On the changes that took place in China after Deng Xiaoping took power, Ian Johnson wrote in the NY Review of Books: "Reform-era activities began in earnest in 1978 and eventually made China one of the largest world economies and trading partners as well as an emerging regional military power. The Four Modernizations (agriculture, industry, science and technology, and national defense) became the preeminent agenda within the party, state, and society. The well-being of China’s people increased substantially, especially along coastal areas and in urban areas involved in manufacturing for the world market. [Source: Ian Johnson, NY Review of Books, November 22, 2012 |=|]

"Yet, politics, the so-called “fifth modernization,” occurred at too slow a pace for the emerging generation. China’s incipient democracy movement was subdued in 1978-79 at the very time that China’s economic reforms were being launched. As Deng consolidated his control of China, the call for political reform came to the fore again in the mid-1980s, and pro-reform leaders were placed in positions of authority: Zhao Ziyang (1919-2005) was appointed premier, and Hu Yaobang (1915-89) CCP general secretary. Deng himself, satisfied with being the “power behind the throne,” never held a top position. The democracy movement, however, was violently suppressed by the military in the 1989 Tiananmen incident. |=|

"In the years after Tiananmen, conservative reformers led by Deng protégé Jiang Zemin (later to become president of China, chairman of both the state Central Military Commission and party Central Military Commission, and general secretary of the CCP) endured and eventually overcame world criticism. When Deng went into retirement, the rising generation of technocrats ruled China and oversaw its modernization. Political progress gradually occurred. Term limits were placed on political and governmental positions at all levels, succession became orderly and contested elections began to take place at the local level. Tens of thousands of Chinese students went overseas to study; many returned to participate in the building of modern China, some to become millionaires in the new ‘socialist economy with Chinese characteristics.” As a sign of its emerging superpower status, in October 2003 China launched its first “taikonaut” into space on a 22-hour journey. The second space launch, with two taikonauts, took place in October 2005 and involved a 115-hour flight. In the next stage of space exploration, China plans to conduct a space walk in 2007 and a rendezvous docking in orbit between 2009 and 2012. It also plans to launch a moon-orbiting unmanned spacecraft by 2007 and to land an unmanned probe on the moon by 2010." |=|

Perry Anderson wrote in the London Review of Books, “Deng himself, who was aware of his limited economic competence, was rarely the initiator of the domestic changes over which he presided. What possessed him was rather an enthusiasm for science, and a belief that to acquire its fruits China had to emerge from the isolation of Mao’s last years... [Source: Perry Anderson, London Review of Books, February 9, 2012]

Good Websites and Sources on Deng Xiaoping: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; CNN Profile cnn.com ; New York Times Obituary; China Daily Profile chinadaily.com. ; Wikipedia article on Economic Reforms in China Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Special Economic Zones Wikipedia

Deng's Hold on Political Power While He Made Political Reforms

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Zhao Ziyang and Reagan
In Deng Xiaoping initiated a program of modernization and reform of hard-line economic policies soon after he rose to power in 1977. At that he faced great challenges in modernizing an out of date and wasteful government system and responding to demands for increased freedom while maintaining order and keeping a lid on conservatives in his government. [Source: Eleanor Stanford, "Countries and Their Cultures", Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Economic advances and political achievements had strengthened the position of the Deng reformists enough that by February 1980 they were able to call the Fifth Plenum of the Eleventh National Party Congress Central Committee. One major effect of the plenum was the resignation of the members of the "Little Gang of Four" (an allusion to the original Gang of Four, Mao's allies) — Hua's closest collaborators and the backbone of opposition to Deng. Wang Dongxing, Wu De, Ji Dengkui, and Chen Xilian were charged with "grave [but unspecified] errors" in the struggle against the Gang of Four and demoted from the Political Bureau to mere Central Committee membership. In turn, the Central Committee elevated Deng's proteges Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang to the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau and the newly restored party Secretariat. Under the title of secretary general, Hu Yaobang took over day-to-day running of the party. Especially poignant was the posthumous rehabilitation of the late president and one-time successor to Mao, Liu Shaoqi, at the Fifth Plenum. Finally, at the Fifth National People's Congress session in August and September that year, Deng's preeminence in government was consolidated when he gave up his vice premiership and Hua Guofeng resigned as premier in favor of Zhao Ziyang.[Source: The Library of Congress]

