China Since 1978 — History
1949–1978 Historical Background
The CPC came about after “a century or so of turbulence, civil war, and foreign occupation.” The CPC succeeded in redistributing hoarded wealth, improving the status of women and minorities, but not without violence especially surrounding land reform. It did so with the support of the Soviet Union and the “implacable opposition” of the US and its allies.
Mao was fixated on “changing the nature of the Chinese people altogether” to make them more cooperative, less individualistic. “Serve the People.” To this end he spearheaded the Great Leap Forward, and the People’s Communes, which were “disastrous failures” and led to an economic downturn and a famine so severe life expectancy actually declined in 1961.
The Cultural Revolution was meant to be a revolution in the superstructure of Chinese society for a more “proletarian culture.” Most party members saw it as unnecessary and even harmful. This Revolution was to be carried out by the Red Guards, Mao’s young followers. Lin Biao pushed a sort of personality cult for Mao publishing what is now known as the Little Red Book.
Religions and traditional art were suppressed, even destroyed. Deng Xiaoping was designated as a revisionist and purged. The end result was a greater concentration of power in Mao and an administration more in line with his policies, but a more fragile political order.
Mao’s death in 1976 brought about conflicting emotions: mourning, relief, and apprehension.
Hua Guofeng took power after some struggle. He is most known for “The Smashing of the Gang of Four.” who he said took the righteous ideas of Chairman Mao too far. The Cultural Revolution was over. The decline of the influence of the Gang of Four meant an increase in support for Deng Xiaoping who was restored to his posts in 1977.
Despite the chaos and failures under the leadership of the CPC the standard of living was “considerably higher in 1978 than it had been in 1949.” (not a particularly high bar.) Most of the huge population still lived in poverty.
In late 1978 the market socialist reforms of Deng Xiaoping were confirmed. Economic and social freedoms increased, religions were tolerated, arts blossomed, the legal system was in the process of being revived, the economy boomed, and Maoist propaganda was largely discarded.
The reforms also brought inflation, crime, corruption, and a decline in enthusiasm for socialism among some of the intelligentsia. Superstitions, patriarchal domination, and the “ill treatment of mothers failing to bear sons” also returned.
While The Gang of Four and the New York Times agree that Deng was a Capitalist, Deng was “at all times absolutely insistent that China should remain socialist.”
“Deng’s brand of reformed Marxism-Leninism with modernisation as its core is called socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
This brand of socialism was never envisioned as a threat to the CPC. Discard the Mass Line of Mao’s era but nothing like western democracy.
Deng’s “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” was to follow the Four Cardinal Principals
Four Cardinal Principles:
- The principle of upholding the socialist path
- The principle of upholding the people’s democratic dictatorship
- The principle of upholding the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC)
- The principle of upholding Mao Zedong Thought and Marxism–Leninism.
They seem a bit squishy and abstract, but if an American politician said this, they would probably be considered a socialist.
Deng faced a political conflict in that he had to reverse many practices of Mao while maintaining Mao’s reputation as the founder of the PRC. This issue was made more difficult given Deng was purged twice under Mao’s leadership and smeared as a revisionist. Deng’s basic position was that Mao had made mistakes in his tenure, but had overall done more good for the country than bad. Mao’s “merits are primary and his errors secondary.”
Deng wasn’t born in the absolute poverty so common in China in 1904, but he was not wealthy either. He participated in the Chinese Communist Revolution including The Long March which was hardly the path of least resistance. Mackerras doesn’t seem to set much store in the idea that he was a secret capitalist agent hoodwinking the gullible Communist party into accepting capitalism with socialist rhetoric.
The West saw the reforms as a road to capitalism. Chinese leadership at the time argued with some legitimacy that SWCC was in fact more in line with Marxism Leninism than Mao’s regime. Concessions were being made to attract foreign investment which was needed to modernize quickly. It was a compromised/pragmatic approach to a Maoist objective. Still the reforms had a sort of inertia that showed some potential for the unraveling of Socialism in China.
