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December 10, 2019

Chinese and Soviet reform in the 1980s

Opinion

December 10, 2019

In the meantime, in the Soviet Union, Brezhnev died in 1982 and was replaced by another old man and the head of the KGB, the Soviet intelligence agency, Yuri Andropov who himself died within 15 months. By that time three relatively young men were appearing on the Soviet scene: Lukyanov, Gorbachev, and Ryzhkov – all in their early fifties.

Lukyanov had been instrumental in drafting the 1977 Soviet constitution and he was also chief of the secretariat of the Supreme Soviet from 1977 to 1983. Ryzhkov was a secretariat and Central Committee member. Gorbachev was the secretary of the Central Committee from 1978.

Now some explanation of the terms used here. The Central Committee was a Communist Party organ which had over 300 members from all over the USSR. The Union of the Soviet Socialist Republic – the USSR or the Soviet Union for short – was the official name of the country that comprised 15 republics or provinces. The Supreme Soviet was the legislature. The politburo was a smaller body of the top party brass comprising 15 to 25 members elected by the Central Committee, but mostly selected by the top brass itself led by the GS.

After Andropov's death in 1984, another senior politburo member Chernenko who was even older than Andropov became the new GS. But he appointed Gorbachev as the second secretary of the party making him the number two in the Soviet hierarchy. Because of Chernenko’s old age and failing health, he frequently missed politburo meetings and asked Gorbachev to chair the politburo. This made it clear that Gorbachev would replace him as the next leader. And that’s what happened when Chernenko died in March 1985. The Soviet foreign minister and a senior politburo member, Gromyko, proposed Gorbachev’s name as new GS and it was approved by the politburo.

In China, in 1983 the office of the ceremonial head of state was restored as Li Xiannian was appointed president of China. So now, Deng was neither party chairman nor premier or president but still paramount leader who had the ultimate power. Deng dominated most of the 1980s in China. In 1987, the party GS, Ho Yaobang, tried to assert himself by refusing to follow the line given by Deng. He thought that, as the party leader, he would prevail but Deng as the paramount leader was still too strong. The party forced Hu to resign in January 1987, and Zhao Ziyang, the premier also became the party GS.

He held both positions for ten months till Nov 1987, when Li Peng was appointed the new premier. Li Peng was the fourth premier of China after Zhou Enlai from 1949 to 1976; Hua Guofeng from 1976 to 1980; Zhao Ziyang from 1980 to 1987. Anyway, Deng was a strong opponent of lifelong positions, so he also insisted that the head of state should be elected every five years for a maximum of two terms. Ho Yaobang’s forced resignation as the party GS had endeared him with the people and especially with students who had supported Ho’s reforms.

Deng, as the paramount leader, persuaded president Li Xiannian to resign after five years in 1988. Now, come 1989, and troubles start with student protests. In April 1989, Hu, the former party chief died and attracted hundreds of thousands of people to his funeral. That triggered the demand for political reforms by the students. When the student-led occupation of Tiananmen Square in Beijing prolonged in the summer of 1989, party chief Zhao Ziyang was in support of negotiations. Whereas Deng and Premier Li Peng wanted them removed by force. In May 1989, premier Li Peng with support from Deng imposed martial law.

The party GS, Zhao Ziyang, was not in favour of martial law. In the early 1980s, Deng had called Hu and Zhao as his two hands, but when the time came Deng didn’t hesitate in removing Hu. Now it was time for Zhao to go. In June 1989, Zhao Ziyang was replaced with Jiang Zemin as the party GS. So by the end of the 1980s, Deng had a new pair of hands in premier Li Peng and party GS, Jiang Zemin. In 1989, Li Peng became the most visible representative of China’s government who backed the use of force to quell the Tiananmen Square protests.

Deng Xiaoping, as paramount leader and as the chairman of the Central Military Commission ordered a military crackdown against student-led pro-democracy demonstrations. In comparison, Zhao Ziyang was both economically and politically more liberal; and wanted economic and political reforms to go hand in hand. But Deng favoured a more conservative approach towards political reforms because he had seen Gorbachev who had initiated both economic and political reforms at the same time and was already losing the battle in 1989, which eventuated in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

After the removal of Zhao Ziyang and after crushing the student protests, Deng, Li, and Jiang moved forward on their agenda of economic reform without touching the political supremacy of the Communist Party of China. Though the Western media dubbed Li Peng as the Butcher of Beijing, they never termed US presidents Johnson and Nixon as the Butchers of Vietnam or Bush as the Butcher of Iraq and Afghanistan. In 1990, Deng who was already 86 years old, handed over the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (CMC) to the party GS, Jiang Zemin.

The CMC is the most powerful state organ which controls the army, police, and militia in China. Li Peng remained the premier of China from 1987 to 1998. Deng officially retired from active politics in 1992 at the age of 88. In 1993, party GS Jiang Zemin assumed the presidency too. He retained the post of party GS for 13 years from 1989 to 2002 when Hu Jintao succeeded him as the new party leader. We may conclude by saying that the three decades of China after the death of Mao in 1976 were mainly dominated by two personalities – Deng for the first 15 years and then Jiang Zemin for the next 15 years. In the 1980s, Deng promoted and groomed Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang – respectively 10 and 15 years younger than Deng; Hu as party leader and Zhao first as premier and then as party leader.

But Deng dispensed with them because both were a bit too lenient with political dissent. In the late 1980s, Deng selected Li Peng and Jiang Zemin, 24 and 22 years younger than Deng.

Now coming back to the Soviet Union, Gorbachev started economic and political changes at the same time. Lukyanov and Ryzhkov became his close allies. Lukyanov was appointed head of the Central Committee and Ryzhkov the new premier. Gorbachev did not follow the cautious line of Deng and moved headlong in various direction. The main difference between Deng and Gorbachev was that Gorbachev changed the constitution to deprive the Communist Party of its sole authority to rule. When the Communist Party lost its control, many disaffected elements within the party ditched it and fought against it.

This resulted in chaos by 1990, and in 1991 the Soviet Union disintegrated and its 15 republics became independent countries. In comparison, first Deng and then Jiang Zemin both consolidated the political control of the Communist Party of China while introducing market reforms. Jiang Zemin deserves another detailed article for his role in carrying forward the torch of Deng Xiaoping. Whatever China has achieved in the 21st century is mainly thanks to the foundations laid by Deng and Jiang; but that I leave that to another time.

Concluded

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

Email: [email protected]