According to the Columbia Encyclopedia: “In the early 1980s, China reorganized the structure of the government and the CCP, rehabilitating many people purged in the Cultural Revolution and emphasizing the maintenance of discipline, loyalty, and spiritual purity in the face of increasing international contact. In 1987, following a series of student demonstrations, Hu Yaobang, a reformist who had been named general secretary in 1980, was replaced by Zhao Ziyang, who was in turn replaced as premier by Li Peng. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., Columbia University Press]

Deng and the Conflict of Reform and Maintaining Stability

After Mao, Deng Xiaoping called on his countrymen to “bide their time and hide their strength.” John Minnich wrote in Newsweek: “To prevent another Mao from arising, Deng created a system in which competing interest groups like the Youth League and the so-called “Shanghai Clique”—a group of Central Committee officials promoted under former leader Jiang Zemin —would balance each other. As Deng saw it, this balancing would provide a rapidly growing China what it needed most: Cautious, restrained policymaking. In essence, Deng sought to inject a dose of classical liberalism into Chinese political life. He channeled China’s innate diversity into a complex web of formal and informal constraints on top leaders. He hoped that such internal checks would yield lasting political stability. Under his successors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, it did. Deng’s innovation was as remarkable as it was abnormal in the sweep of Chinese history. [Source: John Minnich, Newsweek, August 20, 2016 ==]

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Deng with Ford and Bush

In December 1978, Deng presided over the Third Plenary session of the Communist Party. In a critical speech to the party’s elite, he boldly called for more trade with the outside world and said he favored market-oriented reforms. These policies would later come to be called socialism with Chinese characteristics. [Source: David Barboza, New York Times, January 1, 2009]

It is one of the most substantive speeches I’ve ever read by a Chinese leader, Robert Lawrence Kuhn, who has published a book about China’s economic reforms, told the New York Times. Point five said the government would allow some to get rich first. This was radical. After decades of isolation and outright hostility to capitalism, China suddenly began loosening state controls over the economy and encouraging its citizens to get rich.

For Deng maintaining stability was a recurrent issue in China. For Deng (who drew lessons from Mao and his “Cultural Revolution”), without a stable external and internal environment, there would be no way for China to concentrate on economic reform and opening up. Hence, when students in some cities took to the streets in 1986-87, he saw this a sign of social instability. Then-party general secretary Hu Yaobang took the blame and stepped down (though Deng personally liked Hu very much). [Source: Wu Zhong Asia Times, April 28, 2010]

In the 1980s departures from Maoism and adoption of Deng-style modernization multiplied. In the later 1980s, a spirit of individualism arose among urban youth.... By the late 1980s a cosmopolitan urban generation’s individualistic thinking culminated in the pro-democracy movement of 1989. Unfortunately, a revival of faux Maoism occurred after June 4, complete with a barrage of Mao quotations and a revival of the Lei Feng myth. However, this was aborted by the collapse of the Soviet Union and Deng Xiaoping’s ensuing decision to promote stock exchanges, make his nan xun (southern tour, 1992), and cancel the leftist surge. [Source: Ross Terrill, The China Beat, February 26, 2010]

Deng, Religion and the Emancipation of Minds

In 1978, the 11th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held its third plenary session in Beijing from December 18 to 22. Deng Xiaoping, who had just made his third and last political comeback, delivered a keynote speech calling on officials and party members to “emancipate minds”. With that slogan, Deng sought to urge officials to break the ideological shackles of Maoist dogmas and the socialist command economy of the previous three decades and change their mindsets to embrace capitalist-style economic reforms.

The meeting endorsed Deng as virtually the top leader of the party though officially he was only one of its “vice chairmen”. It also took up his ideas of reform and opening up of the economy as the party line, marking the party plenum as a milestone in the country's history.

“In 1978, a ban on religious teaching that dated from early in the revolution was lifted, and a few years later the rebuilding of the Gu Temple, and hundreds of others around China, got under way in earnest, aided by donations from people who had kept their faith in secret. No longer the target of punishing political campaigns, Master Deng has other worries: the designs of predatory local officials who see temples like his as cash cows or comfortable digs for their gambling parties. “A couple of months ago, some officials showed up and set up their mah-jongg tables right inside the temple,” he says.” [Source: "The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up" by Liao Yiwu, from book review by Howard W. French in The Nation, August 4, 2008]

They played that gambling game all day. Some ended up losing money. They walked into my room and wanted to get a loan from me. I did “lend” some to them. You know they will never pay back.... The officials are so powerful, and can destroy you at a whim. The chief of the Religious Affairs Bureau shamelessly calls himself the parent of all gods.

