Why China Had to Reform

Former top Communist Party official Bao Tong examines the reasons behind the Communist Party's move toward economic reform, begun 30 years ago this month.

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BaoTong2008-305 Bao Tong at his Beijing home, April 2008.

As China looks back over 30 years of economic reform, spearheaded in 1978 by the late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping after the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), a former top official in the ruling Communist Party explores why this move was necessary for China. 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:

Reforms, along with the Third Plenum of the 11th Chinese Communist Party Congress Central Committee [in December 1978], seem to be a hot topic at the moment. I too have some thoughts and memories to write down, some comparisons and criticisms. I would welcome the opportunity to debate them with anyone wishing to do so.

Where should I start? From the source of it all: namely, the reasons why there was no way forward but reform at this time.

Someone famous once said, "Not introducing reforms will take us down a blind alley." This famous person has long since died.

Of course, it wasn't said by Chen Yun, who favored a planned economy, nor was it said by Zhao Ziyang or Hu Yaobang, both of whom favored a market economy and political reform. No, it was said by the biggest name of that era: Deng Xiaoping.

To the point

One of Deng's characteristics was that he wasn't long-winded. Other people, such as Hu Qiaomu, would write him long, rambling speeches, but whenever he used his own words, he liked to keep them brief, well-considered, clear, and frank. "Not introducing reforms would take us down a blind alley" is an example of this.

We had to reform, because without reforms, we couldn't survive.

Why couldn't we survive? What forced our hands? Mao Zedong's brand of socialism did. What is socialism? No one in China knew. Only Big Brother Mao knew. If even Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai were a bit confused about it, what sort of chance did Deng have of surviving?

According to Mao, socialism consisted of three things: collectivization, planning, and accelerated development. Collectivization meant that all the means of production, from land, to sheep and cattle, to raw materials and tools, to capital, all became the property of the state, and were given to officials at every level of government to dispose of.

As for ordinary Chinese people, they were left with nothing but their chains. The result of economic planning was that everything was decided by the Party and the government, down to how many ounces of rice a person could eat in a day; how many feet of cloth they would use in a year; how many pay-rises they would get in a decade; how many babies could be born that year; how many children could go to school; and how many youths would have to go to the countryside.

Great Leap Forward

The goal of accelerated development was to overpower the Soviet revisionists, to catch up with America, and to outstrip Britain, by exaggerating grain harvests, by making steel and iron. (Mao Zedong was the "first master" of steel and iron: Deng Xiaoping was the "second master").

And what would happen if those targets weren't met? Oh, that was easy. You could fake the reports to make it look as if there was food to eat. The food that would keep the peasants alive was taken away and put in government warehouses to ensure there were no shortages in the cities during this Great Leap Forward, or stored for export. In this way 40 million rural residents died of starvation over three years, from 1959-61. How were they to continue like this?

Could we abandon socialism? No, we couldn't! Why not? Because this was the dictatorship of the proletariat. The entire point of the dictatorship of the proletariat was to suppress dissent of any kind. "Dissatisfaction with the Party" was a crime against Heaven. And who wielded the true dictator's power? The Party. And on what did the Party base its right to rule? On Mao Zedong's dictum: "The Party is in charge of everything."

And on what did Mao base his right to decree that the country should be ruled by the Communist Party? On the fact that Mao Zedong Thought was the highest truth. In short, Mao decided that the Communist Party had an absolute right to rule China, and Mao and the Party decided that China had to follow socialism.

Stark choice

Once Mao had decided this, anyone who disagreed with socialism was subject to struggle at the hands of the revolutionary masses. There were special departments to organize this oppression. The struggle and the oppression went on, year in, year out, day in, day out. One hundred million people were "struggled" during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) alone.

The population was dying, either of starvation, or from being "struggled" to death. It was a choice between reforms or everybody dying. And the things to be reformed were Mao-style socialism, the Maoist dictatorship of the proletariat and Mao Zedong Thought itself. Those Chinese who had survived the famines and the struggle sessions made it their business to reform these three things without fail. Because if they allowed themselves to be boxed in by them, Chinese people were on the road to nowhere.

Such was the origin of China's reforms, according to the facts as I know them. If anyone disagrees, please let me know which sentence or which passage is inaccurate.

Next, we must analyze what happened to the Chinese Communist Party, which had come to power wearing the army uniform of Mao Zedong Thought. Of the 70 million Party members, there is a small elite of the most able people in China. The Communist Party contains the best and worst of us. Only the Party can decide whether to reform, how to reform, and what to reform. No one else can do it for them.

I think that if the Party itself decides that it can move away from Mao's con-trick, which told them it should be in charge of everything, then I think that there is hope for the future of such a Party, and it will be able to continue to play a role in Chinese society, and affect the lives of its citizens for a long time to come!

Original essay written in Chinese by Bao Tong for broadcast on RFA's Mandarin service. Director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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