Life in China: Living the Big Changes
(Page 7 of 9)
The period following Mao’s death, especially the so-called Reform Era after December 1978, when Deng Xiaopeng became China’s paramount leader, is treated as a second age of great accomplishments. The pursuit of modernization and harmony rather than the promotion of equality became the main focus. In Chinese official rhetoric, the reforms introduced by Deng and his successors are all intended simply to bring to completion Mao’s revolutionary goal of strengthening China. When the Gang of Four were punished for their crimes, they were not charged with being too revolutionary, but rather with being counterrevolutionary; that is, doing things that endangered the country’s movement forward.
Among the many ways of telling the tale of the Mao years and the period after his death, two have gained prominence in the West. One might be called the “Troubling Path Corrected.” It paints Mao and Deng as being as different as night and day. Deng was a pragmatist, whereas Mao was an ideologue. It was Deng’s readiness to experiment with market reforms that allowed China finally to start shedding its longtime status as an impoverished nation. He is credited with steering China onto the right track by implementing reforms that encouraged entrepreneurship both in the countryside, where the decollectivization of agriculture allowed farmers to keep some of the profits from crops grown on private plots, and in joint ventures between Chinese companies and foreign investors in “special economic zones.” The narrative treats Deng as a proponent of moderation, eager to move China into step with global norms, making it more open and less authoritarian. He might have talked about “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” but what he was really doing was moving China toward capitalism—and liberalizing it slowly but steadily in the process.
This scenario lost favor in the West, however, in the aftermath of the Tiananmen struggle of 1989. Student-led protests in Beijing called for an end to corruption and increased personal freedoms. Soon urbanites from many walks of life were gathering en masse in Tiananmen Square in Beijing and the main plazas of scores of other cities. The government responded by imposing martial law, denouncing the demonstrators as “rioters” and “counterrevolutionaries,” and the struggle became in large part a fight for the right to protest. Deng was instrumental in calling in troops to stop this inspiring struggle for change, and he is rightly seen as one of the main architects of the June 4th Massacre, when unarmed citizens were mowed down with automatic weapons on the streets near Tiananmen Square.
A contrasting Western narrative, which gained influence after the 1989 crackdown, stresses continuities between Mao’s China and the PRC of today—but not positive ones of the sort found in China’s official tale. This “Unchanging Dictatorship” scenario depicts the enormous death toll of the Great Leap Forward famine and the persecutions of the Cultural Revolution years as the defining phenomena of the early PRC. Promoters of this version of the past admit that Deng and his successors have done many things differently but argue that it is a mistake to forget some basic things that have never changed. The Party, for example, has never allowed any competing political organization to exist, has never stopped imprisoning those who speak out most forcefully against its rule, and has always been led by men (and they have nearly all been men) who enjoy special privileges.
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