Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

John Marienthal

Socialism must improve the lives of the people

First Published: Unity, Vol. 12, No. 9, June 20, 1989.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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I spent a year teaching in a remote area in Western China, and had a lot of time to talk with different people in the party and at the university level. There were mixed signals from within the party, and a great deal of discussion about the question of reform.

I think most Chinese people look upon the past ten years of economic reforms as a positive period, in which their living standards have risen in remarkable ways from the poverty of the past. This is cause for hope, since a major and fundamental goal of changing society, of struggling for socialism, is to change and uplift the people’s material conditions, and to better the quality of life for all. For example, in 1976, refrigerators were considered a luxury. Production of items like refrigerators was virtually frozen at that time. The economic reforms have brought a leap in production of basic consumer goods. Refrigerators are now considered a necessity to really improve people’s lives.

Preceding the economic reforms of the ’80s, and for most of the history of modern China, economic decision-making was highly centralized. Local factories and communes did not determine what they produced. This type of system enabled China to coordinate and concentrate resources, but also eventually led to bureaucracy and stagnation. It also was unresponsive to consumer needs. By the late 1970s, China’s economy suffered from falling production and lack of development.

In response, the central government adopted major reforms, which included giving factories greater responsibility for their production and breaking up agricultural communes, which affected the 80% of China’s population who are peasants. Peasants now contract with the state for land, upon which they largely decide what they grow. Peasants may sell much of what they produce in free markets. This was a great incentive to agricultural production, and is a major reason why per capita income in China has risen dramatically over the last ten years.

At the same time, complex problems have arisen as by-products of these reforms, including inflation, government corruption, a greater gap between rich and poor, and some ideological idealization of Western capitalism. I’m not sure, however, that the Chinese leadership was unaware of the potential problems, but rather that they believed these reforms were necessary to move the economy forward out of a period of stagnation. From 1978 on, there has been a great deal of discussion about economic and political reforms.

Many things have been done in experimenting with political reform, ranging from things like village committees (a national development of the last year or two), to more contact with the National People’s Congress (NPC) and an expansion of the role of the National People’s Congress (which is China’s legislature), and there have been efforts to separate the role of the Communist Party from that of the government. The 1987 session of the NPC saw a great deal of openness of discussion and debate, compared to the past.

We should not have the impression that there was no democracy in China over these past ten years. There have been widespread changes, especially at the lower levels. On the local level, the newspapers, TV and radio programs, allow people to pretty much talk about whatever they want. There have been local elections in factories and neighborhoods. The problem is that at the top, the leadership has been rigidified and removed from the people. The key problem has been how to get political reforms at the highest level, where there has been ossification and rigidity.

A point I want to draw from this is that students and other people in China have raised the question of the age of leadership. Deng Xiaoping was actually the first to put forward the idea of retiring the elder veteran leaders and bringing forward a younger generation. The Chinese leadership has gone down from maybe 90% of the Central Committee being in their 70s, to a figure of 35-40%. But the political reforms have been very uneven, and a lot of them have been too little, too late, especially at the top.

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John Marienthal is a teacher and a member of the Board of the Western Region of the U.S.-China People’s Friendship Association. He first traveled to China in 1974, and taught in China in 1986 and 1987. He is now on his fifth trip to China.