China Table of Contents

In the years following the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Committee Central in 1978, certain key reforms set in motion a process of systemic change in society. Successful continuation of the reform program depended on the ability of China's senior leaders to respond to the constant challenges encountered in implementing these changes. Although a significant portion of the political system underwent major reform, a central question remaining in the late 1980s was whether or not the party could maintain stable central leadership. There was reason to question whether a consensus could be built within China's top leadership circles without the presence of a leader of the stature of Deng Xiaoping. With major bureaucratic interests to contend with and satisfy, and differing ideological orientations within the top leadership, strong central direction seemed to be the basic requirement for continuing reform.

The Components of Reform

The major components of 1980s political reform emphasized collective leadership, the re-establishment of the party Secretariat to implement party policy and to train a group of senior-level successors, the strengthening of the government apparatus to enable it to share more power and responsibility for the development of the reform program, and the removal of the military from a major and sustained role in politics. The introduction of direct elections and multiple candidates for people's congresses up to the county level broadened public participation in China's governmental and political processes. Also, the electoral process provided an expanded forum for assessing both the potential and the shortcomings of party reform policies. The intent to involve the public in the process of identifying and resolving problems that emerge in implementing the reform program also was extended to vocational groups. For example, workers' congresses were given increased leeway to examine, debate, and discuss the policies being carried out in factories and even to evaluate the performance of factory managers. Even though the governmental and vocational groups had no direct political power, their new public voice on reform elevated the political process at least one step above the secret, closed channels of the Maoist era. In institutionalizing the reform debate, the party also developed a more efficient means for shaping and channeling public debate.

Competing Bureaucratic Interests

The implementation of these components of political reform contributed to internal tensions and competition among the major bureaucracies--the party, government, and military. The party's status remained paramount within the system, but the delineation of its role became increasingly vague. Theoretically, the party was to act as the unifying force that would guide the society on the difficult path to modernization. In practice, especially at the middle levels of the structure, it appeared in the mid-1980s that implementation of the reform program was greatly diluting the power of party cadres. Many party members were retired to advisory capacities, increased emphasis was placed on separating the functions of the party and government, and much of the decisionmaking authority in the economic sphere was transferred to enterprise managers. All these factors eroded the party's once pervasive authority. Although the party continued to articulate the central policy for all levels of society, it offered fewer opportunities for members to achieve recognition and rewards after 1978, when concrete results became more important. All this brought widespread bureaucratic resistance to reform policies and their implementation.

Retirements, elevated entrance qualifications, and power sharing with enterprise managers also brought traumatic changes in government bureaucracy. Direct elections to people's congresses added a new element of uncertainty about the cadre selection process for government service. Wider public discussion of issues and more extensive press coverage subjected state cadres to additional demands and criticisms and sometimes to abuse. The new accountability offered opportunities for government cadres, but often they perceived it as a threat or a burden. It soon became another major source of the complaints conveyed to top leadership circles.

In the late 1980s, the People's Liberation Army continued as a major player in political circles and had representatives on the Political Bureau. Its presence within senior party bodies significantly declined in the 1980s, however, as was apparent from the percentage of party Central Committee memberships held by military personnel. Military influence had reached a high point in 1969, when its representatives gained roughly half the seats on the party's Ninth Central Committee, but declined at the Tenth Central Committee (1973) and Eleventh Central Committee (1978). In 1982 full membership on the Twelfth Central Committee held by People's Liberation Army personnel dropped to around 20 percent. At the National Conference of Party Delegates held in September 1985, about half of those retired from the Central Committee were from the armed forces, and civilians replaced seven members of the Political Bureau who had military connections.

These trends reflected Deng Xiaoping's military reform goals of placing the People's Liberation Army under firm civilian leadership and transforming its ranks and organization into a modern, professional military establishment. Owing partly to its size and largely to its heavily Maoist revolutionary traditions, the military was essentially conservative and in 1987 continued to resist many of the reformers' policies. It seemed possible that Deng's successors might experience strong pressure from a revitalized People's Liberation Army to restore some of its lost political influence.

Deng Xiaoping's Seminal Role

Although post-Mao pronouncements by the Chinese Communist Party officially emphasized collective leadership, Deng Xiaoping clearly occupied center stage and acquired unique political stature in the party hierarchy (without even holding the titular number-one position). Following the consolidation of Deng's power at the Twelfth National Party Congress in 1982, the party issued The Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping. The book was intended to provide authoritative ideological backing for the reform program in progress and became required reading for party members. Another volume, entitled Building Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, issued in 1985, contained speeches and writings on economic policy, ideological questions, and foreign policy written by Deng after the Twelfth National Party Congress. A major purpose of the later work was to support the dramatic reforms introduced at the Third Plenum of that congress's Central Committee in October 1984. This book was re-released in March 1987 with additional speeches and remarks on intervening events, purportedly with the intention of providing extensive guidance for reform. Given the volume and frequency of publication, it became difficult for the reform leadership to avoid the appearance of creating a cult of personality around Deng.

Deng was an effective bridge between China's legendary revolutionary generation and the generation engaged in carrying out the Four Modernizations. At the same time, Deng's preeminence called attention to the succession issue. The resolution of problems emerging in the course of reform depended heavily on Deng's political backing and on his authoritative reform pronouncements. In large measure, Deng's published works would support later leaders by providing them an authoritative source with which to bolster their own reform measures. Like any body of writing, however, Deng's thoughts are open to interpretation and thus might as easily be used by an opposition group for its own ends.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress