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The People's Republic, China After Mao

Hua Guofeng, Zhao Ziyang, political criticism, Tangshan, coastal provinces

Premier Zhou Enlai and Chairman Mao both died in 1976, precipitating a struggle for power between moderate and radical leaders within the party. As a compromise, Hua Guofeng, an administrator without close ties to either faction, became premier. About the same time, he was named to succeed Mao as party chairman. Hua then concentrated on stabilizing politics, aiding recovery from massive earthquakes that had struck Tangshan, near Beijing, in July 1976, and fostering economic development.

Hua’s prominence was short-lived. In 1977 the party reinstated moderate reformer Deng Xiaoping to a leadership post, making him first deputy premier. (Deng had returned to public office as China’s vice premier in 1973 but then had been purged again by the Gang of Four in 1976.) By 1978 Deng was in firm control of the government.

Deng focused on the problem of relieving poverty through economic growth. As his guiding slogan, he promoted the “Four Modernizations” of agriculture, industry, technology, and defense. In agriculture, Deng sanctioned steps toward dismantling the commune system. He instituted a so-called responsibility system under which rural households were assigned land and other assets that they could treat as their own. Anything a household produced above what it owed the collective was its own to keep or sell. The state encouraged sideline enterprises, such as growing vegetables and setting up small businesses, and the income of farmers rapidly increased, especially in the coastal provinces, where commercial opportunities were greatest.

Deng imported foreign technology to help modernize industry. He also abandoned Mao’s insistence on Chinese self-sufficiency and began courting foreign investors. Guangdong Province, on the border with Hong Kong (which had become one of Asia’s leading financial centers) was especially well situated to benefit from foreign investment. Deng reinstated examinations as the means of selecting college students in 1977, and Chinese students began to be sent abroad for advanced technical and management training. In the late 1970s and early 1980s China revived and expanded the system of military academies, which had been obliterated during the Cultural Revolution. Deng’s policies set in motion an economic boom that led to a tripling of average incomes by the early 1990s.

With its population of more than 1 billion already pressing the limits of its resources, China began to confront the need to control population growth. The state set targets for the total numbers of births in each place and then assigned quotas to smaller units, down to individual factories and other workplaces. Young people had to get permission from their work units to get married and then to have a child. Women who became pregnant outside the system faced strong pressure from birth-control workers and local party officials to have an abortion. The government promoted one-child families through financial incentives and bureaucratic regulations. In the cities, one-child families became commonplace. In the countryside, families with two or even three children remained common, because families who first bore a girl were usually allowed to try again for a boy. Because of a preference for boys, families that could only have one or two children often would take extreme measures to get a boy, such as aborting female fetuses. This created an unbalanced sex ratio.

In the post-Mao period, China’s relationship with Western nations and Japan continued to improve, and full diplomatic relations were established with the United States in 1979. Friction with the USSR continued, however, and because Soviet influence was growing in Vietnam, relations with Vietnam deteriorated. In 1978 harassed ethnic Chinese from Vietnam streamed into southern China. When Vietnam invaded Cambodia and toppled that country's Chinese-backed government in early 1979, China made a punitive strike into Vietnam, but soon withdrew.

Under Deng, the Chinese government somewhat relaxed its control of the expression of ideas and the arts. A so-called literature of the wounded appeared at the end of the 1970s, as those who had suffered during the Cultural Revolution found it possible to express their sense of betrayal without government repression. Greater tolerance on the part of the government soon resulted in much livelier press and media in China, with investigative reporters covering corruption; philosophers reexamining the premises of Marxism; and novelists, poets, and filmmakers experimenting with previously forbidden explorations of sexuality. In the 1980s, as television became commonplace, ordinary Chinese learned more about life in other countries and began to make new demands on the government for improvements in their standard of living and more choice in their daily lives. As many young people began adopting aspects of Western popular culture, especially its music, hairstyles, and emphasis on individualism, conservatives in the CCP responded with periodic campaigns against “bourgeois liberalism” and “spiritual pollution.”

Despite its relative openness in the cultural and economic spheres, the government kept a tight reign on political criticism. During the “Democracy Wall” movement in 1978 and 1979, hundreds of people posted so-called big-character posters on a wall in Beijing to protest against political corruption, injustice, and lack of political freedom. Although it initially encouraged criticism of previous government policies, the government closed the wall when posters critical of the existing Communist leadership and the Communist system began appearing and imprisoned the author of some of the most outspoken posters, Wei Jingshen.

Student protests occurred in several cities during the 1980s. The most massive one occurred in Beijing in 1989. In April of that year, students and others marched in the capital to support freedom of the press, educational reforms, and an end to political corruption. The protests swelled in May, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited Beijing to end the 30-year rift between the USSR and China. The protesters occupied Beijing's Tiananmen Square until the morning of June 4, when armored troops stormed the city center, killing hundreds of unarmed civilians. Zhao Ziyang, the CCP general secretary (as the top party post had been called since 1982), had been sympathetic to the students and in the ensuing political crackdown he was dismissed from his party posts. Deng, still extremely influential despite declining health and lessening direct involvement in government affairs, designated Shanghai mayor Jiang Zemin to replace Zhao as CCP general secretary.

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