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November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Visions of China CNN TIME Asiaweek Fortune
SEPTEMBER 24, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 38

Purges to Polls
Pragmatists have prevailed over leftists, but change remains slow

Fifty years of Communist rule have brought both triumph and tragedy to China

From "class struggle" to village elections

The Economy
Backyard furnaces yield to enterprise reform

The drive for world clout and national reunification

Society and Culture
Still searching for a modern identity

Personal accounts of life in the People's Republic

People to Know
50 Movers and shakers in today's China

Immortal Quotes
50 immortal quotes from over 2,000 years of Chinese history

50 years of the People's Republic presented by CNN, TIME, Asiaweek and Fortune

China's Amazing Half Century
Navigate through the People's Republic of China and discover the 50 places where history was made

"You are dictatorial. My dear sirs, what you say is correct." So wrote Mao Zedong in On the People's Democratic Dictatorship not long after the founding of socialist China. That seminal essay laid out in the baldest terms the nature of politics in the People's Republic. "Democracy" was reserved for "the people," defined as workers, peasants, progressive intellectuals and partriotic bourgeoisie. All others were "reactionaries," who might be permitted livelihoods so long as they obeyed. Otherwise, they would be harshly suppressed. The army, the police and the courts were the instruments of the dictatorship.

The Chinese Communists, of course, were never the Jeffersonian democrats that some of their early admirers in the West made them out to be. Yet Chinese political life has been anything but static in the past 50 years. It has been characterized by a constant tension between radicals on the left, bent on creating a "new man" and a New China, and pragmatists, happy just to see a strong China and create some prosperity for its people. The former group was dominant during most of the first half of People's Republic history, while the latter was on top for most of the second.

The ultimate leftist was Mao Zedong himself. After the Communist Party took power in 1949, he ruthlessly foiled, jailed or killed his critics and adversaries. When his authority waned after the disastrous Great Leap Forward, Mao mobilized millions of militant youths to destroy his former comrades-in-arms. In 27 years of intermittent "class struggle," Mao pushed the economy to the brink of collapse and his people to the edge of insanity. "There is nothing more enjoyable than battling heaven and earth - and men," he said.

The paragon pragmatist was Deng Xiaoping. He wanted a quiet, peaceful world so China could develop. He downplayed ideology, adopting results-oriented policies. But Deng feared instability and unrest. He had good reason to, having survived three purges and much turmoil during his political career. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao sent him to work in a Jiangsu province machine factory as part of his "re-education through labor."

In the early 1950s, the pragmatists were in the forefront. The emphasis was on ending feudalism and building the nation. In rapid succession, laws were passed proscribing oppressive traditional practices. A marriage law was adopted, putting an end to concubinage and child nuptials. Liu Shaoqi, Mao's No. 2, envisaged 15-20 years of national reconstruction and gradual socialist transformation. Mao wanted to move more quickly, but for a while was restrained by such moderates as Liu, Deng and Premier Zhou Enlai.

Eventually, though, the radicals had their way. Their spearheads were Mao's Great Leap Forward (1958-60) and Cultural Revolution (1966-76). The Leap, a bungled bid for instant industrialization, led to mass starvation. And during the Cultural Revolution, Mao and his allies unleashed armies of naïve Red Guards against the "fortresses" of "capitalist-roaders" in the party. Fanning the flames were military chief Lin Biao and the "Gang of Four," led by Mao's wife Jiang Qing. The Red Guards went on a national rampage, ousting senior leaders, humiliating scholars and hounding scientists.

Eventually, even Mao recognized that things had gone out of control. He instructed troops to restore order. But before the witch hunt was over, Liu had been hounded to death. Deng, the "No. 2 Capitalist-Roader" after Liu, was sent down to do manual labor. The Cultural Revolution spent its force. Lin Biao died in 1971 while fleeing the country after a failed coup bid against Mao. Mao himself passed from the scene in 1976. Shortly after, the Gang of Four was arrested. But the psychological terror of the Cultural Revolution marked a generation of Chinese.

"The reason China's development was so problematic during Mao's time was his ultra-leftism," says Niu Dayong, a historian at Peking University. "By 1976, the vast majority of Chinese realized that what Mao had designed for the nation was a dead-end." The following year, party leaders restored Deng's posts. Mao's designated successor, Hua Guofeng, was soon swept aside. And in December 1978, the Deng-dominated party formally abandoned Mao's "continuous class struggle." The era of economic reform had begun.

Deng was bold with economic experiments but conservative politically. He was primarily concerned with the issues of succession, administration and the promotion of younger cadres. He phased out lifetime office by introducing term limits to government posts and eliminated the party chairmanship. Deng also downplayed the politics of personality while stressing collective leadership. He set a personal example by not holding the highest offices and then "retiring" - even as he held most power levers virtually until his death.

Deng made missteps in anointing an heir. His original choice, Hu Yaobang, turned out too liberal and was ousted as party leader in 1987. Deng's next protégé was Zhao Ziyang, a technocrat who had made a name pushing reform in the patriarch's native Sichuan province. But Zhao also fell after seeming too sympathetic with the student demonstrators of Tiananmen in 1989. Finally, Deng found his successor in Jiang Zemin, who was elevated from Shanghai party chief not long after the bloody crackdown.

In the past decade, Jiang has consolidated his power. He nailed rebellious Beijing party boss Chen Xitong for corruption and sidelined legislature head Qiao Shi, a potential rival. Jiang also gained a firm grip on the military and elevated his own allies. But he too has been very cautious about reforming the political system. Village elections have been held in many parts of China, and polls may be expanded to towns. But last year, Jiang cracked down on activists who tried to form an opposition China Democracy Party.

Does China have a democratic option? Says Ma Licheng, a leading party liberal and author of last year's political bestseller Crossing Swords: "If the question of democratization is not solved, we'll still be submerged in chaos, turmoil and darkness." He foresees a new era of political liberalization in the coming decade. But many others say that the party must maintain its monopoly over political power. No doubt the internal debate over the pace of political reform will continue well into the new millennium. Perhaps the best news is that there is such a debate.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home

Visions of China Home



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