When Deng Xiaoping’s Offense against Hua Guofeng Gathered Steam


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

When Hua Guofeng’s economic policies began to fail, Deng Xiaoping took full advantage and launched an attack on Hua, his followers, and even Mao Zedong, seeking rehabilitation for himself. After opening the door to questions about Mao’s fallibility, Deng next sought to cast doubt on other aspects of the Maoist legacy.

Statue of Deng Xiaoping.
Deng Xiaoping wanted to upgrade Chinese education, science and technology. (Image: chanwangrong/Shutterstock)

Intellectuals and Educational System

Deng questioned the propriety of Mao’s frequent, angry attacks on China’s hapless intellectuals. In 1978, he called for an across-the-board reclassification of all so-called “brain workers” (including scientists, engineers, teachers, artists and writers) away from the ideologically suspect category of “bourgeois intellectuals” to the politically more benign category of “working people”.

With a single flourish of his rhetorical pen, Deng thus welcomed these intellectuals into the ranks of “the people”—no longer to be reviled or discriminated against as rightists.

Deng also hit hard at the Gang of Four for sabotaging China’s educational system. He chided the radicals for opposing unified college entrance exams and academic achievement standards of any kind. He openly derided the view that “the more book learning [one has], the more reactionary [one becomes]”.

Although  his  outburst  was  ostensibly  aimed  at  the  Zhang  Tiesheng  and the Gang of Four, the more important target, of course, was  Mao Zedong himself.

Learn more about Mao’s political “rehabilitation” of Deng Xiaoping.

Efforts to Upgrade Chinese Education, Science and Technology

In mid-1978, as Deng’s offensive gathered steam, he proposed sending large numbers of Chinese students and scholars abroad to receive advanced training in the West.

Toward this end, he supported a plan to establish sister institution relations between a number of leading Chinese universities and their American counterparts.

Japan's Industry zone with Mt Fuji in the  background.
Deng was stunned by Japan’s advanced levels of industrial development, technological sophistication, and consumer affluence. (Image: Sakarin Sawasdinaka/Shutterstock)

Deng Xiaoping’s efforts to upgrade Chinese education, science and technology was given further impetus when a group of Communist Party officials visited Tokyo in the fall of 1978 to negotiate a peace treaty with Japan. Since the end of World War II, Japan and China had remained technically at war, so this was to overcome and end that situation. Since the onset of the Great Leap Forward in 1958, few of China’s top leaders had ever traveled outside of the Soviet bloc, and fewer still had ever visited a capitalist country.

Meanwhile, as China turned inward for the two decades after 1958, the so- called “dragon economies” of East and Southeast Asia—Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan—had dramatically outstripped China in terms of economic performance and modernization.

So when a group of Chinese leaders, including Deng himself, arrived in Japan in the fall of 1978, they were visibly shaken by what they saw. Stunned by Japan’s advanced levels of industrial development, technological sophistication, and consumer affluence, members of Deng’s delegation returned to China determined to modernize China’s economy as rapidly as possible, and by any means necessary.

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

‘Reform and Opening Up’

Shortly afterward, the slogan “reform and opening up” became Deng’s new developmental mantra. And his long-discredited 1962 aphorism was now revived: “It doesn’t matter if the cat is white or black, so long as it catches mice”.

Though the similarities between Hua Guofeng’s “Four  Modernizations” and Deng Xiaoping’s new policy of “reform and opening up” were in most respects greater than their differences, Hua nonetheless stood on the wrong side of a major historical divide: He was—and always would be—irrevocably tied to Chairman Mao’s coattails.

By contrast, Deng Xiaoping was much freer to experiment with new institutions, new economic mechanisms, and new ways of thinking.

Learn more about the rise of Japanese militarism.

Economic Reforms

With support for Deng growing within the upper levels of the Chinese Communist Party apparatus, his allies began to make sweeping proposals for economic reform.

Photo of Mao Zedong.
Maoist insistence on redundant, small-scale production stemmed from his fear of a Soviet military attack. (Image: The People’s Republic of China Printing Office/Public domain)

One important proposal called for ending Mao’s widely criticized policy of requiring every Chinese county (and there were 2,000 of them) to achieve basic economic self-reliance in food and small-scale industrial production. This rigid insistence had led to serious irrationalities in crop planting patterns, among other things, since each country was expected to be self-sufficient in staple food grains, regardless of the suitability of the local soil, climate, or market conditions.

Similar irrationalities plagued small-scale industrial production, insofar as each county was required to have its own machine tool, cement, and chemical fertilizer plants, as well as its own electric power-generating plants.

This Maoist insistence on redundant, small-scale production stemmed from his fear of a Soviet military attack, and from the belief that local self-sufficiency and economic decentralization was the best way to ensure that China could survive such an attack.

But with the threat of direct Soviet aggression waning, Deng Xiaoping’s economic advisors argued for permitting large-scale regional economic specialization based on conventional notions of “comparative advantage”, with some areas concentrating on planting food grain while others specialized in cash crops or processed foods.

And this, in turn, required the creation of larger inter-regional and even national transportation and marketing networks, which was another major priority of Deng’s reform team.

Learn more about the key features of Mao’s economic program.

Administrative Reforms

Yet another important proposal introduced in the latter half of 1978 called for introducing economic methods to replace the existing system of centralized planning and resource allocation.

In place of such top-down control, state enterprises would now be permitted, on their own initiative, to sign legally binding contracts with their suppliers and end-users, with the pricing of both inputs and finished products to be based on laws of supply and demand, that is, Adam Smith’s famous “invisible hand”.

A related proposal called for allowing enterprise managers greater personal responsibility in setting production targets, in awarding pay raises and bonuses to workers, and in hiring and firing workers and staff.

Each of these proposals went well beyond Hua Guofeng’s more limited ideas for administrative reform.

Common Questions about Deng Xiaoping’s Offense against Hua Guofeng

Q: What happened when Deng visited Japan in 1978?

When Deng and other leaders arrived in Japan in 1978, they were stunned by Japan’s advanced levels of industrial development, technological sophistication, and consumer affluence. They returned with the determination to modernize China’s economy as rapidly as possible, and by any means necessary.

Q: Which countries were called the “dragon economies” of East and Southeast Asia?

Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan were called the “dragon economies” of East and Southeast Asia.

Q: What was Deng Xiaoping’s development mantra?

The slogan “reform and opening up” became Deng Xiaoping’s developmental mantra.

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