A Pivotal Moment For China

A former top Communist Party official looks back on a "uniquely lively" Party plenum, but says the real forces for change lay elsewhere. Part 2 in a series to mark 30 years of Chinese economic reform.
2008-12-29
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April 5th 305
Several hundred thousand people lay wreaths on April 5, 1976 on Tiananmen Square in memory of late Premier Zhou Enlai. The episode was condemned as counter-revolutionary by a tense meeting of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) Central Committee. Deng Xiaoping was named as the instigator and stripped of Party posts.
AFP

As China looks back over 30 years of economic reform, spearheaded in 1978 by late former supreme leader Deng Xiaoping in the wake of the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), a former top official in the ruling Communist Party explores why this move was needed. Bao Tong, former aide to ousted late premier Zhao Ziyang, wrote this anniversary essay from his Beijing home, where he has lived under house arrest since his release from jail in the wake of the 1989 student movement. Part 2 of a series follows:

Third Plenum: What Really Happened

At the beginning of 1962, as the Party was preparing for a congress of 7,000 people amid a tide of boastful flattery, Deng Xiaoping made a wry comment: "If something is so beautiful in the first place, why do we need to put make-up on it?" This was splendid. And again, at the lively third plenary session of the 11th Party Congress [in 1978], there was no need for embroidery, no need to "revise" history. In fact, reform wasn't discussed at the Third Plenum. Reform wasn't listed on the agenda, nor was it mentioned in the work reports. No one passed a motion calling for it, and there was no investigation into a possible reform program.

At that time, Wan Li in Anhui was implementing his policy of "household responsibility" for farmland, while Zhao Ziyang was trying out his policy of "reforms to expand the self-determination of farmers and enterprises" in Sichuan. But they were local leaders at that time. The word "reform" wasn't even in the vocabulary of central government leaders. The fact cannot be concealed or changed that reforms weren't the theme of the Third Plenum.

Sometimes, history resonates with itself. In 1969, as the Communist Party was preparing for the Ninth Party Congress, Lin Biao put forward the view that the process of continuous revolution should be stopped, and the Party should turn its attention instead to ways to develop productivity. If Mao had been receptive to this idea, then maybe Lin Biao would have gone on to become the next Deng Xiaoping.

But the opposite occurred, because the suggestion angered Mao deeply, causing the rift between them. Fast forward to 1978, and the Third Plenum, where Deng Xiaoping thought the same thing, that the continuous process of revolution should be stopped, and that the whole Party should turn its attention to building a modern China. Luckily, Hua Guofeng wasn't Mao, and fortunately he accepted Deng's suggestion.

Hua and Deng agreed ahead of the Third Plenum that it would look forwards rather than backwards and avoid getting tangled up in "problems left over by history." (By this, they meant that it wouldn't concern itself with debating the issue of all the trumped-up or mistaken political charges against people.) They decided that what was needed was "unity to face the future."

Looking ahead

But what were we facing? We were looking ahead to modernization. But after Chen Yun and Hu Yaobang caused trouble, the members of the Party Central Committee kicked up a fuss en masse, overturning Hua and Deng's planned framework. Pretty soon, everyone had turned their attention to talking about the past, and then the debates came thick and fast. What were they talking about? They were talking about the Cultural Revolution, the Lushan meeting, the unresolved "political cases," and Mao Zedong.

From the point of view of Chairman Hua and vice-chairman Deng, this was a loss of control. It was hard for them to endure because it made them look passive. But from the point of view of those Party Central Committee delegates sitting in the hall, it was the revolution they had never had. At least, it was the first taste they had had of liberation since Mao Zedong became the "core" of the Party, particularly since he had punished Peng Dehuai and harried Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao to their deaths.

Finally, they were able to debate the rights and wrongs of Mao Zedong, and to put the case of the ordinary Chinese people without fear or shame. This was where the true creativity and life-force of the Third Plenum lay! This was how it differed utterly from previous meetingsthose scripted presentations upon which the deadening of spirit lay so heavy. Finally, they had forced Deng Xiaoping to go along with this new turn of events and adapt to the change that was in the air.

New script

So Deng tossed aside the old script that had been written for him by Hu Qiaomu and asked Hu Yaobang and Yu Guangyuan to write new scripts titled "The Liberation of Our Thought" and "Making Full Use of Democracy," and he sat up and took notice. The hubbub of the Third Plenum and Deng's ability to follow the mood of the meeting is worthy of study by later generations in the Communist Party, and it is a tradition that should continue. Sadly, there are some people who sing the praises of the Third Plenum but are unable to allow themselves to speak of its true force for life, because they don't dare face up to it, and they don't dare allow it to continue.

We can perhaps imagine what might have transpired if the meeting had truly gone ahead according to the carefully laid plans of Chairman Hua and Vice-chairman Deng, and gone ahead in a quiet and orderly manner; if Chen Yun and the others hadn't made a fuss, if the mistakes that Mao made had been covered up, and the Central Committee delegates hadn't been allowed to talk about them so freely. If that had happened, and they had stuck rigidly to Deng's theme of "Turning our attention to the work of modernization," what sort of ending would we have seen then? It is fairly obvious that we would have seen another power struggle and another political coup of the kind that both Mao and Deng knew so well how to do.

It's just as well, then, that the Third Plenum was a uniquely lively meeting. It started a chain reaction. The frenzied debates in the Central Committee led to similar discussions at local and grass-roots levels, to a healthy hubbub within the Party and in society at large. As everyone began talking at once, initially about the [1976] Tiananmen Incident and the political issues of the Cultural Revolution, the subjects debated expanded to the communes, to the planned economy, to collectivism, to the iron rice-bowl, and all sorts of related problems. All these subjects lost their forbidden halo of light and became things that ordinary people could examine, and debate. The entire impetus for reform sprang directly out of this process of everyone talking at once.

And as for the ordinary Chinese people, who weren't allowed to debate Mao Zedong, whose mouths had to be kept shut because they had lost the right to speak, who were unable even to solve the problems of their own daily existence, for them, this debate turned into a new productivity. At a time in history when nobody dares open their mouths, a lively debate can translate into a powerful force for production. This is a truth. It is is truth proven by the Third Plenum. Would any of our eulogists care to write a poem about that?

The Third Plenum wasn't the origin: It was the product of the smashing of the Gang of Four. Otherwise, the meeting would probably have been led by the Gang of Four. But the origin didn't lie with the smashing of the Gang of Four, either, which was itself the product of the April 5 movement on Tiananmen Square in 1976. The canny Chinese people used the occasion of a memorial for the deceased Zhou Enlai to express their anger at those in power at the time, namely, Mao Zedong. It was popular sentiment of this kind that heralded the beginning of the post-Mao era, and pointed to the direction China would take after Mao. Anyone looking for the origins of China's reform era doesn't have to go very far. Just walk out onto Tiananmen Square, where the anti-Mao sentiment was so strongly concentrated, even if was expressed in complete silence.

Written by Bao Tong for broadcast on RFA's Mandarin service. Service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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