The First Wave of Reform, 1979-84

The First Wave of Reform, 1979-84

In the process of introducing reforms, China's leaders for the most part have acted cautiously and introduced new programs incrementally. In the period of the Four Modernizations, they began a broad search of foreign sources for ideas to introduce and test in the Chinese environment. Their pragmatic approach entailed following the progress of newly introduced concepts closely in order to make any necessary mid-course corrections or deletions. Maintaining the momentum of the reform program required the leaders to interact constantly to meet the challenges, failures, and setbacks inherent in their experiment.

The major changes introduced by key reforms inevitably provoked tensions in the political system. Strains developed between those who would not benefit or could not adjust to the new conditions and those who saw the new opportunities afforded. The resulting pressures on the system required constant attention of and mediation by the top party leaders. The goals, contents, and progress of the reform program reportedly were reviewed and discussed regularly at the highest-level party meetings. Leaders on the Political Bureau Standing Committee strove for consensus on the contents of the reform program and its agenda and participated in an ongoing process of bargaining to reconcile different policy orientations and institutional interests. The competing interests that emerged throughout the country when a new wave of reform was introduced appeared to have spokesmen or advocates in the highest party circles. The issues that emerged were debated in authoritative party meetings with the aim of arriving at a consensus and preserving harmony on the reform agenda. If this became impossible, personnel changes tended to follow, as was the case when Hu Yaobang apparently broke the consensus, moving ahead of what the cautious and stability-minded leadership could accept as a safe and reasonable course.

In this way China, under Deng Xiaoping's leadership, appeared to follow the tenets of democratic centralism. Policies that originated at the authoritative party center were tested and evaluated in practice, and reports of their results, including problems and setbacks, were then channeled back to the system's center for debate. In the 1980s it became something of a leadership art to keep the reform program going, balance the tensions it provoked, and maintain the political system intact. Seen in this context, a key question became whether or not political leaders other than Deng Xiaoping would have the prestige and political skill needed to direct and preserve this delicate balance, especially after Deng passed from the scene.

The Opening Up Policy and Reform in the Countryside

The first reforms to affect China's economy were instituted between 1979 and 1984. The programs were systemic economic reforms aimed at revising China's foreign economic relations and refocusing the country's agricultural system. The desire to purchase foreign equipment and technology needed for China's modernization led to a policy of opening up to the outside world that would earn foreign exchange through tourism, exports, and arms sales. The opening up policy included sending large numbers of students abroad to acquire special training and needed skills. The effect was to make China more dependent on major sectors of the world economy and reverse the Maoist commitment to the ideal of self-reliance. Not everyone was satisfied with this radical departure. The conservative reformers were especially apprehensive about the corrupting cultural and ideological influences that they believed accompanied foreign exposure and imports.

In China's rural areas, the economic reform program decollectivized agriculture through a contract responsibility system based on individual households. The people's communes established under Mao were largely replaced with a system of family-based farming. The rural reforms successfully increased productivity, the amount of available arable land, and peasant per capita income. All of these were major reform achievements. Their success stimulated substantial support in the countryside for the expansion and deepening of the reform agenda.

While the opening up policy and rural reform produced significant benefits to the Chinese economy and won enthusiastic support for the Deng reformers, they also generated substantial problems and brought political opposition from conservative leaders. The Maoist ideal of self-reliance still had proponents among the leadership in the 1980s, and many were openly critical of the expanding foreign influences, especially in such areas as the special economic zones. In rural areas, economic reform led to inequalities among economic regions and appeared in some instances to produce a new, potentially exploitative class of rich peasants. The official press contained accounts of peasants who carried the profit motive far beyond the intent of the reform program, engaging in smuggling, embezzlement, and blatant displays of newly acquired wealth. Thus, on the one hand, top leaders fully supporting the reform agenda could show major successes as they promoted further reform. On the other hand, those more concerned with ideological continuity and social stability could identify problems and areas of risk. The differing perceptions and responses of these reformist and conservative groups produced considerable tension in the political system.

