China after 1978: Economic and other reforms

1. The last years of the Cultural Revolution (1971-76)

Even though after Vice Chairman of the Party Lin Biao's death in 1971, China started to open up to the outside, political movements picked up new momentum in 1974. Mao's wife, Jiang Ching, wanted to be Mao's successor (Mao was quite ill by now and was to die in two years.). In 1973, Mao had reappointed Deng Xiaoping, the number 2 "capitalist roader" during the Cultural Revolution, as vice prime minister. Deng's political rehabilitation was brought to an end in 1975 by Madame Mao who now wanted to use Mao's radicalism to combat the remaining "capitalist roaders" within the party, including Deng and Zhou Enlai, the prime minister. Eventually Zhou was to die of cancer in its last stage because of deliberately missed opportunities of treatment arranged by Madame Mao and her cohorts, called the "Gang of Four." Although college entrance examinations were reinstated in 1973, in 1974 they were suspended, replaced by a recommendation system, with students recommended from the factories, communes, and the army. These so called "worker-peasant-soldier" college students often lacked the basic background of education, some of them not having completed high school. In the early 1970s, politics was still pitted against education, in the jargon "red vs. expertise." It was an either/or situation. The suspension of the college entrance examination system was preceded by a prospective student from a farm who submitted a blank examination paper, but on the back of it wrote a treatise denouncing book knowledge. His letter was then carried in all major Chinese newspapers and he was celebrated as the "blank examination sheet hero" (with no irony implied). Since one could not have political consciousness (red) and expertise, it was better to be red rather than expert.

Chairman Mao Tse-tung died on Sept.9, 1976. The whole nation participated in ceremonies that mourned him. Along with many other classmates I wondered if the sky was going to fall down. Within a month, classmates who had insider news started to whisper about the arrest of Madame Mao and her cohorts, together called the Gang of Four, who then went on trial and were sentenced to life imprisonment. Deng Xiaoping, the no.2 capitalist roader in the Cultural Revolution, was politically rehabilitated (again, after he was suppressed by the Gang of Four headed by Madame Mao in April 1976). In early 1978, a national conference was convened at which Deng declared the Cultural Revolution was over, and China needed modernization, including in agriculture, industry, and science and technology. This ushered in an era that many Chinese called the "spring of science and technology," when learning was again a good thing and to have knowledge would get one somewhere. Most who were persecuted in the Cultural Revolution were politically rehabilitated, and for those already dead, posthumously so. China went on to a cautious economic reform, beginning with four experimental centers in four coastal cities. Simultaneously the countryside went through reforms. Although privatization of land was not implemented, land was rented to peasant households for 50-100 years, and the People's Communes disbanded one after another. The free market was revived, and after selling a certain amount of their produce to the state at a price set by the state, the peasants could sell their excess at the free market. The economic reform in the countryside gave the Chinese government greater confidence in the reform, hence it was implemented in the cities in the second half of the 1980s: factories and other state institutions including colleges and universities were increasingly required to be financially self-responsible. In both the countryside and the cities, China started a dual-economic system: a limited free market combined with a limited state regulated economy.

2. The rise of Deng Xiaoping

The economic reform was chaired by the politically rehabilitated Deng Xiaoping, from Sichuan Province, who had been persecuted in the Cultural Revolution because he had been the chief assistant to Liu Shaoqi, chairman of the People's Republic of China and chief target of Mao in his inner party struggle for power. Having been to France as a work-study student in the 1920s, Deng was more cosmopolitan than Mao and the persecutions in the Cultural Revolution steeled his resolution to adopt a more pragmatic policy that would enable China to grow economically just as other economically advanced countries in the world.

The political scientist Andrew Nathan summarizes the contrast between China under Mao (1949-76) and China under Deng (1978-97):

The characteristics of Mao's state:

Deng's reform and his state:

Although political movements continued, such as the "anti-spiritual pollution movement" against capitalist liberalism and pornography in 1983-84, and the 1989 crackdown on Chinese students' movement against "government profiteering," they have been on a lesser scale and lower keyed in general compared with pre 1976 China. After so many years of political movements, the Chinese are tired of high strung but empty political slogans. And many are disillusioned with the Communist government although anyone who openly criticizes the Communist Party can still be thrown into prison. The economic reforms, on the whole, have profoundly changed Chinese society, and may in the near future push for greater political reforms.

The rise of private enterprises and growth of individualism

One of the biggest changes in China since the early 1980s has been the rise of private entrepreneurs and people who work in the private sectors of the economy. Many of them are college graduates, who used to boast of the "iron rice bowl" they were granted--state assigned jobs guaranteed after their graduation. With the gradual implementation of the market economy, more and more wanted to rise up to the challenge: giving up state assigned but usually low salaried jobs and land jobs on their own that were more lucrative and enabled them to have greater responsibility over what they did. Landing one's own job has also led to changes in the value system, forcing many to become more individual-minded, independent and competitive, qualities that were discouraged in the Mao years. This also leads to the transformation of Communist Chinese society based on the work unit system, which served the function of "both soical welfare and governance."

