China's economic changes were carried out from the bottom up, rather than from the top down.
The Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) apologists never fail to point out that it has pulled hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, conveniently ignoring that most of that suffering has been generated by the CCP's own policies since gaining power in 1949. Deng Xiaoping, the party's supreme leader from 1978 and 1989, is referred to be the "Great Architect" of the country's economic development.
The CCP's authority has grown as a result of this allegation. In the 1970s, it appeared that the party would devolve into yet another shambolic administration. It is now brimming with self-assurance, leveraging the country's economic clout to assert itself on the world scene.
However, the CCP is not the driving force behind modern Chinese economic development. Ordinary people, not Deng, were the ones who started China's economic reform. True change came organically from below, not as a consequence of Deng's genius, as the CCP claims. Given that the regime's undeserved reputation for turning around the Chinese economy has led many individuals to misunderstand the regime's capabilities to this day, reexamining that myth is critical.
The Chinese party line, alas, has fooled much of the world. For example, in 2017 the BBC effused that Deng created the "state-driven, managed economic system" that is responsible for China's economic growth; to mark the 40th anniversary of Deng becoming the party's paramount leader, The Washington Post gushed that "Deng laid out the foundations for China's success" and instituted policies that "unleashed the creative and entrepreneurial potential of the Chinese people."
Deng was attempting to roll back the clock, rather than going on a new proper route. He wasn't attempting to establish a new economic system; rather, he aimed to restore the planned economy that existed before to the Cultural Revolution. After Mao's catastrophic Great Leap Forward, he sought to adopt a program based on Zhou Enlai's "Four Modernisations," which he launched in 1963 to reinvigorate the rural. The party's extreme forces promoted further collectivization initiatives during the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976. Deng aimed to undo those extreme practices rather than the planned economy as a whole.
Deng was a conservative reformer who accepted changes when circumstances on the ground had rendered governmental prohibitions obsolete. When he took over the party, he advocated for private ownership of small parcels of property but prohibited the division of common land among individual homes. Households were first formally authorized to contract production rights on common property in 1982, four years after he assumed office. He increased the price of grain that farmers were forced to sell to the state by 20%—a significant concession, but far from evidencing the type of foresight that the term "Great Architect" requires. Deng and the party leadership, in fact, forced people who had left the communes to return a year after the "great turning point" in April 1979.
Before the communes were formally abolished in 1983, the planned economy was undermined and corrupted from below. Decollectivization occurred not as a result of Deng's vision, but rather as a result of regular people fleeing the communes in the midst of the Cultural Revolution's upheaval. It had become usual for people to venture out on their own in quest of economic prospects some years before Mao's death in 1976. The leadership of the party bemoaned the fact that the countryside had "gone capitalist," but it was unable to halt the trend. By 1980, half of Guizhou's production teams and more than half of Gansu's were on home contracts. Farmers were given solid tenures of common farmland under this arrangement, which boosted their production and health. One cadre in Anhui province likened household contracting, as reported by the historian Frank Dikötter in a 2016 article in The China Quarterly, to "an irresistible wave, spontaneously topping the limits we had placed…it could not be suppressed or turned around."
The Ironic Aftermath of Mao's Cultural Revolution
Deng was not changing history; he was swept away by it. As the historian Kate Zhou wrote in her 1996 book How the Farmers Changed China: "When the government lifted restrictions, it did so only in recognition of the fact that the sea of unorganized farmers had already made them irrelevant." Ordinary people, not Deng Xiaoping, resisted and reformed the planned economy.
The history of the Cultural Revolution can help us understand how the party's control over economic activities eroded. Mao's "Great Leap Forward" of 1958–1962, which killed tens of millions of people, had degraded into a Great Famine. While people were hungry, the party increased grain exports to other socialist nations to boost its international standing.
To prevent famine, farmers were obliged to defy the state's regulations by lying, cheating, stealing, smuggling, or trading on the black market. Only the lucky or adventurous survived, aside from the party's devoted hacks. Even Mao had to admit that the Great Leap Forward had failed in the early 1960s. The Central Committee put in place a few flimsy protections against total collectivization. Villagers were so permitted to grow individual plots in their spare time.
However, Mao quickly regarded this as a reversal, and he started the Cultural Revolution to reclaim control of the party. China was taken over by revolutionary committees. The People's Liberation Army was sent into the streets, and the Sino-Soviet border dispute was utilized as a pretext to reclaim control of the countryside. Private holdings were massively collectedivized once more. However, the party disintegrated in the process, with factional infighting wreaking havoc on the organization.
