A contemporary history of China (Part II): post-Mao

Introduction

It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice. Deng Xiaoping

In the second of three articles overviewing a recent history of China, I review the era of Deng Xiaoping.

That the successor to Mao Zedong as head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was to be both a pragmatist and a loyal Party official, who had been there right from the start of the CCP’s rule, is telling in terms of China’s modern political economy. Deng Xiaoping launched the era known as ‘opening and reform’, which in the 1980s laid the foundations for what was to become a phenomenal pace and rate of economic growth from 1990 onwards. Deng also oversaw the brutal suppression of China’s democratic revolution. ‘Opening and reform’ meant economic opening and reform, with little or no political concessions; and yet such opening and reform created conditions and spurred aspirations for political change.

The era after Mao’s death marked a dramatic new period for China – one of incredible change. The backdrop to this was the legacy of Mao: the Anti-Rightist Movement that shutdown the Hundred Flowers Campaign, the epic failure, farce and mass death of the Great Leap Forward, and the political terror and annihilation of the Cultural Revolution. The promise to transform a country with one in four of the world’s population into an economic powerhouse, and for the benefit of all, failed spectacularly. Deng Xiaoping represented a turn in the CCP toward a form of economic realism and political idealism: the country’s economy would be reformed and opened up to outside world trade while the political authority of the Party remained absolute.

The Democracy Wall Movement

The first indication of the tension and struggle embedded in China’s new political economy was demonstrated in the Democracy Wall of Beijing that began in the summer of 1978.

As a vent to the ordeal of and anger about the Cultural Revolution, the Democracy Wall Movement of 1978-79 was, literally, a wall for people to publically put up their democratic opposition. The Wall included Huang Xiang’s poem, “The Fire God Symphony”:

Why can one man control the wills of millions of people

Why can one man prescribe life and death everywhere

Why should we bow and worship an idol

Letting blind faith confine our will to live, our thoughts and emotions

[…]

Let man be restored to his dignity

Let life become life once again

Let music and virtue be the soul’s inner essence

Let beauty and nature be man’s once again (Source: http://diogenesii.wordpress.com/tag/huang-xiang/)

The movement was fuelled by ambiguous reports in the Party newspaper, People’s Daily, which implied it had Deng Xiaoping’s support. Deng officially took post in December 1978.

By the end of January 1979, Deng had made plain his ambition to modernise China by making it part of the world economy. He became the first CCP leader to visit the United States. Concurrently, as the Democracy Wall Movement spread to other cities in China, he commissioned its shutdown. Huang Xiang later reflected on the movement’s significance:

We “set fire” on Wangfujing Avenue in Beijing. Myself and my three friends, Li Jiahua, Fang Jiahua, and Mo Jiangang, put up my poem “The Fire God Symphony” in big character posters. This first batch of posters lit a spark for seeking enlightenment and freedom in Communist China. We founded and published the first independent periodical ever, called Enlightenment, and staged a poetic campaign to advocate human rights and freedom of expression. (Source: http://diogenesii.wordpress.com/tag/huang-xiang/)

One Child Policy

The everyday, pervasive level of China’s political economy, i.e. the degree to which it seized control of people’s lives, is best illustrated by the introduction of the One Child Policy in 1979. The One Child Policy was essentially the State regulation of women’s bodies, and the motivation was essentially political economic in that the population needed controlling to minimise social, economic and environmental resource problems.

In crude terms, the policy was a success in curbing population growth. However, it has fuelled a war on women and girls: China’s sex imbalance ratio is extraordinary and alarming, with evidence of female foeticide and infanticide, and the mistreatment and abandonment of girls. In an article by The Economist (2010) titled “The worldwide war on baby girls”, it is noted that by 2020 China will have 30 to 40 million more young men (of 19 or under) than young women, which would be the equivalent of the entire young male population of the USA.

Bedrock of China’s economic growth

The designation of four Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in southern China – Xiamen, Shantou, Shenzhen and Zhuhai – ultimately provided the key to China’s economic success. Within these four SEZs infrastructure was rapidly put in place and capital investment from foreign companies flowed in, with the pull of government financial incentives and cheap and ‘docile’ (i.e., unorganised) labour. In-migration from the vast rural hinterland was driven by the promise of better wages and living conditions. Trade in the 1980s was mostly with Taiwan and Hong Kong. These four SEZs boomed, in particular, Shenzhen. The CCP proceeded to open its coastal areas to 14 more SEZs. In brief, China commenced its export-led economic growth, which, while in the 1980s was modest, paved the way for a staggering pace and rate of growth by the 1990s.

A balancing act

Two things illustrate the spin by the Party of ‘socialist’ ideals and capitalist realism: the Campaign Against Spiritual Pollution and the question of Hong Kong. The unease of some within the CCP with the so-called marriage of socialism and capitalism and with the material-seeking, money-orientated youth of Hong Kong, spurred the 1983 Campaign Against Spiritual Pollution. This was, effectively, a well-publicised clampdown on smuggling, pornography, and prostitution. That said, coming at a time when the SEZs were attracting in foreign investment, and given a consequence of the campaign was to deter much of this investment, the campaign was phased out.

By the time Britain’s post-colonial lease on Hong Kong expired in 1987, Deng had declared “One Country, Two Systems” in order to manage the innate contradictions of its political economy. But appeasing Party hardliners was one thing, the aspirations of students and workers was another.

1989 Tiananmen

The full story of the Tiananmen revolutionary uprising cannot be covered here, suffice to say that it remains the greatest challenge to CCP rule to date. The protests, which started in Beijing and centred on Tiananmen Square, escalated and spread to other cities.

Whilst students led an encampment in Tiananmen Square, it was ultimately the intervention of the working class that made a difference. As Harry Glass notes in a former Workers’ Liberty publication:

At the beginning of the protests in May 1989, students did not generally seek working class support, confining the workers’ headquarters to the far side of the square until the end of the month. But as the students were pulled towards the internal machinations of the ruling party, backing the “reformist” faction within the bureaucracy, the workers struck out on the road to independence. One of the first signs came on 15 May, when 70,000 steelworkers at the Capital steel plant struck in solidarity with the Beijing democracy movement. In fact, 1989 marked the rebirth of the working class as a powerful force in Chinese politics. The Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation began organising on 17 April, before coming out publicly on 18 May. Workers’ federations spread across many major cities, and incorporated steel workers, builders, bus drivers, machinists, railway workers and office staff. A small core of around 150 activists managed to register 20,000 workers in those five weeks, including workers in state-run factories such as Shougang (Capital Iron and Steel) and Yanshan Petrochemicals. They denounced the Communist regime as “this twentieth century Bastille, the last stronghold of Stalinism”. (Source: http://www.workersliberty.org/node/2202)

For those who remember it, the coverage of the Tiananmen Square uprising left an impression of student radicalism – notably, the iconic image of the student standing in front of the tank – yet the legacy of Tiananmen was most deeply felt within the workers’ movement. After the announcement of martial law and the bloodstained massacre (the precise number of which will never be known, but was certainly hundreds, possibly thousands), the student movement declined while the workers’ movement grew.

General article source:

Zeitgeist Films (2007) “China: A Century of Revolution”.

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