In contrast to the political movement to learn from Lei Feng, even in the midst of those pre-1976 political movements including the Cultural Revolution, people never really became "selfless." In fact, students "adapted their behavior to the structure of opportunities and the rules of the game," according to the China historian Perry Link. In other words, if the rules of the game were that you need to implicate friends and beat up capitalist roaders to be promoted, then some people would do it as this way they would advance their careers. Social and political structures are extremely important, as they can channel human ambitions to different ends, positive or negative. The Athenian political system of direct political participation, comments one historian, enables its citizen to make maximum use of his potential, something not achievable under many other political systems. The market economy, in its first years viewed with uncertainty by college graduates who were used to a life dependent on the state, soon proved to be very attractive although also frustrating and challenging to many.

Together with the market economy and fresh opportunities to find jobs one wants to do comes a sense of self-realization through one's own choice, something quite different from the Lei Feng Spirit (be a screw on the socialist machine); or the spirit of "serving the people" as championed by Mao.

The economic reform brought about dramatic economic developments, and also dramatic rise of prices (as the rationing system was abolished and prices were allowed to float according to market). This led to an adaptation of a Maoist slogan. The original slogan exhorted people to cut back on their material needs and hope for the future: "The whole country should look forward. (quan guo ren min xiang qian kan)" Now, the sentence reads the same but a word is changed, "qian" a sound that stands for many words (typical of the Chinese language which has many words with identical pronunciation), can mean both forward and money. Now, the slogan reads "The whole country look toward money." Material wealth, discouraged under the Communist system, becomes a high goal of pursuit. Many of the newly rich did not even know how to spend their money. They showed off wealth sometimes by burning up hundred yuan bills, and breaking expensive bottles of cognac. China had increasing numbers of "ten thousand yuan households," which were lauded by the state, and eventually, with inflation and rise of income, ten thousand yuan changed from an astronomical to a much less insignificant sum of money. Millionaires became the new heroes of the era. In recent years, the Communist Party wanted to cement their rule by attracting millionaires to join the party and to participate in local and provincial governments. The majority of the millionaires, however, have their highest degrees only from primary or junior high school.

In this new economy of competition, not all college graduates are successful, and women who have attended college or not equally face the issue of how to balance family and work. On the whole, not every one is able to find a job that allows self-realization. Factors such as education, locality, lack of connections, inadequate skills or ability, personality, and even luck can be perceived as barrier to success in finding, landing and keeping a good job. But China's younger generations are willing to try it out in this new economic system, and like in the past, they are adapting to the new rules of the game.

Economic changes are not just economic, but entail political and social ramifications. The new market economic system and the job market have led to more independent, and assertive personalities and greater ambitions of individual self-fulfillment. If the decrease in the work unit has led to great changes in the Chinese social structure, the job market has also cultivated new values among China's young. Living in high rises without access to the traditional community, thriving on individualism and self-assertiveness, the Chinese young are becoming increasingly like the youth of the West in their value system and external environment.

Market economy and geographical mobility

Besides fostering greater independence, another consequence of market economy is its promotion of geographical mobility. With the development of first the family responsibility system to the ultimate disbandment of the People's Commune in recent years, peasants found they no longer needed to have the whole family live on the farm. The able bodied ones would migrate to cities looking for an unskilled job, such as construction workers, household helpers, nurse assistants in hospitals, etc. This directly clashed with the state rule that rural residents cannot migrate to cities. In the past, this rule was maintained by the household registration system, where each household had a registration book that indicated their residence. With this book, a family would get their ration tickets for food such as tofu, eggs, cooking oil, sesame butter, sugar, rice, wheat flour, and for cloth. Under a state regulated economy, in the absence of a free market, this household registration system would effectively deter peasants from coming into cities as there, the peasants could not survive without the ration tickets. But with the market economy, when the ration system was abolished, the household registration system could no longer deter peasants from flocking to cities, even though peasants continued to be discriminated against: schools charge their children double or triple tuition than local children because they are not residents. Hospitals charge exta, too, for the same reason. And open discrimination happens often. The police very often charge unreasonable fees.

Rural economic reforms since 1978
The Chinese economic reform started from the countryside, as Deng realized that the long time Communist policy to use the countryside to subsidize the urban areas led to endemic poverty in the Chinese countryside and it was important to reduce that poverty before greater reform could be implemented in urban areas. thus Communist egalitarianism was replaced by the slogan to allow some people to become rich first. In particular, the chinese government allowed peasants to contract land from the People's Commune for a period between 50-100 years. the result was stunning. by the mid 1980s, some peasants had become fabulously wealthy by the then standards.

