THE FIRST WAVE OF REFORM, 1979-84
In the process of introducing reforms, China's leaders for the
most part have acted cautiously and introduced new programs
incrementally. In the period of the Four Modernizations, they began
a broad search of foreign sources for ideas to introduce and test
in the Chinese environment. Their pragmatic approach entailed
following the progress of newly introduced concepts closely in
order to make any necessary mid-course corrections or deletions.
Maintaining the momentum of the reform program required the leaders
to interact constantly to meet the challenges, failures, and
setbacks inherent in their experiment.
The major changes introduced by key reforms inevitably provoked
tensions in the political system. Strains developed between those
who would not benefit or could not adjust to the new conditions and
those who saw the new opportunities afforded. The resulting
pressures on the system required constant attention of and
mediation by the top party leaders. The goals, contents, and
progress of the reform program reportedly were reviewed and
discussed regularly at the highest-level party meetings. Leaders on
the Political Bureau Standing Committee strove for consensus on the
contents of the reform program and its agenda and participated in
an ongoing process of bargaining to reconcile different policy
orientations and institutional interests. The competing interests
that emerged throughout the country when a new wave of reform was
introduced appeared to have spokesmen or advocates in the highest
party circles. The issues that emerged were debated in
authoritative party meetings with the aim of arriving at a
consensus and preserving harmony on the reform agenda. If this
became impossible, personnel changes tended to follow, as was the
case when Hu Yaobang apparently broke the consensus, moving ahead
of what the cautious and stability-minded leadership could accept
as a safe and reasonable course.
In this way China, under Deng Xiaoping's leadership, appeared
to follow the tenets of
democratic centralism (see Glossary).
Policies that originated at the authoritative party center were
tested and evaluated in practice, and reports of their results,
including problems and setbacks, were then channeled back to the
system's center for debate. In the 1980s it became something of a
leadership art to keep the reform program going, balance the
tensions it provoked, and maintain the political system intact.
Seen in this context, a key question became whether or not
political leaders other than Deng Xiaoping would have the prestige
and political skill needed to direct and preserve this delicate
balance, especially after Deng passed from the scene.
Data as of July 1987