1984–1989 Reform Problems
Reform as a concept was popular, but the questions of how fast and how much spurred fierce debate. Radical reformers thought the downsides of fast reform were not a threat to the CPC.
Conservatives preferred slow cautious reform to maintain socialism.
“Hovering over these factions was the architect of reform, Deng Xiaoping. Nobody hated the Cultural Revolution more than he; few had suffered more from it. But correspondingly he had devoted his entire life to the CCP and invested more effort and influence than any other living person in the establishment and development of the PRC. It was he who had put the radical reformers, Hu and Zhao, into their positions of power. But at the same time he reserved the right of veto over actions or decisions he saw as going too far or too fast along the road of reform. In particular, he was at all times much more enthusiastic about reform in the economic sphere than in the political one, and was never convinced that the two needed to be in harmony with each other. His ability to side with the conservative wing of the CCP in political matters but with the radical reformers in the economic sphere was probably a major reason why his influence remained so strong.”
Bourgeois liberalization or negating SWCC in favor of capitalism was seen as “in total contradiction to the people’s interests and to the historical trend.” Marxism should not be viewed as a “rigid dogma” nor as an outmoded or outdated theory.
Student Demonstrations: Many people did in fact seek to negate Marxism entirely in favor of more appealing Western ideals. China had seen much progress but places like Japan and South Korea were much richer and were viewed as desirable by some students and intelligentsia. Many were not interested in historical contexts and economic stages of development that separated China from wealthier nations.
This period also saw severe issues regarding inflation including confusion on price reform and associated panic buying which inevitably contributed to unrest.
Due to rising disturbances in Tibet in the late 1980s, the government established a research center designed to improve the conditions of the minority nationalities which revealed “appalling living standards… although Tibet was economically a great deal better off than it had been under the dalai lamas it was still notable for being one of China’s poorer regions.”
Ethnic inequality in the region was very significant both socially and economically.
The fading memory of precommunist China combined with the increased openness to the outside world led to an increased awareness of the backwardness of the Chinese State.
“Forgetting the desperate conditions from which the CCP had originally extracted the Chinese people, many even began to blame the revolution itself for China’s backwardness and poverty.”
1989–1992 Crisis to Recovery
Student Demonstrations were gaining momentum. (Not all participants were students of course.) Protests were met with “an unprecedented degree of liberalism and toleration of dissent, followed by its direct antithesis when the crackdown occurred.”
Any spontaneous uprising is bound to have diverse, even contradictory goals. The composition and goals of the demonstrators varied somewhat over the months of demonstrations, but “students were generally supportive of reform.” They took issue with corruption associated with it which allowed government officials to enrich themselves at the expense of others, jobs being doled out according to connection as opposed to merit, and economic issues. Moonlighting, or as we would call it, “getting your side hustle on,” became commonplace even for professionals. Students wanted reforms to take place faster, and not be as limited to the economic sphere. Demonstrations had popular support among the Beijing public. Dialogue between the government and the demonstrations was unproductive.
In May 1989 thousands occupied Tiananmen Square, some even going on hunger strike.
Gorbachev’s visit in 1989 brought Western Media which provided enthusiastic support and round the clock publicity. Demonstrators who spoke English obviously received the most coverage.
After Gorbachev left Martial Law was declared and the PLA was ordered to clear the square. Students set up barricades and refused to leave. As days passed some students left, but others joined including people from elsewhere.
As weeks passed Chinese leadership became suspicious that the demonstrations were being taken advantage of by outside groups that sought the overthrow of the CPC. Late June 3rd troops were ordered to clear the square again and to “retaliate when they met with violence.” The violence which took place, not within the square, but on the main boulevard intersecting it, is described as a “massacre which cast a permanent blight over the reputation of Deng Xiaoping and those leaders seen as involved.”
It is the view of the authors that the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square were not a threat to the CPC and the massacre was thus indefensible. Anti Government forces that had obtained weapons were not significant enough to be considered a meaningful threat, and the students were demanding leadership resignations not government overthrow.
“In Beijing itself, most people especially the intellectuals doubted very much there was ever an attempt to overthrow the CCP, and that such eventuality was ever possible. They therefore considered the government’s reaction not only unnecessary but monstrous… Outside Beijing, opinion is much less clearly sympathetic to the students.”
Critics saw protests as either a threat to stability or a pointless impractical exercise.
Later that year Deng was allowed to retire and was replaced by Jiang Zemin; Deng was likely still consulted on matters of importance despite his age.
By 1992 inflation was under control, economic development was still humming, and the political landscape was stable. Deng’s tenure was largely considered a significant improvement on the days of Mao.
“China is not traditionally a legal minded society.”
Law in imperial times was so barbaric people generally avoided it altogether. Mao’s tenure wasn’t ideal either. Authors describe it as “law of rule” masquerading as “mass participation.”
Deng’s regime was an improvement. Issues that don’t affect the political sphere were principled enough. When it came to political issues, the needs of the party came before any notion of legal system independence. The response of the legal system to the Beijing massacre of 1989 was evidence, although in the interest of fairness authors note some of the most prominent dissidents were given sentences much more lenient than expected.
The criminal legal system has a slogan of “leniency for those who confess, but severity for those who remain obdurate.” Apparently the idea has some Confucian roots, but it sounds a bit like the US strategy of threatening citizens with harsh sentences to coerce confessions. The comparison may not be justified as something called the procuracy is supposed to ensure only the guilty are brought to trial.
There is a fascinating discussion on the issue of how to create a legal system and profession from so little. Western nations have centuries of precedent, but China faced the creation of a legal system and a workforce that could operate within it over the course of a generation. This objective required some guidance from foreigners.
“What is surprising under these circumstances is perhaps not so much how little has been achieved, but how much.”
Education under Mao included harsh physical labor and of course socialist indoctrination for the sake of creating a proletarian culture. The social status of teachers was very low, especially considering China’s traditional emphasis on the value of education.
Education under Deng was an improvement. Funding increased significantly. Higher education scorned/ignored under Mao flourished. More resources are dedicated to research than in the previous period.
1985 Educational Reform: Universal 9 year education, increased technical/vocational schools, increased autonomy for higher ed, postgrad research & exchanges with other countries. State intervention in the university system was reduced overall. Increased exchange has also led to brain drain as many students wished to remain in their more developed destinations.
Salaries for teachers were very low requiring many to take second jobs. The 1980s prioritized money over service and other professions, even taxi drivers were better paid. Rural areas were particularly underserved. The emphasis on getting rich also led many students, with the encouragement of their parents to get out of school as soon as possible to start working. Tertiary education enrollment was reduced in the years following the student demonstrations in the late 1980s.
Literacy generally has declined over time although at the time of writing there was a disturbing prevalence of child labor. Literacy declined slower for minority nationalities with some exceptions. In 1990 there was also a gender gap in illiteracy. 70 percent of illiterates were female.
“Remaining inequalities should not detract form the fact that female education has made enormous progress from ‘virtual complete illiteracy’ in the 1940s.”
Healthcare & Social Welfare
“The provision of social welfare and health delivery to the population at large is central to any socialist experiment. The years since 1978 have witnessed substantial changes in the fields of health delivery and social welfare in terms of policy, nature and scope. At the same time, the changes have been somewhat less drastic in this area than in most others.”
The National Health Conference of 1950 sought to provide health care (including preventative and traditional) for all.
“Measures were quickly taken to cope with epidemics and to improve immunisation. Patriotic health campaigns were carried out to prove environmental sanitation. Maternal and child health centres were quickly set up: from a low base of only nine at the time the CCP took over in 1949, the number of these had grown to 2795 the eve of the Cultural Revolution in 1965.”