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Deng’s Political Reforms

Deng was loyal to the Communist party and a firm believer in the "dictatorship of the proletariat." All major political decision had to be approved by Deng. He insisted that economic reforms could take palace without democracy, freedom, and political liberalizations and that power must remain firmly in the hands of the Communist Party.

Deng feared that democracy might lead to the chaos and instability he endured during the Cultural Revolution. In 1978, he said, "Democracy has to be institutionalized and written into law, so as to make sure that institutions and laws don't change whenever the leadership changes, or whenever the leaders change their views or shift their focus."

In 1983, Deng launched a "spiritual pollution" campaign in which petty criminals were taken off the streets and executed. During the "Democracy Wall" movement in Beijing, Deng ordered the posters and handbills torn down after critiques of the party were displayed. He also made it clear that allusions to a departure from the "socialist road" and use of the word "democracy" would be dealt with harshly.

Despite all this Deng wanted desperately to modernize China and dispense with obsolete Marxist ideology. He declared that the Four Modernization (agriculture, industry, defense and science and technology) would take precedence over class struggle. As part of the policy new universities were opened and students were sent abroad for technical training.

Diplomat Richard Holbrooke wrote in Time, Deng’s “opposition to superstition and ideology, plus his hostility to the Soviet Union, made him seem more liberal than he was. Deng did not believe his country could be governed democratically—at least not in this century." Henry Kissinger wrote in Newsweek that a recurrent theme in Deng's conversations "was the yearning for political stability and the fear that, once lost, it might not be regained for decades. And if stability was lost, he argued, the dream of a better life for the Chinese people and for a strong China would vanish as well."

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Deng’s Reform and Opening on Communist Party Terms

In a review of "Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China" by Ezra F. Vogel. Fang Lizhi wrote in the New York Review of Books, “Vogel sees Deng’s “mission” as one of making China “rich and strong,” but has little to say about the internal structure of the rich and strong country that Deng may have had in mind. Was it something that resembles the US? England? Japan? Singapore? Was it a whole new Chinese model? Vogel writes that “In 1978, Deng did not have a clear blueprint about how to bring wealth to the people and power to the country.” This sentence should be taken in halves. The first part is quite right. As late as the mid-1980s, it was hard to see that Deng was working from any blueprint. But the crucial question lurking here is exactly the one to which the second half of Vogel’s sentence assumes an answer: that Deng’s ultimate concerns were wealth for “the people” and power for “the country.” Many Chinese at the time—like Vogel now—naturally wanted to believe this, or at least to assume it. But the facts have turned out to be something else. [Source: Fang Lizhi, New York Review of Books, November 10, 2011]

"Deng’s “wealth and power blueprint” began to emerge at the 13th Communist Party Congress in 1987. Vogel devotes four pages to this meeting but misses its crucial decision, which was the arcanely named policy of “one center and two basic points.” The “center” was economic growth and the “two points” were “reform and opening” and the “Four Basic Principles.”

"The policies on economic growth and on “reform and opening,” which reversed the Mao-era policies of “class struggle,” were seen as progressive and were welcomed by people both inside and outside China. The rub was in Deng’s insistence on the “Four Basic Principles,” namely (1) the socialist road, (2) the dictatorship of the proletariat, (3) the leadership of the Communist Party, and (4) Marxism-Leninism-Mao-Zedong-Thought. Of these, only the third really mattered; Deng’s “transformation” (Vogel’s term) had already left the others obsolete.* Basic Principle Three was the key to understanding what kind of “rich and powerful China” Deng had in mind. It also put limits on what could be meant by “reform” and “opening.”

"Vogel notes, correctly, that one of the stylish catchwords within the “opening” policy has been jiegui, literally “connecting tracks” with the outside world. But this track-connecting has been overwhelmingly in commerce and exports. Very few tracks have been connected with newspapers and television from the West, Taiwan, or Hong Kong. Such tracks are still blocked in ways that are not much different, in truth, from the ways they were blocked during the Mao era. The Internet is the one area in which important new sources of information have appeared, but these have come despite, not because of, government policy. The earliest government efforts to constrict China’s Internet were put in place while Deng Xiaoping was still in charge."

