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China > Culture and festivals > The Reform Era

 China History : The Reform Era (1976-present)

 Deng Xiaoping 

Deng Xiaoping was born into a wealthy Szechuan family and was educated overseas in France, where he met Zhou Enlai. On returning to China in 1924 he joined the Communist party. He endured the Long March and staved off some of the economic crisis of the Great Leap Forward by establishing a limited free market. 

Deng Xiaoping
During the Cultural Revolution he was publicly humiliated for his moderate ideals and had to work in a tractor factory in Xinjiang as a form of “re-education.”

Deng favored a capitalist approach to the economy and, on his return to politics, these views made him a target of the Gang of Four. Deng was blamed for the 1976 Tian’anmen Incident and once more forced out of politics, but Mao’s death and the arrest of the Gang of Four marked a turning point which saw Deng rise to the head of the CCP.

Deng Xiaoping

Two years later Mao’s chosen successor, Huo Guofeng, was ousted and Hu Yaobang instated.  Deng quickly began the economic reforms that paved the way for a string of similar economically minded leaders to bring China to where it is today – capitalist in all but name. On a tour of Guangdong province in the early 1990s Deng famously remarked that “I don’t care whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice,” reasserting China’s capitalism, albeit under the auspices of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”  


But economic and political reform did not go hand in hand. While Deng was praised for his economic policies, he will be remembered as the leader who authorized the Tian’anmen Square Incident (see 1976), a show of strength that resulted in worldwide condemnation. Deng died in 1997 and it was Jiang Zemin, groomed to be his successor, who oversaw the handover of Hong Kong. 


Economic Liberalization 


Deng’s policies focused on economic liberalization to promote foreign investment and internal entrepreneurship and his Four Modernizations (agriculture, defense, industry and science) provided the platform for China’s economic transformation and opening up to the world. Technological skill and competency reasserted themselves over ideological commitment as the cornerstones for development.  


Agricultural collectives were disbanded and farmers were allowed to sell any surplus product on the free market. The number of state-owned businesses was dramatically reduced and there was a distinct shift from heavy to light industry. Special Economic Zones such as Shenzhen were designated and the benefits available attracted large-scale foreign investment.

Entrepreneurial capitalism was encouraged and, with its huge population and low wages,
China quickly reaped the rewards of international trade and has become the workshop of the world. Since the start of reforms China has maintained an economic growth rate of 7% and cities like Shenzhen and Shanghai’s Pudong have sprung up almost overnight. 


Tian’anmen Square Incident (1989) 


But political and social change didn’t follow economic reform and, while artists, writers and even the press enjoyed a measure of freedom in the 1980s, the party’s true hand was laid out for all to see in Tian’anmen Square in 1989. Deng had sidelined Hu Yaobang in 1987 for his liberal views and when Hu died in 1989, mourning gave way to fullscale protests in Tian’anmen Square.  


Martial law was ordered in May but, in spite of this, by June there were a million people gathered in the square, organized by the student leaders Wang Dan, Chai Lin and Wu’er Kaixi. 

Although predominantly students pushing for greater political and social freedom, there was also an urban worker contingent, who were protesting against the endemic corruption within the system, rapid inflation and the economic reforms which had cost many of them their jobs. When the protesters’ demands went unanswered, a thousand-plus students went on a hunger strike.

Confrontation at Tian’anmen Square 


Fifty thousand PLA troops were ordered into Beijing and on June 3rd tanks rolled into Tian’anmen Square. The following day soldiers fired into the unarmed crowd and hundreds, possibly thousands, were killed, although it seems unlikely any genuine statistics will ever emerge. 

Foreign journalists who had been covering Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to
Beijing witnessed much of what happened and, although satellite links were shut down, the world was given a grisly insight into modern China. International condemnation was followed by arms embargoes and there were protests around the globe.


The Tian’anmen Square Incident had also illustrated a rift between the hardliners and more progressive elements within the party. While premier Li Peng was in favor of using force to remove the protesters, others such as party secretary Zhang Ziyang, who was dismissed, sympathized with them. Even now the June 4th Movement, as it is known in party-speak, is seldom discussed in China, and you should be sensitive asking questions about it – only do so in private and if you know the person well. 


Jiang Zemin 


After the Tian’anmen Square Incident Jiang Zemin, the former Mayor of Shanghai, who was not connected to the events of June 1989, ascended the party ladder. He became General Secretary in 1989 and President in 1992, taking the reins of power when Deng died in 1997. Jiang oversaw the 1997 British return of Hong Kong which had been organized in 1984. There was a countdown clock set in Tian’anmen Square and on June 30th there were handover celebrations around the country. Two years later Macau followed suit, albeit less dramatically. 


The World Stage 


Jiang continued with the open door policy and China began to see the rewards of two decades of increased economic freedom. In spite of EU and US arms embargoes, China gained favored trade status with the US under President Clinton in 1995, although relations were strained by allegations that China was stealing US nuclear secrets.  


The situation suffered another setback in 2001 when a US spy plane collided with a Chinese F8 fighter jet and crash landed on Hainan Island, China’s southernmost point. None of the US crew were hurt but the Chinese pilot died and the incident came at a crucial time when the Bush administration was deliberating over whether to supply Taiwan with arms.  


Tensions were further raised following the accidental NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo Crisis a month later. In spite of these complications, economics prevailed and Beijing secured the 2008 Olympics in 2001 and China was eventually admitted to the World Trade Organization in 2002.


Hu Jintao 


In November 2002 a large party conference was held, the net result of which was the emergence of Hu Jintao as leader of the CCP and Wen Jibao as prime minister. Equally as committed to economic progress as their predecessors, Hu and Wen are a sign of the China to come – socialist doctrine remains only in political jargon, not in practice. Indeed Wen Jibao supported Zhang Ziyang in his sympathetic attitude with the 1989 protesters and as such there is some hope that China may proceed along moderate lines. 


The Future 


Life for many Chinese is undeniably better than it has ever been; the economy is burgeoning and China is becoming an ever more significant player on the world scene. In the 1970s the most people could aspire to own was a bicycle, a watch and a radio, but these days some young Chinese can shop for the same things as their counterparts in Japan or Taiwan.  


But modern China is plagued with disparities, which it must face if it is to progress beyond sheer material wealth for its urban dwellers. The vast population, deterioration of the environment, the threat posed by respiratory viruses such as SARS and bird flu, human rights and territorial disputes are just some of the pressing problems facing the Middle Kingdom today. 


Double talk, Disparities & Discontent 


The most basic of China’s contradictions lies between the party’s anachronistic political rhetoric and the reality of everyday capitalism. Issues like petty theft, prostitution and organized crime syndicates, long thought of as foreign problems, are increasing in modern China and sooner or later the party will have to acknowledge the dichotomy between policy and parlance.   


Shanghai skyline

Undoubtedly there is more wealth in China now than ever before, but with more money and education people want greater social freedom and, if this is not forthcoming, it threatens to tear apart the CCP.

For all the cell phones, designer apartments and luxury cars found in the cities, little of this newfound wealth has made its way to the rural masses. The gap between rich coastal cities and the poor rural interior is wider than ever and there is massive migration from poorer farming areas to the big cities, although most only manage to find work day-by-day, if at all.  



Shanghai skyline


The shift away from heavy industry and reduction in state-owned enterprises has added to the numbers of discontented, unemployed transient workers.  


Money Makes the World Go Round 


“Internal” problems aside, China’s growing economic stature is difficult to ignore for the financial fixers of the developed world. Entry into the World Trade Organization, hosting the 2008 Olympics and flourishing Special Economic Zones are all testament to China’s improved international standing, but the problems which the country must really address lie with its tremendous population.


If the country is to continue supporting its meteoric growth, it is crucial to ensure that wealth filters to the discontented urban and rural sectors. If not, then the danger is that people will once again question their social and political rights and rise against the system which they see as inherently corrupt and oppressive. 


However, while inequality is perhaps now more stressed than ever, China is certainly a far more tolerant place than it was even 20 years ago, looking back to its past with more pride. Many of the old beliefs and teachings are managing to find their place in the modern China and for the first time, even farmers dare to dream beyond their station.


China truly has been a sleeping dragon for the past few centuries and now it is stirring as the rest of the world watches. If it can deliver the economic goods to a large proportion of the population, then the CCP looks set to survive and the world balance of power will look very different in 2020.

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China history : a reference guide
China history : the dynastic age, part 1 (2100BC - 960 AD) - The Three Dynasties, Qin Dynasty, Han Dynasty, Three Kingdoms, Sui Dynasty, and Tang Dynasty
China history : the dynastic age, part 2 (960 -1911) - Song Dynasty, Yuan Dynasty, Ming Dynasty, and Qing Dynasty
China history : the revolutionary years (1911 - 1976) - Dr. Sun Yatsen, Yuan Shikai, Chiang Kaishek, and Mao Zedong

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China history, modern China, the reform era (1976 - present) : Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, Chona travel guide and directory