Halt of China’s Political Reform in the Early 1980s


By Richard Baum, Ph.D.University of California, Los Angeles

In the summer of 1980, Poland experienced massive labor unrest, with a wave of wildcat strikes and anti-government demonstrations threatening to cause a general breakdown in public order. These events happening elsewhere in the Communist world began to affect China’s political reform. At this particular point in time, popular discontent was on the rise in China.

Flags of China and Poland together.
The Communist government in Poland became an inspiration for some of China’s actions. (Image: Yuriy Boyko/Shutterstock)

The Demands of Polish Workers

Among their many grievances, Polish workers demanded significant wage hikes, the firing of corrupt government officials, the right to organize independent unions, an end to media censorship, and a rollback of price increases on meat and vegetable food products.

Fearful of rising industrial disorder, the Polish Communist government first dithered indecisively and then backed down, making several concessions to the workers’ demands. This immediately dampened down labor unrest, as strike actions and street demonstrations dwindled in mid-summer.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of ChinaWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Drawing Inspiration from Poland

In China, with the most restrictive political and ideological controls of the Cultural Revolution loosened somewhat, long-repressed grievances were bubbling up to the surface around the country, as exemplified by the massive petitioners’ movement.

An image of Deng Xiaoping.
Deng proposed major changes to China’s political system. (Image: KOKUYO/Public domain)

Concerned over the rising volatility of this political situation, liberal members of Deng’s reform coalition drew inspiration from the recent Polish experience. They concluded that a few well-aimed and well-timed political reforms could go a long way toward disarming widespread unrest in China, as they had in Poland.

Deng Xiaoping was receptive to this argument. In August of 1980, he proposed a wide-ranging blueprint for systematic political reform. Though it was short on operational details, it went well beyond the Polish government’s commitment to promoting industrial freedom and democracy.

Deng’s Systematic Political Reform

In addition to offering Chinese workers the right to elect their own labor representatives, Deng also addressed some of the most deep-seated structural pathologies in the Chinese political system, pathologies which he grouped under the general heading “feudal despotism.”

To prevent a future party leader from consolidating all political power in his own hands, Deng proposed ending the party’s established practice of granting lifetime tenure to its leading officials. Instead, he called for a system of fixed-term limits, supplemented by mandatory retirement for superannuated cadres.

To prevent meddlesome party secretaries from intruding arbitrarily in the realm of economic policy, he proposed a clear separation of functions between the government and the party. Government officials would be responsible for making and implementing policy. At the same time, party organs would limit their role to ensuring that government policies conformed with the party’s broad ideological principles and political guidelines. 

The practice of officials wearing multiple hats where, for example, a party secretary would serve concurrently as a provincial governor or a municipal mayor was to be discontinued to ensure a more effective separation of functions.

Learn more about Mao’s lieutenants Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping.

How Future Might Have Been Different

Had Deng’s reform proposals been implemented in 1980, they might have gone a long way toward revitalizing the Chinese political system and facilitating some of its lingering Mao-era pathologies. But we’ll never know since most of the reforms were not enacted until the 1980s. To this day, some have still not been enacted.

After Deng’s August reform proposals, Chinese state enterprise workers began demanding higher wages and stronger unions. College students began taking reform slogans seriously, such as “seek truth from facts” and “emancipate thinking.” Some intellectuals even began questioning the scientific validity of Marxism. 

Further adding to China’s rising political volatility, in the fall of 1980, the first experimental direct elections were held in a handful of Chinese cities. Unexpectedly, a few non-Communist candidates running for seats on district people’s congresses outpolled their party-backed opponents.

This outcome proved profoundly embarrassing to local Communist Party officials. In some districts, the authorities intervened on technical grounds to declare the unwanted election results null and void. So humiliating was the party’s loss of face that direct popular elections were shelved in China for another seven years.

Learn more about Mao’s program to rebuild China’s shattered economy.

Chinese People Were Acting Up

In yet another sign of rising political activism, at the annual National People’s Congress meeting in September of 1980, dozens of delegates refused to play their traditional role as the Communist Party’s reliable rubber stamp. 

Instead, they relentlessly interrogated government ministers about a series of large-scale industrial accidents and boondoggles. Even the normally docile and compliant mass media in China now proclaimed the virtues of challenging government spokespeople.

As the Polish people before them, the Chinese people were starting to “act up.” In light of their growing inclination to challenge authority, Deng’s more conservative colleagues openly fretted that enacting further reforms in the political sense would merely stir up more fervent protest and dissent. Thereby gravely endangering China’s vital political stability and unity.

Even Deng’s closest comrade, Chen Yun, now pointedly warned him: “If we’re not careful, China may develop its own Polish-style situation.” With one eye on Poland and the other on growing disturbances at home, Deng changed his mind.

Deng’s Sudden Decision

Reversing himself abruptly, in December of 1980, he called for new legislation to outlaw unauthorized organizations, protest marches, and demonstrations and ban the printing and distribution of unapproved publications.

Deng now called on the party to strengthen its propaganda and organization work in China’s state-dominated Federation of Trade Unions as well as within the All-China Women’s Federation, the Communist Youth League, and the All-China Students’ Association. No more tolerance would be shown to the “spontaneous voices” of autonomous social or occupational groups.

Defending the need to take decisive action in the event of severe civil disturbances or acts of sabotage, Deng now stated that where necessary, martial law would be imposed. Deng’s conservative comrades had carried the day. And as a result, China’s brief springtime of political liberalization and reform now came to an abrupt halt.

Common Questions about Halt of China’s Political Reform in the Early 1980s

Q: How was China’s political reform tied to the public unrest in Poland?

The unrest in Poland shook other parts of the communist world like China. China’s political reform had to change course multiple times because of the developments in Poland, such as Deng’s suggestions for separating the party’s roles from the government’s, among other things.

Q: How was the Communist Party humiliated in the 1980s direct popular elections?

Amid China’s political reform, such elections were at first to be performed experimentally. But some non-Communists were elected in some regions. Since this was not expected, the Communist party was humiliated.

Q: Why were Deng’s propositions for political change ultimately fruitless?

The change that he proposed at the time of China’s political reform was somehow combined with the rising tension in the country. The Chinese people were acting up, so Deng himself changed his mind about many of his propositions.

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