Rectification and Reform

These results of the opening up policy and rural reform programs had important political repercussions at the national level. The question of borrowing from the West has been debated vigorously since the early nineteenth century. The concern has always been the impact of Western social, political, and cultural traditions, sometimes referred to derisively as the "flies and insects" that blow in along with culturally neutral scientific and technical information. This concern was especially prevalent among conservatives in the highest leadership circles and extended to the possibly corrosive effect of Western traditions on the party's Marxist-Leninist ideological foundation. To meet this challenge, in October 1983 the party launched a national program to improve "party style," organization, and ideology.

According to Chen Yun, a leading conservative and major figure in party rectification, the question of party style was crucial for the organization's very survival, especially because of the party's tarnished image and the perceived crisis of confidence and loss of prestige during the Cultural Revolution period. Improving party style required that organizational norms be restored, which entailed ridding the party of factionalism. It also demanded that measures be taken to counter corruption and the exercise of privilege. These frequently had taken the form of abuses by cadres who used personal relations and "back-door" benefits to further their own interests. Finally, improved party style required that political discipline be enforced in implementing party programs.

These goals were accomplished over the next three years, accompanied by thorough ideological education. The Second Plenum of the Twelfth Central Committee (October 11-12, 1983) affirmed that the policy of opening up to the outside world was entirely correct but condemned the "corrosive influence of decadent bourgeois ideology" that accompanied it and the "remnant feudal ideas" still pervasive within the party system, which required thorough rectification. In effect, linking the attempt to "clear away cultural contamination" with improving party style meant rejecting both the radical left, or those who still carried the taint of associations with the Cultural Revolution, and those on the right, who were considered by some party leaders to have become too involved in the trappings of Western ideas and practices.

At the same time that the party was attempting to discipline its own ranks, a drive was initiated within Chinese society to crack down on crime. Beginning in August 1983, the drive focused on the increase in serious crimes against social order: murder, robbery, burglary, rape, and arson. Explanations for the crime wave included the breakdown of law and order that had begun in the Cultural Revolution period and corrupting influences that had slipped in with the opening up policy.

A campaign against "spiritual pollution" was initiated by a speech given at the Second Plenum by Deng Xiaoping. The campaign targeted "decadent, moribund ideas of the bourgeoisie" that questioned the suitability of the socialist system or the legitimacy of the party's leading role. It also sought to establish a basis for ideological continuity between the emerging younger generation and the older, civil-war-era veterans. Conservative Political Bureau members attempted to use the campaign to rectify what they considered decadent behavior and corrosive liberal thought. Following this example, some lower-level party cadres began to exhibit behavior similar to that of the mass campaigns of the Cultural Revolution. Young men and women with long hair or Western-style clothing were subjected to ridicule and abuse. Peasants who had prospered were accused of selfishness; in response, some ceased to participate in rural reform. Intellectuals were again under suspicion, and party and government cadres adopted a "wait-and-see" attitude to avoid making political errors.

To avert potential instability and stagnation of the reform program, the authorities began to place limits on the spiritual pollution campaign: it was not to be pursued in the countryside, it was not to impede scientific research aimed at promoting modernization, and, most important, it was not to be implemented in the mass-campaign style of the Cultural Revolution.

By the spring of 1984 the full-scale media treatment of spiritual pollution had subsided, indicating that party leaders were able to confront the problems and build a consensus on how to contain the excesses and return to the reform program. In May, in a bow to the conservatives, Zhao Ziyang reported that although mistakes had been made in implementing the spiritual pollution campaign, the issue of spiritual pollution remained on the party agenda. The reform leadership thus eased the tensions within the system by acknowledging that reactions to the reform program would occur and by checking any obstructions, disruptions, or violence that emerged. This essentially conciliatory approach was necessary at least until opponents could be removed or reformed through a series of new appointments or through the continuing party rectification program.

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