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10-08-2015, 22:44

From Mao to Deng

In September 1976, Mao Zedong died at the age of eighty-three. After a short but bitter succession struggle, the pragmatists led by Deng Xiaoping seized power from the radicals and brought the Cultural Revolution to an end. Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing, and three other radicals (derisively called the “Gang of Four” by their opponents) were placed on trial and sentenced to death or to long terms in prison. The egalitarian policies of the previous decade were reversed, and a new program emphasizing economic modernization was introduced. Under the leadership of Deng, who placed his supporters in key positions throughout the party and the government, attention focused on what were called the “Four Modernizations”: industry, agriculture, technology, and national defense. Deng had been a leader of the faction that opposed Mao’s program of rapid socialist transformation, and during the Cultural Revolution, he had been forced to perform menial labor to “sincerely correct his errors.” But Deng continued to espouse the pragmatic approach and reportedly once remarked, “Black cat, white cat, what does it matter so long as it catches the mice?” Under the program of Four Modernizations, many of the restrictions against private activities and profit incentives were eliminated, and people were encouraged to work hard to benefit themselves and Chinese society. The familiar slogan “Serve the people” was replaced by a new one repugnant to the tenets of Mao Zedong Thought: “Create wealth for the people.” Crucial to the program’s success was the government’s ability to attract foreign technology and capital. For more than two decades, China had been isolated from technological advances taking place elsewhere in the world. Although China’s leaders understandably prided themselves on their nation’s capacity for “self-reliance,” their isolationist policy had been exceedingly costly for the national economy. China’s post-Mao leaders blamed the country’s backwardness on the “ten lost years” of the Cultural Revolution, but the “lost years,” at least in technological terms, extended back to 1949 and in some respects even before. Now, to make up for lost time, the government encouraged foreign investment and sent thousands of students and specialists abroad to study capitalist techniques. By adopting this pragmatic approach in the years after 1976, China made great strides in ending its chronic problems of poverty and underdevelopment. Per capita income roughly doubled during the 1980s; housing, education, and sanitation improved; and both agricultural and industrial output skyrocketed. Clearly, China had begun to enter the Industrial Age. But critics, both Chinese and foreign, complained that Deng Xiaoping’s program had failed to achieve a “fifth modernization”: democracy. Official sources denied such charges and spoke proudly of restoring “socialist legality” by doing away with the arbitrary punishments applied during the Cultural Revolution. Deng himself encouraged the Chinese people to speak out against earlier excesses. In the late 1970s, ordinary citizens began to paste posters criticizing the abuses of the past on the so-called Democracy Wall near Tiananmen Square in downtown Beijing. Yet it soon became clear that the new leaders would not tolerate any direct criticism of the Communist Party or of Marxist-Leninist ideology. Dissidents were suppressed, and some were sentenced to long prison terms. Among them was the well-known astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, who spoke out publicly against official corruption and the continuing influence of Marxist-Leninist concepts in post-Mao China, telling an audience in Hong Kong that “China will not be able to modernize if it does not break the shackles of Maoist and Stalinist-style socialism.” Fang immediately felt the weight of official displeasure. He was refused permission to travel abroad, and articles that he submitted to official periodicals were rejected. Deng Xiaoping himself reportedly remarked, “We will not suppress people who hold differing political views from our own. But as for Fang Lizhi, he has been indulging in mudslinging and spreading slander without any basis, and we should take legal action against him.” Replied Fang, “I have never criticized any Chinese leader by name, nor accused any of them of illegal acts or immoral activities. But some perhaps feel guilty. If the cap fits, wear it.” 5 The problem began to intensify in the late 1980s, as more Chinese began to study abroad and more information about Western society reached educated individuals inside the country. Rising expectations aroused by the economic improvements of the early 1980s led to increasing pressure from students and other urban residents for better living conditions, relaxed restrictions on study abroad, and increased freedom to select employment after graduation.

 

 

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