Early under Mao the social welfare policies of the PRC largely ignored rural areas. Mao shifted priorities to send more medical professionals to the countryside. The system of “barefoot doctors” also helped expand access albeit with workers of very limited medical experience.
In 1984 the State monopoly on public health was deemed counterproductive by the Minister of Public Health. Results of privatization were mixed.
- Preventative medicine was still as desirable but likely less realized.
- Maternity care suffered, compared to the 1950s and 1960s.
- Babies are weaned much younger so mothers can return to work.
- Universal Healthcare was no longer seen as viable in rural areas and was only implemented in specific places such as Tibet.
- Those who could afford it were allowed a greater range of choice in healthcare.
“The losers are the poorer rural families. It is still quite common in the less prosperous villages to be forced to rely on prayer to the gods to cure illnesses. One of the effects of privatisation has been the increase in drug-resistant bacteria due to over-prescription, rural doctors being able to make large profits on selling drugs.”
At the time of writing (1995):
- Calorie consumption is high, but nutrition is still an issue.
- Alcohol consumption has been on the rise, especially among men.
- Cigarette consumption is an issue since they are produced by the state which benefits from the income.
- Sanitation is still an issue in rural areas.
- Traditional medicine including those of ethnic minorities are still supported.
Social Welfare Programs since reform have been somewhat inadequate apart from disaster relief (which has been needed extensively). Pensions are regionally unequal, and while the elderly are usually looked after by family, public homes are still unable to meet demand.
China has been difficult to govern historically due to its size and population which has always constituted a significant portion of humanity.
The CPC supported family planning under Mao for the sake of raising the status of women and encouraging them to participate in the workforce. Specific, purposeful population goals were instituted later.
Ma Yinchu, a prominent Beijing academic blamed China’s poverty on its large population. He advocated strict population control for the sake of economic progress.
Mao on the other hand, blamed China’s poverty on “policies of aggression, plunder, and war pushed by imperialism, colonialism, and neocolonialism” Mao destroyed Yinchu’s career for decades.
However Ma Yinchu outlived Mao seeing his main ideas instituted as official policy before his death at 101 years old. 1978 Hua Guofeng called for severe limits on population growth.
2 years later “the target of one child per couple was formally approved for the dominant and incomparably most numerous Han people. The minority nationalities were still generally allowed two children, but with major exemptions for very sparsely populated areas such as Tibet.”
The government took steps to reduce the structural causes/incentives for multiple children as well, cracking down on illegal/under-age marriages and improving social security to quell fears of elderly destitution.
The idea of population growth wasn’t exactly unpopular among the population, it was just that most wanted other people to limit their offspring, not themselves.
Forms of more direct coercion ranged from signed pledges and fines all the way to “forced abortion” depending on year/location. Exceptions were made based on ethnicity and geography as well as other factors. The campaign was ultimately not as successful as hoped.
“In his Report on the Sixth Five-Year Plan given in 1982, Premier Zhao Ziyang stated: We must take effective measures and encourage late marriage, advocate one child for each couple, strictly control second births and resolutely prevent additional births. He also strongly condemned the ‘criminal activities of female infanticide and maltreatment of the mothers’ which had apparently come back again or increased in the Chinese countryside.”
Infanticide, gender motivated abortion, and under-registration all contributed to a disproportionately male population. There was a “substantial” amount of peasantry who would simply not register the birth of a daughter, so that they could try for a son whom they would register.
1984 to address infanticide a second child became allowed if the first was a girl. Even after the one child policy, the “proportion moved in favour of females from 1930–1990.” Females going from 46% to 48.66%.
The importance of male children had deep ideological & material roots.
“The philosopher Mencius (c. 372 BC-c. 289 BC), the famous disciple of Confucius, propounded that the most unfilial and therefore wicked act that anybody could perform was to fail to produce a son.”
