China's Abstract Democracy

By Feldman, Harvey | The World and I, July 2000 | Go to article overview

China's Abstract Democracy

Feldman, Harvey, The World and I

The regime has turned to raw, strident nationalism, expressed in threats to Taiwan, anger directed at the United States, and territorial claims in the South China Sea.

China already has "the broadest democracy that has ever existed in history," said former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping early in the 1980s. But Deng also said that reform must not challenge "the four basic principles"--socialism, dictatorship of the proletariat, Marxism- Leninism-Mao Zedong thought, and the leadership role of the Chinese Communist Party: "Departure from the four basic principles and talk about democracy in the abstract will inevitably lead to the unchecked spread of ultrademocracy and anarchism."

These antithetical quotations define the tensions and contradictions that have existed in the People's Republic of China since 1979, when Deng began the reform campaign that opened China to the world: on the one hand, recognition of the Chinese people's desire for a better life in a "normal country"; on the other, the fear that this aspiration would be incompatible with the exclusivist control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Early in 1979, communes were still the norm in the countryside and peasants were penalized for engaging in sideline production of their own. Industry remained tied to inflexible government plans that emphasized production rather than sales or profits, resulting in large inventories of unwanted or unusable items. When Deng began his reform program, things began to change. The communes were abandoned and farmers were allowed to lease the land they farmed. Soon the leases were declared heritable, becoming private property under a different name. Sideline farming disappeared because the peasants, after meeting their state-imposed grain allocation, could grow what they wished and sell what they grew. Agricultural production soared, and farmers, at least those near urban markets, began making money for the first time since the communists took power in 1949.

In the cities, managers were told they had to make a profit, and the enterprise was allowed to retain a substantial part of the profit it made. Meanwhile, workers were allowed to wriggle out of the control that the danwei, or work unit, formerly exercised over their lives and families. Timidly at first, then almost in a torrent, members of the Communist Party, intellectuals, and ordinary Chinese began describing in print the horrors they had been subjected to during Mao Zedong's "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution." Under Deng's patronage, CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang rehabilitated millions of party and nonparty people who had suffered during that time--as had Deng himself and his son, Pufang, made paraplegic after being hurled from a high window.

The emphasis now was upon the "Four Modernizations": agriculture, industry, science and technology, and defense. Deng famously said he didn't care if the cat was black or white, as long as it caught the mice, adding that "policies are good if they are good for liberating socialist productive forces, increasing the comprehensive power of the socialist state, and raising the people's living standards."

With pent-up energies released, both agricultural and industrial growth spurted. Growth figures in the early 1980s topped 10 percent year after year. True, the starting base was extremely low, the GDP statistics still included the unsold and unsalable, and government-directed loans to state-owned enterprises increased roughly in direct proportion to the diminished expectation of repayment. But villages now had brick homes and television sets, and if urban dwellers complained of higher prices, there were goods to buy and fatter pay packets with which to buy them.

Foreign investment was allowed in, though the more conservative party idealogues complained it would bring with it the corrupting influence of "Western bourgeois ideas." Deng shrugged and said that if you opened the windows, a few flies were bound to get in but could easily be swatted. …

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