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Reforms and Lack of Reforms Under Deng

Fang Lizhi wrote in the New York Review of Books: "What about “reform,” that other key word in Deng’s policy” Many observers have noted that “no reform of the political system” has been an unbending principle from the Deng era to the present. The persistence of Party dictatorship, in turn, colors all the other aspects of what Deng called “reform.” [Source: Fang Lizhi, New York Review of Books, November 10, 2011, in a review of "Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China" by Ezra F. Vogel]

"Education. One of the earliest reforms in the Deng Xiaoping era was the reopening of China’s universities, which had been closed during Mao’s Cultural Revolution; the World Bank’s first loan to Deng’s China, as Vogel explains, was to support various aspects of higher education. For these reasons some people came to see Deng as “pro-education” generally, but this was a misconception. Deng saw education as a tool bag for his kind of modernization, not a broad social good. He knew that he needed economic and technical expertise to go together with China’s supply of cheap labor. But basic education for children was quite another story.

"Expansion of personal freedoms. The Deng years were vastly different from the late Mao era in many ways. People who had been terribly persecuted under Mao got relief after he died, and personal space in daily life expanded considerably. In science, where I worked, ideological rigidities relaxed and scientists no longer had to teach from Karl Marx’s Notes on Mathematics, a little book published in the USSR and out of date even by nineteenth-century standards. Blue-for-everyone clothing began to disappear and some variety of colors and styles in dress began to appear. Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe and Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don were no longer banned books. It was even occasionally possible (such as at the Democracy Wall in 1979) to criticize the government in public.

"But why did Deng steer away from Mao’s form of dictatorship— From human sympathy for the suffering Chinese people? Or in a practical effort to keep his Party on top of a society that was waking up and demanding ever more change? I had an interesting vantage point from which to judge this question, because many of the new freedoms first appeared on university campuses like the one where I was working. Every advance that I could see was something that students and teachers fought for, not something that authorities decided to grant from above. Deng Xiaoping’s role, when he played one, was to curb the spread of freedoms. His crackdown on the Democracy Wall in 1979 clarified his political bottom line: You may not, even slightly, infringe on my authority. His 1983 campaign to “eliminate spiritual pollution” reached even to strictures on the ways female students dressed."

"Socialist Democracy"

China in 1982

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Democracy Movement of 1989 was a sharp wake-up call for the Communist Party leadership. They had never expected the incident to get so seriously out of hand. One of the lessons that the Party leadership drew from the events of that spring was that they needed to do far more to teach the people, and particularly the young people, about patriotism and loyalty to the Party and the government. To begin with, they needed to refute the ideas about democracy that the students, workers, and other protestors had been discussing. The editorial below was published in the Party newspaper, People’s Daily, in March 1990, as a part of that project of education (or indoctrination). [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

A March 1990 People’s Daily article entitled “Bourgeois and Socialist Democracies Compared” read: The socialist democracy means the democratic rights enjoyed by the broad masses of the workers, peasants, intellectuals, and all the people who love their socialist motherland. The nature of the socialist democracy is that people act as the masters of their country. The socialist state system is the state system under which laborers and citizens are allowed to manage the state, administer the society, and act as the masters of their country in the history of mankind for the first time. It is because of this reason that the socialist country is the most advanced democratic country in the history of mankind. “The proletarian democracy is a million times more democratic than any types of bourgeois democracy.” (Selected Works of Lenin Volume 3, page 634). [Source: “Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook”, edited by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, 2nd ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 501-503]

“During the period when turmoil and the counterrevolutionary rebellion broke out in Beijing, a handful of people who stubbornly adhered to the stand of bourgeois liberalization flaunted the banner of “Striving for Democracy” in an attempt to confuse and poison people’s minds. These people denounce our country as a despotic state in which there is no democracy to speak of. This is an out.and.out distortion of the realities in our country. What is true is that since the founding of the New.China, the CPC and the People’s Government have made unremitting efforts to build the socialist democracy in China. Although China’s socialist democratic system is still far from perfect, China has after all established a comprehensive democratic system under which people can participate in the administration and management of the state.

Deng, Tiananmen Square and Tibet

Tiananmen Square in 1988

Deng ordered the massacre of students at Tiananmen Square and the clampdown on dissidents after the massacre. After Tiananmen Square, Schell wrote, "Deng's reputation as a sage of reform seemed damaged beyond repair. His extraordinary balancing act seemed to have come to an ignominious crash landing."

Deng was also behind efforts to suppress minorities in Tibet and western China. His government cracked down hard on pro-independence supporters in Tibet after protests in 1987. Martial law lasted for about two years. Each time the Tibetans revolted there were dealt a humiliating defeat. Chinese security forces were able to easily crush any Tibetan uprising.


Image Sources: Chinese government (China.org) and Wikicommons

Text Sources:Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei\=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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