A Changing Nation
Tom Wilkinson- Gamble
BA Modern and Contemporary History
The 1980s was a decade of astounding change for the People’s Republic of China. China watchers were treated to a huge economic boom sparked by government reforms, an emerging popular culture and two political events that would define both China’s past and future.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, China survived the worst famine in recorded history. Less than five years later, the nation was almost destroyed by the violence and chaos of the Cultural Revolution. But by 1989, the Chinese economy was one of the largest in the world. And by the early 21st century it had overtaken Japan as the largest economy in Asia and the second largest in the world. The catalyst for this economic growth lay in the reforms started by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s. These reforms were then continued and developed further in the 1980s. For example, the de-collectivisation of agriculture had started in 1978, and by 1984 only a few of the once abundant communes remained. One of the greatest factors within agriculture that contributed to the rising standard of living in the 1980s was the government's decision to end the policy of collecting all food produced by a farm. Instead, this was replaced by a quota-system. This meant that if a farm hit the quota, the workers would be allowed to privately sell any extra produce. This particular reform, however, created a problem not seen before in the Maoist era. Since the government had relaxed the amount of control it had on the market, inflation started to become more of an issue. In 1985, average annual prices had increased by 10%. This then increased to a further 20% in 1988 without a satisfactory wage increase. Another key part of Deng’s reforms was the creation of ‘Special Economic Zones’ or SEZs. These were big coastal cities that had been opened to foreign investments. In 1979, there were four SEZs; Shenzhen, Zhuhai, and Shantou in Guangdong Province and Xiamen in Fujian Province. In 1984, another 14 cities were added to this list, including Dalian, Tianjin, and Guangzhou. But the most important of them was Shanghai. Situated on the mouth of the Yangtze River, Shanghai has always been considered to be a crucial source of trade with its position as the gateway to central China. By the late 1980s, this reputation was still going strong and Shanghai could rival the likes of Hong Kong and Singapore as one of the largest sources of trade in East Asia. The city’s skyline expanded massively over the course of the decade and many construction projects were undertaken. For example, the Jin Jiang Tower was constructed in 1988, with the skyline expanding even further in the 1990s.
Due to China’s financial success and the growth of business from the new private markets, the 1980s saw a significant rise of a new middle class. This meant that a growing number of people could afford televisions and that, in turn, sparked a rise in demand for content. In 1983, there were 44 television stations available in China. This increased to 52 during the subsequent year. In 1985, 104 stations were available to over 600 million people who now owned a TV. In 1983, China Central Television, the government’s primary state-owned channel, broadcast the first ‘Spring Festival Gala’. The Gala is an annual TV special for the Chinese New Year and traditionally features dancing, singing, drama performances and even comedy routines and sketches. It has since become a modern tradition for families to watch the gala together on New Year’s Eve. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, it is the most watched television programme in the world. However, Chinese television was limited to annual specials. One of the most popular genres of the time involved TV adaptions of classic Chinese literature. Two of the most popular shows of the decade were Journey to the West (1986) and Outlaws of the Marsh (1983), which was an adaptation of the 14th century novel Water Margin. These shows are a stark contrast to today’s romantic comedies like A Little Thing Called First Love (2019). Television coverage of sport, particularly of football, helped contribute to China’s international sporting rivalries with teams such as Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan. One of the most important televised games of the decade was the final of the first round of the AFC for the 1986 FIFA World Cup between China and Hong Kong. The Hong Kong underdogs would go on to win 2-1, much to the dismay of the Chinese fans. The game was televised, in colour, in both nations.
|.Fig. 1: Teresa Teng (image: unknown author,
, CC BY-SA-NC)
Since the early 1970s, ‘Cantopop’ had been growing in popularity in Hong Kong, which at the time was still a British colony. Cantopop is a genre of western-inspired pop music sung in Cantonese. Because of the advancement of television and radio technology, broadcasts from Hong Kong could be picked up in southern provinces like Guangdong and Fujian. By the mid-80s, Cantopop bands and singers, like Jacky Cheung, Andy Lau and the rock band Beyond, had become household names in China. The influence of the genre was also apparent outside of the industry; the soundtrack to the film A Better Tomorrow (1986) was sung in Cantonese. The rise of the genre inspired musicians from other genres to cross over to Cantonese. In the early 80s, Teresa Teng, a Taiwanese star and a part of the ‘Mandopop’ movement (songs sung in Mandarin that had recently gained popularity in Taiwan) crossed over to Cantopop.
