The Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) was a turning point in the history of Communist China. In 1978, Chinese political actors acknowledged on an institutional level that a new era had crystallized. Deng Xiapong replaced Hua Guofeng as the paramount leader of the nation, and steered Chinese society into a policy of “reform and opening up” that repudiated the most abrasive protocols of the Cultural Revolution.
The death of Mao Zedong in 1976 created space for quietly pushing aside his most reactionary supporters and enacting reforms that most of China’s political establishment believed necessary. They focused their reform effort on liberalizing the economy. Special economic zones were created where foreign corporations and governments could invest in Chinese development. The closed and planned economy, draconically enforced during the Cultural Revolution, was with dramatic affect incrementally replaced with an open market economy. An average 9.8% growth rate was the result.
Change on two fronts was required to make this success possible: in the economy and
within society. The Chinese tirelessly worked towards the industrialization and modernization of their economy, key policies for growth. The economic reforms were followed by social reforms. The government permitted the importation of cars, construction of malls, and pushed for high-speed rail infrastructure. A largely rural society was quickly transforming. For the first time since the Communist Revolution, locals were encouraged to interact with tourists from the Western world, and newspapers became available when before only state-sponsored Communist publications were in circulation. Western goods became available for those thriving under the new reforms. Beijing and Shanghai rose as modern economic powerhouses where corporations from all over the world could invest. The change was dramatic, and the repressions were relaxed.
The history of China before the reforms was bleak. Mao Zedong initiated a series of rectification campaigns from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. The Communist Party demanded complete obedience in the intellectual activity and indeed the personal thoughts of the intelligentsia; students, professors, thinkers of all professions were carefully watched and expected to regurgitate the party line.
Wu Ninkang, a professor that had moved to the “new China” after 1949 was one of many targets of the purges. He moved with his wife to China from the United States, believing that an era of justice and equality had begun in his home country, where he could teach and inspire students to think critically and make the country great. The violence of imperialism and civil war had ended, and he believed anything was possible. In his autobiography A Single Tear, he tells readers of the hostility he was met with at faculty meetings, or “struggle sessions“. The staff would have meetings, where professors were labeled “counterrevolutionary” and forced to commit “self-criticism”, or the confession of thought crimes. The repression was psychological. “Self-criticism” was a form of social-engineering, where the “community” would give the individual in question the opportunity to be convinced of their own errors and counterrevolutionary thoughts, and apologize for them while learning the “correct” thoughts. This level of repression stifled innovation and squandered resources.
Those days are long gone in China. Although China is not a Democracy, its repression is nowhere near the levels of that time period. The CCP understands that repression on that scale would sour its commercial climate and cripple China’s ability to maintain its development trajectory. Economically, the country works now to do more than copy trends in innovation and research from the West, but to be internally innovative. For success on that front, a more socially relaxed atmosphere must be permitted, where people are free to criticize and debate.
Today, thousands of protests are permitted in China annually. The majority of these protests are focused on local issues, rather than national movement building. The protests aren’t against the Party, but on the contrary are often an appeal to the Party to solve their grievances with local officials. The Anti-Corruption Campaign presided over by current President Xi Jinping, could be a formula for further improvement in social-political relations between communities and the Party. High-ranking and low-level officials alike accused of corruption have been drummed out of their hallowed positions in an effort to create a more meritocratic system where inefficiency is punished and effectiveness is rewarded.
Protest has always been a large part of modern Chinese history. Peasants would protest Army inefficiencies during the opium wars of the 19th century. Foreign commercial investment that carved up villages lead to the Boxer Rebellion of the early 20th century. The revolution of 1911 and the New Youth Movements (NYM) from 1910-1930 overturned the last Chinese dynasty, with the youth’s New Youth Culture playing a significant role. After the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia consequently, many of these Chinese youth, frustrated with the slow pace of change, jumped ship to the Communist Party, believing it could instantly solve their problems.
All of this matters for how we see China’s future. Its youth cannot be counted out, they are capable of remarkable feats if they collectively set their minds to something. That’s the positive, but China is clouded by a dark history that is little mentioned in the West, and the ability for these memories to come to the fore and spoil its internal peace and relations with the world is a possibility. There are two histories of China in the 20th century. Which path China takes will determine its future, with great impact on the world.
The “peaceful rise” that began in 1978 became a remarkable avenue for economic and military growth; China is taking its rightful place among the community of nations, near the top of the global hierarchy. Yet the nation has a repressive and dynastic past, coupled with suspicions for the West, where most global institutional power is still concentrated. Its elite may not seek entry into the liberal democratic world, believing that because it was constructed without their input it is illegitimate and clashes with their interests. They may choose to instead chart their own path. A path that nations unhappy with the liberal order may emulate and accept as an alternative. Tensions in the South China Sea have grown in the aftermath of an international decision that China had no territorial claims there. China believes the South China Sea is a historic right. What other historic memories may the Chinese decide are important for how they chart their future? The military tension is becoming different to compartmentalize, and a more radical break with 1978 and the international order is a possibility.