1. The regional distribution of rural economic growth and their characteristics.

Rural economic prosperity has concentrated in primarily three regions:
  • Sunan (southern Jiangsu Province), historically China's wealthiest region and its proximity to Shanghai also meant it was in a position to develop industries tied to Shanghai's industrial needs and expertise.
  • Wenzhou: across from Taiwan, a hilly region unsuitable for agriculture and long ignored by the Chinese government because of its likelihood to be Taiwan's first target should a war break out between mainland China and Taiwan. Consequently the Wenzhou people developed their unique surviving strategies: even at the height of the Cultural Revolution, they would make their own shoes and umbrellas for sale on the side.
  • The Pearl River delta: the Canton region, historically exposed to trade with Western countries (the Canton system), with proximity to Hong Kong to attract Hong Kong investments, and with political patronage by the Communist government because of ties with members in the central government.
  • The wealth in these regions not only relied on agriculture, but also the TVEs--the township and village enterprises, ranging from food processing to making automobile or electronic parts. These enterprises were encouraged by the government, and these regions were either located near big industrial/commercial centers to benefit from them (Sunan, Pearl River delta) or ready to purchase technology from abroad and export directly to the world market(Wenzhou).
  • Those TVEs have played a tremendous role in slowing down rural migrations to the cities, but they have also played a big role in polluting the rivers and causing workplace accidents because they have not been sufficiently regulated with laws.

Catching up with the West industrially: step one: the development of special economic zones.

The Special Economic Zones (SEZs) were Deng Xiaoping's experiment with capitalism: like lab tests, Deng wanted to make sure the capitalism he wanted to introduce would not develop into a nationwide virus to kill the Communist government instantly. In an unpleasant way, it also resembled the foreign concessions before 1949, when Britain, France, Japan, the U.S., etc., all had their special zone of jurisdiction in major Chinese cities. These SEZs were open only to certain people and ordinary Chinese migrants needed something equivalent to a visa or permit in order to get in these areas in the first ten years of their operation. These SEZs have developed rapidly and attracted huge volumes of foreign investments because of their tax benefits, and many more of them have been opened up since the opening of the first four in the early 1980s. But like the TVEs in the rural areas, the SEZs also suffer from a series of problems:

  • Sweatshops unregulated by government laws.
  • No or nearly no safety measures for the workers (e.g. bolted doors and windows in factories to prevent the workers from escaping, but also preventing them from fleeing when there was a fire).
  • Too rapid development led to a bubble economy (an economy based on over-building and over-investment, ending in quick collapse like a soap bubble).
  • Government leaders and their children putting themselves into leadership positions of certain or many of the companies in the SEZs.

Privatization of industrial enterprises

Reform of the industrial sector proved to be difficult from the very beginning. Although easier compared with the Soviet Union where 80% of the population worked in the industrial sector and where reform meant drastic changes to their lives over night, in China industrial reform happened gradually, beginning with encouragement of private or collective enterprises, before actual reform of the State Owned Enterprises (SOEs). The reform of the SOEs however has proved to be an excruciating experience for many. They suffered from a multitude of problems:

  • Inefficiency and inability to compete with the private enterprises, joint ventures with foreign enterprises, or even the TVEs (township and village enterprises), and so had to be shut down or sold. Theoretically China has remained a socialist economy, and shutting down the SOEs often took the form of paying the workers a minimum amount of salary to keep their lives going, so that they did not have to report for work.
  • Many of the ailing state enterprises are in the heavy and traditional industries, which are gradually becoming obscure as China starts to encourage the newer industries such as electronics and newer technologies. Many of the state enterprise employees, for lack of new skills, could not find suitable jobs.
  • As the Chinese reform opened a dual track economy--limited market economy plus state regulated economy, members of the state often used their position and access to resources to embezzle and influence enterprises, or to falsely report company earnings in the stock markets because of their connections with people high in the government, making the stock market eager to woo them and relax on background checks.  And often with their influence they have their children placed in the top leadership of private enterprises.
  •  The lack of pension and social security for the unemployed workers sometimes leads to social protest.

Some of the negative side effects of the economic reform aroused great anger among the people, especially university students, in the late 1980s, as with the market economy they now would have to find jobs themselves in the marketplace instead of having the government assign them jobs as in the past. They realized they were competing on a very unequal position with children of the Communist leaders who would invariably get good jobs because of their fathers or mothers. Starting from March 1981, they demonstrated on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, asking to "down with government profiteering," and restructuring the Chinese government along democratic lines. The situation became very tense as the government did not want to comply completely with the students, and the students insisted on the state's 100% endorsement of their package. The negotiations reached an impasse, eventually solved with martial law and armed confrontations: from 300 to 3,000 people were killed by the People's Liberation Army that finally ended the three month long student movement. The Tiananmen Incident, as it was called, led to a momentary reversal to the reform, although the government expanded economic reform in 1990 and later to compensate for a lack of political freedom.