Politically, the 80s were bookended by two landmark events; the trial of the Gang of Four in 1981 and the Tiananmen Square Incident in 1989. The Gang of Four was a political faction in the late 1960s and early 1970s that assisted Mao with his struggle against other members of the Chinese Communist Party during the Cultural Revolution. The group consisted of Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan, and Wang Hongwen, and led by Jiang Qing. Jiang, better known as ‘Madame Mao’, was Chairman Mao’s wife and since the mid-1960s had been tasked with reforming the Chinese culture with her ‘revolutionary operas’. In October 1976, a month after Mao’s death, the group was arrested by the Central Security Bureau on the orders of the then paramount leader Hua Guofeng. Five years later, they were put on trial. The trial was highly publicised in the media and excerpts were broadcast nightly on Chinese television. Deng wanted to demonstrate, not only to the nation but to the world, that China was changing and that the old show trials and the summary executions of the Maoist days were to become a thing of the past. Yao Wenyuan received the most lenient sentence with 20 years in prison whilst Wang Hongwen was given life. Jiang Qing and Zhang Chunqiao both received death sentences, but in 1983 they were later commuted to life. Jiang hanged herself in hospital in 1991.
The second political event needs very little introduction. The 1989 Tiananmen Square protests were caused by more than an un-informed fight for democracy. Instead, they were the culmination of resentment against the party due to raising inflation from the economic reforms and increased government corruption. This resentment manifested itself as a student protest, sparked by the death of the reformist general secretary Hu Yaobang in April. Following Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power, Hu received a series of promotions. In September 1982, he was promoted to General Secretary. Hu held the position until 1987 when conservative party elders attacked him and blamed his reforms for inciting the student protests of that year. He was replaced by the equally reform-minded Zhao Ziyang. Hu passed away in April 1989 and his death triggered a huge outpouring of grief, especially from student the body. On April 21, the day before the funeral, 100,000 students from universities all around Beijing marched to Tiananmen Square. After the funeral, students complained that the service felt rushed and, in defiance of a government order, decided to stay in the square. On April 23, the Beijing Students' Autonomous Federation was formed by representatives from universities all around the city, including Peking University, Tsinghua University and the China University of Political Science and Law. This was to be the core of the student leadership. Miraculously, the government decided not to enforce their demand and let the students stay. This was to prove to be a mistake.
As the weeks went on, the outpouring of grief turned into contempt for the government and the party. As April turned to May, tensions between the government and the students started to deteriorate. On May 13, some students began a hunger strike. This resonated deeply with the Chinese public. As a nation with a long history of famine and drought, the act of starving oneself deliberately is a major statement. It was then a few days later, during the Sino-Soviet Summit, that the international community became significantly aware of the student protests. On May 20, Martial law was declared, and the student movement split in two. On one side was the original group of more moderate students who had been at Tiananmen since April and had grown tired of the protests and hunger strikes. On the other side was the newer and more radical students who had only joined in the last few weeks. The moderates wanted to leave but the radicals insisted that they stay, whatever the consequences may be. On June 3, the students voted on whether they should leave the square before the army arrived. The majority voted to leave but, because the students thought that democracy meant everything had to be unanimous, they chose to stay. In the end, it was the students’ ignorance of the very thing they were fighting for that ultimately sealed their fate.
With a lack of response from the students, the government deployed the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to drive the students out of the square. At 10pm, using tanks and armoured personnel carriers, the PLA 38th Army advanced along the West Chang’an Avenue into the city centre. Protesters used rocks, bricks, Molotov cocktails and any other weapons they could easily get their hands on to stop the army’s advance. Some soldiers were even dragged from their vehicles and kicked to death by swarms of students. By 1:30 am the next day, the PLA had fought their way to the square. Violence continued until 4am, when the student leadership went to meet with an army political commissar to discuss a ceasefire. It was agreed that, if the students left now, they would be allowed to go in peace. When the student leaders returned to the square, they announced their decision to leave. Most students chose to leave, but some hardliners accused the leadership of cowardice. By 7am, the square had been completely evacuated.
|Fig. 2: ‘Tank Man’, Tiananmen Square 1989
(image: J. Widener/Assoc.Press,
The next day, from the window of his hotel room, the American photographer Jeff Widener immortalised the events of Tiananmen in history when he snapped a photo of a man who defiantly stood in front of, and stopped, a column of tanks. Tank Man remains one of the most famous photographs ever taken and shows the people of Beijing’s defiance against authoritarian rule. The protests, and the government response to them represents the party’s decision to commit to an authoritarian regime despite taking steps to dismantle the economic part of their communist regime. But, the dictatorship of the proletariat remained alive and well in China.