


(See an aerial view of the square below. Tiananmen Gate is at top, Mao's mausoleum near bottom center, Museum of History and Revolution at right, and Great Hall of the People on left. The square itself is roughly 90-100 acres. One acre is about the size of an American football field, excluding end zones, so the image below might not completely convey the gargantuan size of the square.)




Though the university students in Beijing were not advocating (at least initially) the overthrow of the Party-state, and though they had a Politburo "ally" in Zhao Ziyang (who was later sacked for supporting student demands for increased democracy in the form of freedom of assembly, debate, and press), it was clear in Deng Xiaoping's mind that such protests (a million people a day---students, teachers, workers, shopkeepers, etc.---at times in Tiananmen Square) were a threat to China's stability. Deng feared chaos; characteristically, given all that he and the "Old Guard" in the Party had been through dating back to the Long March, he did not fear "spilling blood" and any "international reaction" to what steps the Party might take to quell the protests. To Deng, the student idealism and behavior was potentially similar to that of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. (Kristof and WuDunn. China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power. (New York: Vintage Books, 1995, 79) 


Not lost on Deng as well was the instability and consequential threat to Communist power in Eastern Europe and Russia. There would be no Polish Solidarity movement in China. (Only a few months later, of course, the Berlin Wall would fall, and so would the dominoes in the region.) Thus, Deng authorized the publication of an editorial in the People's Daily newspaper on April 26 calling the student protest a conspiracy to "negate the socialist system." "Comrades of the whole party and people of the whole nation," the editorial proclaimed, "must see clearly that China will be in agony if this turmoil [read: counterrevolutionary rebellion] is not ended." (Kristof, 80)


When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in mid-May, the students warmed to a leader who in their eyes was trying to humanize the system in the USSR by implementing his policies of perestroika and glasnost (which did help to bring the fall of communism in Russia and increase nationalism in the bordering republics). Their and others' protests, including a student hunger strike, became emboldened, 


Some workers paraded with a huge painting of the empress dowager, the last real ruler of the Qing dynasty, except that Deng's face was painted where hers should have been. A group of prominent intellectuals circulated an open declaration that stated, "The Qing dynasty has already been extinct for seventy-six years. Yet China still has an emperor without a crown, an aged, fatuous dictator." (Ibid, 84) 


The radicalization of the Tiananmen movement served to marginalize whatever sense of moderation there might be in the Party's highest echelon. By the same token, the Party hard-liners had managed to radicalize students', workers', and intellectuals' demands. Not that there was ever going to be one, but a compromise was out of the question by the time Gorbachev left Beijing.


On May 19 martial law was declared and 200,000 PLA troops, mostly 18 year-old peasants, were deployed around the Square in Beijing. On the evening of June 3, the army was told to load their weapons and occupy Tiananmen Square, ready to fire on the "hoodlums." And fire they did, indiscriminately, not in the square itself but on the streets surrounding it, killing an estimated 400-800 of their fellow Chinese. (Ibid, 90) Incredulous, hysterical, and angry Chinese who witnessed the horrific display exhorted foreign journalists to "tell the world" about the massacre that was unfolding. (It would be hard to imagine the Chinese themselves would be able to inform the world given the impending government crackdown and search for all those who had participated in fomenting the turmoil.) The Party today continues to call the Tiananmen movement "counterrevolutionary," but most Chinese recall it at the very least as "the June 4 incident" or "liu si" (6.4).



Perhaps the best analysis of the Tiananmen tragedy can be found on the website, The Gate of Heavenly Peace. The site is also the same name of the documentary film (where you can view excerpts), which does a superb job examining the events leading up to and after 6.4 while placing those events in historical context.


Yale University China scholar, Jonathan Spence, has identified four important strands of thought in Chinese history that can contribute to an understanding of what happened during the spring of 1989. 


  • the tradition of Chinese intellectuals remonstrating (a good Confucian term) against the lack of virtue in the state, whether such absence of morality, often illustrated by stark social and economic inequalities, was demonstrated by an emperor, the warlords, the Guomindang, or the Chinese Communist party during the ongoing revolution


  • the tradition of Chinese students protesting, beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, rooted in an anti-Japanese nationalism, but also influenced by their Western education, the rise of Chinese colleges, and the New Culture movement. There are indeed some similarities between the student led May 4th movement of 1919 (5.4) and the Tiananmen movement of June 4, 1989 (6.4) There are some differences as well. The former was looking for a stronger state and the latter a weaker one.


  • the power of outside influences, particularly Western science and culture in the form of books, school teachings, schools for women, all the way up to the internet and other social media today. These influences illustrate how difficult it is to take in "material" culture (science and technology, industry and finance) and keep out "non-material" culture (democratic ideas, values, religious pluralism, etc.)


  • the lack of a tradition of democracy in Chinese history, notably the absence of a loyal opposition to authoritarian rule. When things were going well for those in power, no criticism was needed; when things were going bad, no criticism was tolerated. By holding the threat of instability and chaos over the population due to civil wars, foreign imperialism, and internal protests (like Tiananmen in 1989), the government could invoke the "wu" (and not the "wen") in the form of "Emergency Law" (not unlike their contemporary Arab counterparts). Any democratic rights (freedom of assembly, debate) as specified in the Chinese constitution would never be permitted. (Spence. Cries for Democracy: The 1989 Chinese Democracy Movement. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), xi-xvi)


New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof, an eyewitness to the Tiananmen tragedy, wrote a few years later, 


Those killings may have marked the beginning of the last chapter of Communist rule in China. Students are revered in China, for they embody education and responsibility, and the one certain rule in Chinese history is that no one can kill them with impunity. Not even a red emperor. (Ibid, 91) 


If Kristof is correct, then the "last chapter" is proving to be a long, as yet to be completed, read. As long as the economy continues to grow, then Deng Xiaoping's deep-rooted faith in the existing political system continues to be validated. Deng always believed that "you could travel down the information superhighway in the political equivalent of a Model T." (Marfarquhar, "The Demolition Man") Given the fall of communism all over the world, the lasting power of the CCP is rather impressive and at the same time incongruent especially given how deep its spiritual vacuum really is. After all those years of vilifying Confucianism as an ideology, what were Chinese supposed to think when Jiang Zemin visited the celebration of Confucius's birth? And, even though it has been very recently removed, what to make of the enormous bronze statue of Confucius that sat staring at Mao in Tiananmen Square? For that matter, what to fathom of its removal?


These questions beg the larger one; namely, what has been China's ideological glue in the post-Mao period? (It is the same question the writer Lu Xun was posing for China in vacuum left by the fall of Imperial China in 1912.) Historian Merle Goldman argues that,


Whereas the Confucian bureaucracy held China together through most of its premodern history with a common belief and value system, and [whereas] indoctrinated party cadres, reinforced by a unified ideology, held the country together during most of the Mao period until Mao created class warfare during the Cultural Revolution by mobilizing groups against one another, there is no such ideology or value system in the post-Mao period to unite China's huge population. In 2005, Hu Jintao launched a nationwide campaign to promote a "harmonious society," stressing the traditional Confucian values of moderation, benevolence, and balance,* in an apparent effort to counter the sharpening social tensions caused by the economic reforms. But it appeared to have little impact on the growing protests spreading throughout the country. (Fairbank & Goldman, 468) *This was the same Hu Jintao who was instrumental in putting down Tibetan uprisings in the late 1980s.


Nonetheless, we should not dismiss the idea of a Confucian revival to develop a kind of communitarianism in Chinese society and perhaps form the basis of political reform. Filial piety and group responsibility (from the government's perspective, a kind of social welfare to improve social and economic justice) are back in vogue. Courses on Confucian thought are very popular at universities. The Chinese intellectual, Yu Dan, has written a self-help book on the Analects of Confucius, which has sold over ten million copies. Executive coaches in China use a "blend of Confucian values and Western corporate methods." There are Confucius Institute's all over the world (including one in Boston) teaching about Chinese language and culture. Could the Chinese Communist Party morph into the Chinese Confucian Party at some point in the future? (Daniel Bell. China's New Confucianism. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 11-12)


One might also assert that a nascent form of Chinese nationalism has emerged in the last decade, some of it rooted in the country's remarkable ascent as an economic superpower along Chinese lines, not mimicking the West (indeed, perhaps more following the "Asian" model of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea), some in its fervent (perhaps even chauvinistic) anti-Japanese sentiment, (the government did tolerate anti-Japanese protests for World War II atrocities against the Chinese even after Japanese apologies, though the CCP has not exactly come around to an honest appraisal of its own history), and some of it in a kind of national pride as host of the Beijing Olympics (not long after the government had violently put down unrest in the Tibetan "autonomous" region).


Regardless of the "glue," Goldman insists that as China entered the 21st century, its population "enjoyed more personal, artistic, academic, cultural, professional, economic, and individual freedom than at any time during the Mao period." (Ibid, 448). Religious pluralism is commonplace, but as Chinese Catholics well know, the Party is the "Pope." So-called house churches usually are allowed to worship in private, but lately such state tolerance seems to have its limits. While Deng's economic decentralization has probably succeeded in weakening the Party-state, those Chinese who drift into the political arena and who especially advocate political organization and any kind of systemic change, are bound to be suppressed, even as the Internet might move faster than the government's surveillance of it, or might not. Recent events would lend credence to this assertion.



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