Beyond Economic Reform; the Politics of Change in China

By Gottschalk, Marie | The Nation, February 1, 1986 | Go to article overview

Beyond Economic Reform; the Politics of Change in China


Gottschalk, Marie, The Nation


Time's selection of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping as 1985's Man of the Year has overshadowed the more somber assessments coming from Beijing in the past few months about the state of China's economic reforms. The hullabaloo created first in China and then abroad over the reform movement and its "success" has thus far left politicians, academics and journalists in the West either unwilling or unable to take a more realistic and hardheaded look at what is happening in the People's Republic. For too long, the central issue of the relation between the economic reforms and China's political development has been off-limits for serious debate.

Without a doubt, China's expanding economic program has been the nation's most important initiative since the death of the Great Helmsman, Mao Zedong, in 1976. Some of the icons of the new policies are dramatic. Maxim's, the posh French restaurant and disco, opens a branch in Beijing. Peasants in the countryside boast of owning television sets, tape recorders and motorcycles. Fashion designer Pierre Cardin uses the Great Wall as a runway for Chinese models elegantly dressed in clothes that cost more than ten times what the average peasant earns in a year.

No doubt, these are remarkable breaks from the past. So far, though, the reform movement has been evaluated with too narrow a criterion. Many Western experts have focused on a single aspect of it: the success of Deng's campaign to weed out "ultraleft Maoists" from the party, the army and the government. The party's continuing campaign to cleanse itself, the resignation early last year of forty top leaders of the People's Liberation Army and the retirement last September of nearly half the Politburo's members offer ample evidence of Deng's ability to remove unwelcome holdovers. No one should conclude, however, that the future of the reforms depends merely on deng's winning this ideological war.

Once Deng and his supporters finish battling the ultra-leftists, they will find themselves facing the problem that has plagued China and other developing nations for decades, what many scholars call the crisis of authority. The basic conundrum in China's development remains the same one that China scholar Lucien Pye outlined nearly twenty year ago: How can China create forms of authority in its politics and society that both satisfy the nation's historic need for self-confidence and also provide a foundation for "reordering their society in modern terms"?

Any serious look at the economic reforms must do more than cite statistics for record harvests and rising per capita income. It must answer a fundamental question: Will greater freedom and competition in the economic sphere increase tensions in the political sphere? Put another way, Will emerging political problems create an authority crisis in China?

At this point, the significant question to ask about the future course of Chinese politics is not, Will there be democracy? It is, Can China develop the ability to recognize political conflict and disagreement as legitimate, thus avoiding the extreme fluctuations that have characterized Chinese politics in the past? To begin to answer that question, one must identify the political strains that the economic reforms are likely to produce.

The rehabilitation of Deng Xiaoping after the Cultural Revolution, along with that of his proteges Premier Zhao Ziyang and General Secretary Hu Yaobang, marked the triumph of one set of leaders over another after a twenty-year conflict about the direction of China's future. Although that debate was waged in a sometimes diplomatic, sometimes brutal manner, the opponents agreed on one point: whoever came out on top would determine the course of change in China.

The transformations that have taken place since Mao's death reflect the will of those in power rather than the irrepressible demands of the people. Many of the reforms have weak institutional roots. …

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