By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles
As the ethos of economic competition and individual enrichment spread throughout China in the mid-1980s, new cultural role models began to replace the stoic model peasants, workers, and soldiers of the Mao era. Now, in the reform era, China was marching to a different drummer, and the country needed more up-to-date with-it role models.
Role models in Reform Era
In Mao’s time, the virtues of plain living, self-sacrifice, and “serving the people” were typified by the martyred PLA conscript Lei Feng. Lei Feng’s diary was published after his death. His diary revealed that the young man’s highest aspiration had been to serve as a faceless, nameless, “rust-proof screw of the revolution.” His tireless devotion to the people, and to Chairman Mao, earned him posthumous recognition as a national hero.
However, the role models that the country required in the reform era were people who embodied modern virtues like ambition, entrepreneurship, and achievement.
Successful individuals in various walks of life were now given favorable publicity in the mass media as potential role models, from short-order cooks and freelance photographers to young girls who hired themselves out as personal maids and nannies. The mass media also began to celebrate the achievements of trail-blazing entrepreneurs.
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Freedom to Express Individuality and Ambitions
Not only was life now supposed to be prosperous and beautiful, but people were now freer than ever before to express their individuality and their ambitions.
Before the reforms, whenever any Chinese youngster was asked what he or she wanted to do when they grew up, there was but one standard, obligatory response: Anzhao guojiade xuyao—“Whatever the state requires.”
But now, in the middle ’80s, the same question received a wide range of idiosyncratic responses, ranging from astronaut to pop star, from primary school teacher to NBA superhero, from taxi driver to business tycoon. Clearly, young Chinese were privatizing their personal ambitions even as they raised their hopes for a beautiful life.
Learn more about Chinese culture.
Globalization Fever Spreads in China
In the winter of 1984, two of the three highest ranking Communist Party officials in China, CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang and Premier Zhao Ziyang, appeared in public for the very first time wearing not their traditional Mao jackets but Western-style suits and ties. It was a fashion statement that spoke volumes about China’s desire to join the modern world.
Later in that same year, Hu Yaobang publicly praised the superior hygienic qualities of Western eating utensils, knives, forks, and spoons, compared with China’s traditional chopsticks.
In the rush of globalization fever that spread through China in the mid-1980s, a number of Western intellectual icons, from free-market guru Milton Friedman to the “futurologist” Alvin Toffler to the political scientist Samuel Huntington, made well publicized lecture tours in China. Speaking on major college and university campuses, they drew standing-room-only crowds.
New Avant-garde Art Forms
The mid-’80s also witnessed a profusion of new avant-garde art forms, art forms which, just a few years earlier, would have been condemned for their bourgeois decadence.
Modernist painters now held public exhibitions of their work, and foreign films enjoyed a certain exotic cachet among Chinese college students. Even the glossy propaganda magazine Beijing Review began to change with the times. In 1984, it published a rather daring series of photographs of semi-nude female sculptures.
The Rise of New Social Problems
As China shifted toward a more open, individualistic, and outward-looking economy and society, growing pains were inevitable.
Although the country’s economic growth rate increased dramatically in the 1980s, averaging almost 9 percent annually, an uneven, patchwork of partial policy reforms and half-reforms generated a number of new social problems and fault lines in society.
Prostitution, which had been stamped out completely in the early 1950s, began to flourish again in the go-go atmosphere of the mid-’80s. Drug trafficking also increased in this period.
For the first time since the founding of the PRC in 1949, the country was also beginning to experience a significant rise in levels of income inequality, as some people took maximum advantage of new opportunities for economic entrepreneurship, while others remained rooted in fixed-wage state employment.
Learn more about China’s changing economic landscape.
Inflation and Two-track Pricing System
Further compounding the problem of rising income disparities was the growth of urban inflation. Rising consumer demand, coupled with the decontrol of prices on many durable goods, pushed the urban inflation index upward into double-digits for the first time since the late 1940s.
This inflationary trend was compounded by a two-track pricing system that was produced by the partial decontrol of commodity prices. Here’s how the dual pricing system worked.
In the mid-1980s, the retail price of coal sold to urban households to heat their homes and cook their meals was decontrolled. Traditionally, coal had been sold to households at a subsidized low price that was well below its actual market price or even its production cost. But now, in the drive to reform and rationalize China’s price system, the price of coal sold to households was allowed to float upward until it reached its true market-clearing price.
But at the same time, the wholesale price of coal sold by the state to industrial manufacturers remained fixed at the artificially low, subsidized price. The result was dual pricing: high prices for households and low prices for industrial manufacturers.
The Rising Sense of Economic Frustration
Sensing an opportunity to arbitrage the price gap between wholesale and retail coal, many factory managers in China were able to realize huge windfall profits simply by taking their fixed allotments of cheap subsidized coal and selling them directly to urban household consumers at a decontrolled price. The profits were enormous.
Some factories even closed down their production lines altogether in order to specialize in highly-profitable “grey market” arbitraging of industrial raw materials like coal.
Caught between the sharp upward drift of retail prices and the quest for windfall profits by commodity speculators and arbitrageurs, many urban households experienced a rising sense of economic frustration.
Common Questions about China: Successes and Challenges in the Reform Era
The role models that China required in the reform era were people who embodied modern virtues like ambition, entrepreneurship, and achievement.
China experienced a significant rise in levels of income inequality as some people took maximum advantage of new opportunities for economic entrepreneurship, while others remained rooted in fixed-wage state employment.
Rising consumer demand, coupled with the decontrol of prices on many durable goods, pushed the urban inflation index upward into double-digits.