|China Table of Contents
THE THIRD PLENUM of the Central Committee of the Eleventh National Party Congress, held in December 1978, marked a major turning point in China's development. The course was laid for the party to move the world's most populous nation toward the ambitious targets of the Four Modernizations. After a decade of turmoil brought about by the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the new direction set at this meeting was toward economic development and away from class struggle. The plenum endorsed major changes in the political, economic, and social system. It also instituted sweeping personnel changes, culminating in the elevation of two key supporters of Deng Xiaoping and the reform program, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, to the posts of general secretary of the party (September 1982) and premier of the State Council (September 1980), respectively. In January 1987 Hu Yaobang lost the position of general secretary when he failed to control violent student demonstrations. Zhao Ziyang became acting general secretary, in addition to serving as premier, pending confirmation by the Thirteenth National Party Congress, scheduled for October 1987.
Under the new and pragmatic leadership, the modernization program, slated to be well established by the year 2000, was to engage the energies and talents of the entire population in reaching the reform goals. But unlike in the past, acceptable class background was not to play a role in selecting and promoting participants for the national program. Intellectuals or those with advanced education were no longer negatively categorized. Class consciousness was being replaced by one that fostered initiative and encouraged each person to contribute according to his or her ability.
An initial challenge facing the reform leadership was to provide for a rational and efficient governing system to support economic development. In pursuit of that goal, the cult of personality surrounding Mao Zedong was unequivocally condemned and replaced by a strong emphasis on collective leadership. An example of this new emphasis was the party's restoration in February 1980 of its Secretariat, which had been suspended since 1966. The new party and state constitutions, both adopted in 1982, provided the institutional framework for the Four Modernizations program. These documents abolished the post of party chairman and restored the post of president of the People's Republic of China, thereby giving additional weight to government functions and providing a degree of balance to the authoritative party structure. Also, the government's role was broadened by the addition of standing committees and direct elections at subnational levels of the government's presiding body, the National People's Congress.
The political structure in 1987 seemed to represent consensus and continuity, but it continued to undergo the test of accommodation and a process of trial and error. The experimental approach was rooted in official recognition that the party and the government had to remain self-critical and responsive if they were to fulfill the expectations that the reform leaders had raised since 1978 of solving old problems and meeting new challenges. Some of the most sweeping changes concerned the party and government cadre system that was essential to the implementation and performance of the reform program. Manned by about 14 million cadres, the system was acknowledged officially to be overstaffed and sluggish. The drive to weed out tens of thousands of aged, inactive, and incompetent cadres was intensified. Even more revolutionary, the life tenure system for state and party cadres was abolished, and age limits for various offices were established. While removing superfluous personnel, the reform leaders stressed the importance of creating a "third echelon" of younger leadership to enter responsible positions and be trained for future authority. Between 1978 and 1987, some 470,000 younger officials reportedly were promoted to responsible positions.
The theoretical basis of the political system continued to be Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought (which combined borrowings from Soviet ideology with Mao's theoretical writings), but with an unmistakable emphasis on the application of this doctrine to achieve desired results. The test of a reform was no longer how closely it reflected hallowed quotations or ideas--although reforms continued to be couched in proper doctrinal arguments--but whether or not it produced demonstrable benefits to the reform program. The banner slogan of the reform agenda was "socialism with Chinese characteristics." This slogan implied that considerable leeway would be allowed in doctrinal matters in order to achieve the overriding goal of rapid modernization. But reform leaders realized that successful implementation of the broad-ranging reform program required a stable, professional bureaucracy to direct the course of events. The course chosen included a more rational division of powers and functions for the party and government, and it provided a body of regulations and procedures to support the separation. Institutions were set up to maintain discipline and to audit bureaucratic records. In December 1986 the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress established the Ministry of Supervision to oversee the work of the government cadre. Of course, the primacy of the party over all other sociopolitical institutions was an unchanging fact of political life.
Another recognized requirement for a successful reform program was the decentralization of authority, including a greater voice and degree of accountability for local bodies in the formulation and implementation of programs and policies. In the 1980s government leaders instituted experimental programs at all levels to achieve this end. The party, wielding political power and having close access to reform leaders, appeared to act increasingly in an advisory role, guiding events in accordance with its own general policy and serving as an intermediary between government officials and front-line producers, for example, departmental administrators and enterprise managers. The role of the party was still being defined, but it appeared less focused on dictating the specific course of events.
For more information about the government, see Facts about China.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress