World History 2 257 - 14.5.2 The Retreat of Communism: China

The excesses of the Cultural Revolution in China spelled the end of both Mao Zedong’s power and, ironically, the Chinese Revolution. By the time of Lin Biao’s death in 1971, China had suffered badly. The economy was in shambles. The government had difficulty fulfilling basic functions. As Mao retreated into depression and ill health, his role was increasingly taken over by “The Gang of Four,” consisting of Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, his chosen successor Wang Hongwen, Zhang Chunqiao, and Yao Wenyuan. However, they were primarily concerned with ensuring ideological purity and the continuation of “revolutionary” political thought. Crucial matters such as the economy were left in the hands of Premier Zhou Enlai.

Zhou, however, was dying of cancer and needed help, so with Mao’s permission he returned Deng Xiaoping to power to assist him (Figure 14.20). Zhou and Deng managed the government and the economy, with more of the work falling to Deng as Zhou withdrew from public life. Following Zhou’s death in January 1976, the Gang of Four managed to oust Deng Xiaoping from power once more, but this time he did not remain away for long.

A photograph shows three men standing outside behind a podium with microphones. The man on the far left holds a paper and pen in his hand and looks to the man in the center. The man in the center stands behind the podium and looks at the camera. Behind him stands another man who also looks forward.
Figure 14.20 In 1977, Deng Xiaoping returned to a place of prominence in the Chinese government after being ousted from power during the Cultural Revolution. In this photo, President Carter welcomes him to the White House in 1979. (credit: “Deng Xiaoping and Jimmy Carter at the arrival ceremony for the Vice Premier of China” by U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Following Mao’s death on September 9, 1976, his successor Hua Guofeng had the Gang of Four arrested and Deng returned to power. Deng was made vice premier in 1977 and used his position to reverse the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution. In 1978, he replaced Hua as leader of China and argued that the country needed to focus on modernizing and building its economy instead of continuing to pursue revolution by following the teachings of Mao. He instituted a policy of Boluan Fanzheng (“correct the wrong/return to normal”), in which the reputations of those imprisoned were “rehabilitated,” and those still alive were returned to power. The Chinese system of higher education returned to normal as Deng reinstated entrance examinations, which had been suspended during the Cultural Revolution. He declared that scientists and intellectuals were deserving of respect because modernization could not proceed without their contributions.

Deng also instituted a sweeping set of economic reforms based on the “Four Modernizations” of agriculture, industry, defense, and science and technology. Collective farms were broken up and entrepreneurs encouraged to start their own businesses. The country was opened to foreign investment, and foreign companies were invited to open Chinese branches. In the 1980s and 1990s, a few elements of capitalism were introduced. Private management of many state industries was allowed, and although the largest remained under government control, people’s incomes and the Chinese standard of living swiftly improved. Along with economic changes, alterations took place in foreign policy. In the 1980s, China decreased its support for revolutionary activity in other countries, with some exceptions, such as its support for anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan and for Cambodians fighting the Vietnamese invasion. Beginning in the late 1980s, relations with the Soviet Union also began to improve, and trade between the USSR and China increased.

In 1980, Deng called for political reform as well. He criticized the cumbersome Chinese bureaucracy and called for term limits on political positions and a redrafting of the constitution. However, he had no intention of allowing opposition to the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In 1986, university students began a series of protests in major Chinese cities. The government suppressed their actions, but in 1989 protests broke out again.

Beginning on April 17, students in Beijing gathered at Tiananmen Square to mourn the recent death of party official Hu Yaobang, who had supported them. Influenced by Western media, they called for democratic reform, an end to government censorship, greater rights to protest, and more money for education. They and other protesters also decried corruption in the CCP and what they perceived as mismanagement of China’s economy. Reforms had improved life for farmers, but industrial workers and urban dwellers had not benefited. In the coming weeks, some students marched through the streets in angry protest, while others refused to abandon the square. On the evening of June 3, 1989, tanks entered Beijing, and over the next several days armed troops and tanks cleared the square, killing anywhere from several hundred to several thousand people. On June 9, Deng denounced the students for attempting to overthrow the government. In other Chinese cities, the protests ended peacefully.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax