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December 9, 2019

Chinese and Soviet reform in the 1980s: Part - I


December 9, 2019

As 2019 is coming to a close, looking back at two important personalities who died this year – Li Peng and Anatoly Lukyanov – here are some thoughts on Chinese and Soviet politics in the 1980s.

The deaths of Li Peng and Anatoly Lukyanov in 2019 offer us an excuse to review the politics of China and the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and with the benefit of hindsight try to understand what was happening that transformed the Chinese and Soviet economies and politics with far-reaching ramifications.

First, we need to be clear about the roles of the top management in a communist country. This is important because the designations of president, prime minister, and general secretary of the party are at times confusing in terms of actual power.

Similarly, terms such as ‘politburo’, ‘presidium’, ‘Supreme Soviet’, and ‘central committee’ are also not clear to many observers. In most cases, communist parties are led by a general secretary. For example, in the Soviet Union a de-facto leader was not necessarily head of state or head of government. Mostly, it was the general secretary (GS) of the Communist Party who sometimes also held the post of head of government or head of state. The head of state was the chairman of the presidium of the Supreme Soviet, somehow equivalent to a president in other countries.

The Supreme Soviet was the primary legislative body, like the National Assembly in Pakistan. The chairman of the Supreme Soviet was like the speaker of the National Assembly. During the Soviet revolution in 1917, Lenin was the party leader who also became the head of the new Soviet government after the success of the revolution. The position of the GS did not exist at that time but Stalin gradually consolidated his position in managing day-to-day party affairs and then after the death of Lenin remained GS of the party from 1924 to 1952.

After Lenin’s death, Rykov was head of government (PM) from 1924 to 1930 an then Molotov from 1930 to 1941. Stalin was GS without being head of government or state, most of these years. But from 1941 to 1953 he also assumed chairmanship of council of ministers – which means he was premier too. Interestingly, in October 1952 – just six months before his death – Stalin relinquished the post of party secretary and this position was abolished. After Stalin’s death, Malenkov became the PM and first secretary of the party. Just after two weeks, Khrushchev eased him out as the first party secretary.

Two years later, in 1955, Bulganin replaced Malenkov as the new premier. Khrushchev was the party GS from 1953 to 1964, and also held premiership from 1958 to 1964, replacing Bulganin who was the Soviet prime minister from 1953 to 1958. Brezhnev was GS of the Communist Party from 1964 to 1982 but also became head of state in 1977, replacing Podgorny who was head of state from 1965 to 1977. Gorbachev was the only leader who introduced and held the designation of president of the Soviet Union in 1990, while also holding the office of GS of the Communist Party starting from 1985.

At that time the president of the council of ministers, equivalent to PM in other countries, was Nikolai Ryzhkov from 1985 to 1991. As an aside, Gorbachev and Ryzhkov are still alive at the age of 88 and 90 respectively. With this background we may understand communist politics better as China also followed the Soviet model after the socialist revolution in 1949.

Moa Zedong preferred the title of chairman of the Communist Party rather than GS. He appointed Zhou Enlai as premier, who held this office from 1949 till his death in 1976. Mao Zedong was also head of state – chairman of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) – from 1949 to 1959, when he appointed Liu Shaoqi as head of state. But Mao as chairman of the party held absolute powers, and removed Liu Shaoqi in 1968 and abolished this position. After Zhou Enlai’s death in 1976, Mao appointed Hua Guofeng – who was a Politburo member since 1973 – as the new premier in Feb 1976.

After two months, in April 1976, Mao also appointed Hua as the vice-chairman of the party. Interestingly, this post did not exist earlier; Mao created this post to appoint Hua so that he could be seen as Mao’s heir apparent. Just eight months later, Mao died and Hua became the new chairman of the Communist Party too. At the same time Hua also assumed the charge as chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC). One of the first steps that Hua took was to dismantle the Gang of Four led by Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing, and Wang Hongwen, vice-chairman of the party.

The Gang of Four had become notorious for their role in the Cultural Revolution and for the persecution of millions of people from 1966 to 1976. They had tried to capture the party leadership after Mao’s death but the members of the politburo thwarted their efforts. The 11th National Congress of the party in August 1977 officially declared the Cultural Revolution over and exposed the crimes of the Gang of Four, but none of the gang was executed. So now the posts of party chairman, premier, and head of CMC were held by one person for the first time in China.

Even Mao never held all three positions; though in the Soviet Union that had been done by Stalin from 1941 to 1953. But as later events showed, after the deaths of Mao and Stalin, once the strongman is no more, the party starts asserting itself until a new strongman is found. And Hua Guofeng, despite holding the three most important position, was not that strong. The main problem with Hua was his economic and political programme which involved the restoration of Soviet-style industrial planning and party control reminiscent of the 1950s.

Hua also tried to establish his own personality cult by ordering his portraits to be placed with Mao’s in all offices and schools. In early 1978, Hua introduced a new constitution. It contained references to continuous revolution and proletarian internationalism. Hua also tried to encourage the use of ‘the wise leader’ for himself. Other politburo members were not happy at the use of old terminology. Now, there was another person emerging, Deng Xiaoping. Deng had been first vice premier and chief of general staff in the army since 1975. In fact, Deng was the preferred choice of Zhou Enlai to succeed him.

But when Zhou died, Mao preferred Hua to be the new PM while he was also the party vice-chairman. In the tussle between Deng and Hua, Deng had the decisive support of the army which sided with him to sideline Hua, whose model was rejected by supporters of Deng. He argued for a more market-base economic system.

In 1978, Deng became chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (somewhat like an upper house). It further strengthened Deng’s position, and he practically became ‘Paramount Leader’ – an informal position which had the most power. In 1980, Hua was replaced by Zhao Ziyang as the premier. Hua’s ten-year economic plan which sought to create a Soviet-style economy based around heavy industry and energy was scrapped in favour of a cheaper and more doable five-year plan which prioritized light industry and consumer goods. Hua Guofeng remained nominal chairman of the Communist Party till 1981.

Gradually, he lost power to Deng, Zhao and their supporters who wanted to introduce economic reforms. In 1981, Deng also became chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), replacing Hua Guofeng. The same year, Hua was also replaced by Hu Yaobang as the new chairman of the party. Finally in 1982, Deng also occupied the office of the chairman of the Central Advisory Commission established after the 12th Party Congress in 1982. The new constitution spearheaded by Deng and approved by the party in 1982 changed the position of party chairman into general secretary and Hu Yaobang retained his position as party leader.

To be continued

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]