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
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."
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
meetings—those 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.
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  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.