Though no one in China could know it before 1987, the volatile social chemistry of rising student unrest, urban frustration, and the vindictiveness of party elders was fast becoming a recipe for the backtracking of democratic reform. More ominous yet, the split between liberals and hard-liners within the party was growing visibly deeper.
Political Power Moves
When elderly conservatives demanded the ouster of Deng’s liberal protégé Hu Yaobang for his alleged role in aiding and abetting student demonstrations, Deng Xiaoping went along with them, partly for the sake of party unity, and partly because he was angry at Hu Yaobang’s lack of toughness and firmness in dealing with student unrest.
However, Deng was not willing to allow hard-liners to use Hu Yaobang’s ouster as an excuse to roll back Deng’s hard-won economic reforms. Thus, he insisted that the post of Party General Secretary should go to his other liberal-leaning protégé, Zhao Ziyang.
But conservative party elders made a countermove of their own, designed partly to offset Zhao Ziyang’s promotion. They nominated one of their own rising younger stars, a hydraulic engineer by the name of Li Peng, to succeed Zhao as premier of the state council. Li was a no-nonsense conservative who subscribed to Chen Yun’s “bigger birdcage” school of centralized, incremental economic reform.
With the completion of this quid-pro-quo arrangement, Zhao Ziyang became general secretary, with Li Peng replacing him in the premier’s office.
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Emergency Power for Seniors Members
However, it was not merely the widening of personal antagonisms within the ruling coalition that made party unity more difficult to sustain. Adding substantially to the intensity of the gathering storm was a decision made by party elders behind closed doors.
In the wake of Hu Yaobang’s dismissal, a group of elderly conservatives met in secret and agreed that in the future, to ensure the country’s long-term political stability, it would be advisable to have an emergency arrangement. Under this agreement, the two highest-ranking revolutionaries of the older generation, Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun, would be empowered in times of crisis to override decisions made by the younger party and government leaders.
This extraordinary grant of emergency power was quietly incorporated into the party’s internal rules in the fall of 1987. After that, it was invoked on only one occasion, in May of 1989, when Deng Xiaoping used the override clause to bypass Zhao Ziyang’s authority as general secretary and to order a military crackdown on student turmoil in Tiananmen Square.
Lowkey Crackdown on Democratic Reform
With a certified hard-liner now in the premier’s office, the party’s conservative wing launched a new campaign of criticism against bourgeois liberalization in the spring of 1987. In the course of this new offensive, several liberal Communist Party intellectuals were expelled from the party.
Press censorship tightened noticeably in the first half of 1987. Several liberal magazines (and writers) now found themselves black-listed, unable to publish their work. But at Deng’s insistence, there was no large-scale purge of those who had supported or participated in the 1986 student demonstrations. And in stark contrast to the anti-spiritual pollution campaign of 1983, no mass cultural vigilantism was permitted.
The reason for this low-key approach was Deng’s realization that if the anti-liberalization forces were allowed free rein, they would sabotage his hard-won policy of “reform and opening up”.
Here we see Deng’s internal contradiction fully revealed. Deeply and unswervingly committed to economic reform, he was also, by instinct, a law-and-order authoritarian who could not abide the spontaneous, uncontrolled expression of dissent or disobedience.
Learn more about the backlash against reform in China.
Zhao’s Controversial Proposals
In the fall of 1987, Zhao issued his long-awaited report on political reform to the party’s 13th National Congress.
Among Zhao’s more controversial proposals, he called for a complete separation of functions between the party and the government. This was to be achieved by eliminating organized “party cells” within state administrative agencies.
Next, Zhao proposed that party members suspected of crimes should have their cases investigated by public prosecutors and argued in open court just like ordinary citizens. In arguing this point, Zhao insisted that all citizens, including party leaders, must be “equal before the law”.
Third, he called for a major overhaul of the state’s personnel system in order to eliminate the traditional practice of promoting cadres based on political loyalty and factional allegiance. In its place, Zhao proposed an examination-based civil service mechanism.
Fourth, Zhao rejected the conventional Leninist insistence that public opinion under socialism should be completely unified and homogeneous. Instead, he argued that the party and government should take into consideration the divergent needs and interests and opinions of its citizens.
Finally, Zhao recommended a slow and gradual process of controlled political pluralism. He urged the gradual enlargement of the roles and responsibilities of indirectly elected people’s congresses at all levels, to give greater voice to grass roots citizen constituencies.
Learn more about China’s changing economic landscape.
Zhao’s Proposals and Party Hard-liners
In each of these respects, Zhao Ziyang’s recommendations to the 13th Party Congress broke substantial new ground. Though they fell short of providing a detailed blueprint for a Chinese transition to democracy, Zhao’s suggestions and recommendations nonetheless offered the first tentative sketches of a more open, pluralistic, and at least proto-democratic political system.
Unfortunately for Zhao, however, and possibly for China, his recommendations were never acted upon. Party hard-liners, understandably disturbed by Zhao’s ideas, rallied their supporters to block his attempt to have the proposals formally adopted by the Party Congress. And shortly after the Congress adjourned, the conservatives began sharpening their long knives.
Common Questions about How China Lost Its Chance for Democratic Reform
To offset Zhao Ziyang’s promotion as Party General Secretary, the conservative party elders nominated one of their own rising younger stars, Li Peng, to succeed Zhao as premier of the state council.
Deng invoked the emergency power clause only on one occasion, in May of 1989, when he used the override clause to bypass Zhao Ziyang’s authority as general secretary and to order a military crackdown on student turmoil in Tiananmen Square.
Zhao Ziyang proposed that party members suspected of crimes should have their cases investigated by public prosecutors and argued in open court just like ordinary citizens. In arguing this point, Zhao insisted that all citizens, including party leaders, must be “equal before the law”.