“There are also economic reasons why sons are preferable to daughters. A son is a better labour unit because he is muscularly stronger. But more important is the fact that, in Chinese practice, it is the wife who joins her husband’s family when she marries, not the other way around. A child of either sex requires a great deal of money and effort to bring up, but a son will remain in the family and even attract another labour unit in the form of a wife, whereas another family will reap the benefit of investment in a daughter… Chinese sources suggest that the tradition of preferring sons, although still strong, is beginning to break down.”
In cities the gender of the child was not as significant as in the countryside.
“The status of women has fallen in the countryside during the era of Deng Xiaoping.”
Some Han people likely registered as a minority to have a second child.
“The only part of China where no restrictions at all applied was the Tibetan countryside.”
Since the establishment of the PRC overall life expectancy has increased from around 35 years to nearly 70 at the time of publishing. (76.5 as of 2020)
Foreign Relations I: Superpowers
China’s Relationship to the Soviet Union and to the United States swung wildly as the years went by.
1949: The Soviet Union was assisting China while the US was overtly hostile.
Late 1950s Mao saw the Soviet Union as revisionist as tensions between the two states were rising culminating in the withdrawal of all Soviet assistants from China in 1960. This loss of critical expertise contributed to the famine and economic crises in the early 1960s.
By the time of Deng’s reforms the Chinese relationship to the two superpowers had reversed.
1979 the US recognized China’s position that Taiwan is ‘part of China’ Regulations on technology transfer were relaxed, cultural and educational exchanges increased, and American investment in China shot up.
Both nations had a shared hostility to the Soviet Union. Common interests between the US and China was their opposition to the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. China felt its own borders were threatened. Both nations boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.
Sources of Tension:
- US sales of arms to Taiwan to which China demanded an end. The US agreed to try not to sell as many arms to Taiwan in the future which they managed to do until Bush tried to sell 150 F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan, in the hopes of reducing US unemployment.
- Tibet: While the US conceded that Tibet was part of China, it felt that the Chinese government was in violation of human rights there.
- Tiananmen Square: After the 1989 massacre China lost the “most favoured nation status” which is a term that mostly relates to the rates of tariffs placed on trade. Losing it just meant China could economically be treated as harshly as other communist nations. This was bad timing as China’s plan was predicated on Western and Japanese investment.
- Intellectual Property: The US accused China of stealing intellectual property, and time is a flat circle.
China’s response was to point out the “millions of people who do not have enough food or clothing or personal security” in the United States which China considered the “most basic of all human rights.” They also took advantage of the Rodney King Riots in 1992 for PR purposes.
1982 Leonid Brezhnev called for better Chinese relations pointing out continued US arms sales to Taiwan.
China responded with 3 major obstacles to normalized relations. The USSR had
- Maintained armed forces on the Sino Soviet and Sino Mongolian borders.
- Supported Vietnam in its Cambodian Invasion. (Most Important)
- Invaded Afghanistan.
Gorbachev helped improve relations by removing some troops from Mongolia, and asked for cooperation in space research. Troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan in 1989. These two were enough to normalize relations.
Gorbachev visited China but the student demonstrations rained on the parade. Still Soviet experts finally returned to China, tourism increased, and trade between the two expanded.
As far as Cambodia, the USSR maintained support for the Hun Sen regime and China maintained support for the “four party coalition dominated by Norodom Sihanouk and the Khmer Rouge.” Chinese aid to the Khmer Rouge lasted until 1991 which was longer than the Soviets ability to care.
As Soviet countries collapsed the CPC was resolute in its resolve to maintain “its monopoly of power.” Chaos or “luan” had taken place in the Soviet Union and was the worst fate to befall a country. China took advantage by buying up cheap arms from the Soviet Union.
“The two biggest nightmares for them remained the overthrow of the Party and the disintegration of the country’s unity, both of which had happened in the world’s first long-lasting socialist state.”