China Table of Contents

The reform program seems to have followed a logical sequence, building a base of support in the countryside, where issues and institutions were more clear-cut, and then moving on to the more diverse and politically complex urban areas. As the reform program began to confront major obstacles in this setting, the reform leaders, led by Deng Xiaoping, began to emphasize the need to extend reform to political structures in order to make political institutions and processes more supportive of the modernization program.

The need for further political reform was underlined by the continuing difficulty in implementing the factory-director responsibility system, a major goal of the reform program for 1986. Party cadres had already lost the privilege of life tenure and been subjected to the rigors and requirements of the party rectification programs. They would not easily forfeit operational control of economic enterprises.

Political Reform

The August 1980 address on reform made by Deng to the Political Bureau became the basis in 1987 for changes in the party and state leadership systems. In the 1980 speech, Deng had called for strengthening the people's congresses, separating party and government organizations, reforming the cadre system, and establishing an independent judiciary. By 1986 the leadership's apparently overriding interest in Deng's plan was to curtail excessive party interference in governmental and economic decision making, and it was therefore bound eventually to provoke apprehension and resistance. In early 1986, with responsibility for political reform resting in the party Secretariat, several reports were aired concerning party secretaries at lower levels who had refused to relinquish decision-making power to benefit local economic reform management. Many local unit secretaries had succeeded in reclaiming authority previously given up. While Deng and the central reform leaders emphasized that party interference in government affairs actually weakened party leadership, conservative leaders such as Peng Zhen continued to speak about party unity and spirit and about the more gradual means to political change. Gradual means included additional legislation and the proper functioning of democratic centralism.

In addition to the new emphasis on power sharing in economic management, pressures increased to realize the goals of "socialist democracy" by increasing participation in public affairs through direct elections from a field of candidates. In fact, it was a student protest over the local slate of officials for a people's congress election in Anhui Province that sparked the student demonstrations that spread throughout the country in late 1986. In extending the argument for increased freedoms and democratic practices, demonstrators began even to question the presiding role of the party in the political system. Demonstrations in at least seventeen cities, with participants in the tens of thousands, also threatened to disrupt the urban economy and the continuation of the economic reform program. The drive to decentralize power and to separate party from government authority created political strains already apparent from the fact that no authoritative statement on these key issues ensued from the Sixth Plenum of the Twelfth Central Committee held in September 1986. The student demonstrations that followed lent credibility to conservative ideologues in the Secretariat, such as Deng Liqun, who argued that continued political relaxation and reform would inevitably lead to social chaos.

Resistance and the Campaign Against Bourgeois Liberalization

In late 1986, during the critical period when the Chinese political system appeared threatened by student demonstrators burning copies of party official newspapers, General Secretary Hu Yaobang failed to act to restore order. Hu refused to denounce the demonstrators or their intellectual mentors or to retreat from the political reform agenda. Instead, Hu favored the introduction of more "democratization" or plurality into the political system. He called for more movement on political reform than the system could bear. In effect, Hu had outstripped the consensus concerning the pace and content of the reform agenda. In response, Deng Xiaoping had to make the difficult decision to remove his protege from the post of party general secretary, a step taken by unanimous decision at an extraordinary expanded Political Bureau meeting in January 1987. Hu was replaced by Zhao Ziyang, one of the chief architects of the economic reform program, who explained that democratic reforms in China required a "protracted" process for their implementation.

At the same time that Hu Yaobang was removed from office, a campaign was initiated against "bourgeois liberalization." Given heavy play in the official media, this campaign sought to discredit Western political concepts and emphasize the importance of adhering to the four cardinal principles. The campaign against bourgeois liberalization became the means for conservatives led by Political Bureau members Chen Yun, Peng Zhen, and Hu Qiaomu to express their opposition to some of the reforms, especially the pace of the reform agenda, and to the increased democratization advocated by Hu Yaobang. Having responded to major conservative concerns, Zhao then emphasized the limits that had been placed on the campaign against bourgeois liberalization. The ideological campaign was to be limited to the party, and it was neither to reach the rural areas nor to affect economic reform policies. In addition, experimentation in the arts and sciences was not to be discouraged by this campaign. The imposition of these limits was inspired no doubt in large part by the need to avoid disruptions such as those that had accompanied the spiritual pollution campaign in 1983 and 1984. Besides affirming his support for the ongoing campaign against bourgeois liberalization, within specified limits, Zhao stressed that the economic reform program--including opening up to the outside world--would continue.

In March 1987 Deng Xiaoping made it clear that political reform also was to continue and that a "tentative plan" for political reform would be included on the agenda of the Thirteenth National Party Congress in the fall of 1987. Deng's revelation suggested that with Hu Yaobang removed, China's senior leadership had reached a consensus on the sensitive issue of political reform, which had been discussed by many of them in general and cautious terms for some time. Even conservative senior leaders such as Li Xiannian and Peng Zhen made statements supporting political reform. This development did not limit the likelihood of very intense debate before and during the next National Party Congress on the specific implementation of this most sensitive program. But it did suggest that, with Hu Yaobang's demotion, China's top leaders could discuss key details of the future role of the party in China's reformed political system at the upcoming congress.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress