China Table of Contents

Continuous development of the means of production is a major goal of all Marxist governments. Under Mao, however, that goal was pursued in a manner that subordinated economic policy to the dictates of massive class struggle and, in the end, to political struggle carried up to the Political Bureau level. Mao, who admitted his own ignorance of economics, resented efforts to correct the problems caused by hasty agricultural collectivization and the Great Leap Forward (1958-60), and he initiated a political and ideological "struggle" against the 1950s reformers. This political campaign reached massive proportions during the Cultural Revolution, doing extensive damage to the economic, political, and social fabric of Chinese society.

In contrast, the post-Mao leadership so emphasized the issue of economic modernization that modernization began to shape the political process itself. Economic modernization became the basis of Deng Xiaoping's pragmatic reform policies. Despite disagreements over the content and pace of the reform program, Deng won solid support from other senior Chinese leaders who recognized the great danger of neglecting economic development and the well-being of the people.

The difference in political style between Mao and Deng was evident in their approach to opposition. When Mao perceived that party bureaucrats were blocking the full implementation of his radical programs, he set out in the early 1960s to purify the party. In contrast, faced with similar opposition in the 1980s, Deng sought points of agreement and built a coalition around an eclectic economic program.

The Role of Ideology

In the early 1950s, Mao borrowed Stalinist social and economic principles in promoting development. When these methods failed to produce immediate and spectacular results, Mao adopted a masscampaign style of development derived from his experiences as a guerrilla leader. When applied to post-1949 problems, however, the style produced chaos. Mao's writings and speeches degenerated into rigid dogma that his followers insisted be followed to the letter. Deng, conversely, advocated a flexible and creative application of Marxist principles, even claiming that Marxism, as the product of an earlier age, did not provide all the means for addressing contemporary issues. Rather, he advocated taking a highly empirical approach known as "seeking truth from facts" in order to find the most effective means of dealing with problems. In Deng's approach, ideology itself was not the source of truth but merely an instrument for arriving at truth by experimentation, observation, and generalization.

To effect such a basic revision of Maoist ideology, Deng had to de-mystify Mao and reduce the towering image of the "Great Helmsman" to more human proportions. This was largely accomplished in June 1981, when the party's Sixth Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee reassessed Mao's place in the history of the Chinese revolution. In the years after 1981, the leadership nevertheless continued to revere Mao's image as a revolutionary, nationalist, and modernizing symbol, especially when that image aided development of Deng's reform program.

Ideology and the Socialist Man

An important goal of Maoist ideology was the inculcation of certain prescribed values in party members and, by extension, in society as a whole. These included selfless dedication to the common good; an egalitarian concern with the uncomplicated expression of ideas in maxims or brief phrases understandable to all; and fervent commitment to ideal social behavior. In contrast, state ideology in the hands of Deng Xiaoping had a different purpose. The orientation was practical and less doctrinaire, aimed at fulfilling the goals of modernization. The official ideology was to be used to channel the individual's attempts to understand and practice modern concepts and methods. For example, in early 1987 the concept of village committees was introduced to give the massive rural population direct experience in self-management. It did not appear that these new bodies were meant to have substantive power but rather that they were intended to indoctrinate the population with modern approaches to social and political relations.

Paralleling this use of ideology as a cognitive tool was the party's policy of "emancipating the mind" and allowing debate to extend into subjects once considered "forbidden zones." China's scholars have argued publicly over issues such as the value of the commune system, the need for market concepts in a socialist economy, the historical impact of humanism, and even the current relevance of Marxism-Leninism. Student demonstrators in the mid1980s went too far, however, by questioning the preeminent role of the party. At that point, the immediate official response was to subordinate creativity and experimentation to public recognition of the presiding role of the party and its ideology.

Ideology and Social Change

Since the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee in December 1978, party reformers have been committed to channeling the increased political awareness and energies of the population into a strengthened movement for change. The tensions that have emerged during each successive wave of reform have required intervention and policy decisions at senior party levels. These sometimes have taken the form of new initiatives. At other times, tensions have precipitated a conservative response. Overall, this political process has seemed to support a gradual but forward movement of the reform program.

Modernization, by its very nature, is a socially disruptive process. In 1987, with many of the functions of the party apparatus still unclear even to party members and the question of Deng Xiaoping's successor still unsettled, the success of China's reform program was by no means assured.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress