Large poster with reformer Deng Xiaoping in Shenzhen China

Economic reforms

After Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping quickly rose to become the most powerful politician in the CCP. Under his aegis, with the help of reform-minded politicians such as Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, a complete revision of Maoist politics was implemented.

The main thrust of the reforms was a reorganization of the economic system. From the beginning of the 1980’s, farmers no longer had to produce in collectives, but were able to operate independently and sell part of their income on markets. This measure led to a rapid expansion and diversification of agricultural production. Since the farmers produced not only more, but also faster through material incentives, there was a surplus of labor and the widespread development of light industry in rural areas.

For the first time, performance-related wages were introduced in the state and collective enterprises of the cities and managers were given more freedom of choice. Although the plan requirements still had to be met, companies were allowed to offer their products on markets if the plan was exceeded. When industrial planning was frozen in the mid-1980’s, growing production for the markets marginalized the share of planned economy production in GDP. China’s economy “grew out of plan”.

According to commit4fitness, a third important measure was China’s opening up to international trade and foreign investment. For this purpose, four special economic zones were set up in the cities of Shenzhen, Xiamen, Zhuhai and Shantou, in which more liberal trade regulations applied.

The result of economic reforms under Deng Xiaoping was obvious. Not only the worst hunger problems were solved. Suddenly there was also a wide range of different foods. Food stalls and restaurants opened everywhere. In the cities, many Chinese were soon able to buy bicycles, sewing machines, radios and even televisions. On paper, this success was expressed in high growth rates of over 10% in some cases (1986: 15%). However, cyclical and inflationary fluctuations were also a price that had to be paid for the transition from a planned to a market economy.

Suppression of the democracy movement

In contrast to the economic system, the political system was largely left untouched. While emphasis was placed on restoring political and administrative structures after the Cultural Revolution, an end to one-party rule of the CCP was never sought.

During the whole of the 1980’s, protest movements from the people had repeatedly formed, advocating freedom of speech and assembly, democratic participation and the separation of powers. In 1979, shortly after the economic reforms began, political activists initiated the so-called Wall of Democracy. Wall newspapers criticizing the Cultural Revolution and Deng Xiaoping were attached to a brick wall in Beijing. The most famous wall newspaper was that of Wei Jingsheng, who explicitly advocated the establishment of a democracy in China.

This first democratic movement was quickly banned, but flared up again at the end of 1986 when the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi stood in front of tens of thousands of people several times for free elections to the people’s congresses. This movement was also suppressed by the government under threat of violence. At the same time, the general secretary of the liberal CCP Hu Yaobang, who was blamed for the protest movement, was replaced by Zhao Ziyang and the conservative Li Peng was appointed prime minister.

Rampant corruption, the feeling of economic insecurity and, above all, the fear of massive inflation drove the protesters back to the streets at the beginning of 1989. It was triggered by the death of the former general secretary of the CCP Hu Yaobang on April 15, 1989. The spontaneous testimonies of the Beijing student body grew to an occupation of Tian’anmen Square in the heart of Beijing in May 1989. Student leaders of the movement, such as Wu’er Kaixi, Wang Dan and Chai Ling, have called on the government to negotiate political reforms.

The conservative forces at the top of the CCP, led by Prime Minister Li Peng, had meanwhile gained the upper hand and advocated a violent dissolution of the protests. Deng Xiaoping, who in addition to his unconditional economic reform will also always emphasized the rule of the CCP as the sole party, gave the order to forcibly dissolve the protests.

On the night of June 3rd to 4th, tanks and soldiers armed with machine guns advanced into Tian’anmen Square. A massacre was carried out on the urban population of Beijing showing solidarity with the students on the arteries leading to the square. With the massacre at Tiananmen Square, all hopes for reforms of the political system were dashed.

Large poster with reformer Deng Xiaoping in Shenzhen China