The party's control machinery was shattered during the Cultural Revolution, and it lost much of its ability to force people's ordinary conduct. During the upheaval, individuals reclaimed some of their lost liberties. They developed private lots, abandoned communes, marketed goods for personal gain, relocated to cities, and even established underground industries. The genuine beginnings of China's modernity may be found here.
Successive waves of terror, starvation, and struggle sessions made many local cadres lose interest in upholding the party line. They instead focused on production; some even parcelled out every part of commune property to the highest bidder. Black markets flourished. Soon private firms ("collectives" only in name) sprouted up; enterprising villagers set up unauthorized brick factories and metalworks. The party leadership lamented that the countryside had gone capitalist, but there was usually little it could do about it outside major cities.
The Chinese People Chose the 'Capitalist Road'
The impact of millions of ordinary people participating in self-directed commerce and manufacturing changed the Chinese economy. It took place in secret, away from the attention of the party's leadership. If villages had banded together in open opposition of party policy, they would have faced the full force of the state. Instead, they shrewdly outmanoeuvred the state. Cadres were powerless in the face of widespread disobedience; fact, many authorities soon discovered that they could live better if they ignored politics and focused on business. Bottom-up changes gained such traction that the party leadership was powerless to halt them.
Villagers established private firms and factories throughout the country. For example, the rate of industrialization in the countryside of Jiangsu province in the early 1970s far exceeded the rate of industrialization there under Deng. And it was these rural industries that fuelled China's GDP growth. Prosperity came not from the cities or from the state-owned enterprises, but from the countryside. The people who worked in these factories had often left the communes on their own initiative, not on party orders. When Deng became paramount leader in 1978, the silent revolution was already well underway.
Not only were industries built, but markets were constructed to connect affluent and impoverished areas. Traders in Guangdong, a coastal region, reestablished foreign commercial relations when restrictions were loosened in 1972. Deng is credited with starting the process of opening up China, but as early as 1974, the amount of money arriving in Guangdong from abroad was more than double what it was in 1965. Although the state had strong monopolies on a few vital items, practically everything was traded freely on the black markets.
These markets benefited from the state's fixed prices. People were often willing to pay twice the fixed price for commodities, if not more, in order to get any at all. When the state lost its capacity to enforce restrictions on everyday commerce, private markets' higher prices gave producers an incentive to withhold their produce from the state. Thus crumbled major aspects of the planned economy.
In province after province, local leaders divided collective property to individual farmers who lost no time in transitioning from state-mandated monoculture. Although farmers were required to produce grain, many grew crops they could sell on private markets and then bought back their state-mandated grain quota with the profits. Others rented their land to work in industry, sending their earnings back to their families. This occurred regardless of the wishes of the Central Committee.
The party also lost control of public transportation. Despite the state's efforts to keep them out, villagers migrated to the metropolis in pursuit of opportunities. The purpose of the household registration system was to keep track of individuals, but its agents were regularly outwitted. Between 1965 and 1970, the urban population of Hubei province increased by a third of a million, but only by half a million in the next two years. To keep unwanted visitors and residents out of Beijing, the public security bureau had to hire almost 10,000 personnel. Many lived in terror of deportation, often looking over their shoulders, yet they could easily buy their way into a residency card. In Hubei province, around a quarter of residence permits were obtained by deception.
During the Cultural Revolution, parts of the party promoted the zealotry that had characterized the Great Leap Forward; in Dazhai village in Shanxi province, they claimed, farmers supposedly worked selflessly around the clock every month of the year. In certain provinces, private plots were collectivized much as they had been in the late 1950s. But other factions of the Central Committee cautioned against such excesses. Policies and counter-policies generated much confusion on the ground. No one could be sure of the "correct" party line.
This confusion gave local cadres considerable freedom to interpret the rules as they sought fit. Far from Beijing's watchful eyes, cadres bothered less and less with politics; more and more, they worked with villagers to establish black markets and decollectivize the countryside. In one village in Shaanxi province, a party report complained that "Not one Party meeting has been called, and not one of the prescribed works of Marx, Lenin and Chairman Mao has been studied." But as historian Dikötter wryly noted in his 2016 book The Cultural Revolution, telephone conferences for some production brigades "were not a realistic prospect, since the lines had been cut down and were used by the villagers to dry sweet potatoes."
Marxism and 'Great Man' History
According to Marxist theory, history is determined by the interaction of material forces and productive social relations. In practice, however, Marxists have frequently succumbed to frenzied personality cults. Chinese Marxism has succumbed to the "Great Man" conception of history, rather than resisting it. Mao believed that by encouraging the masses to do gigantic feats of work, he could transform the whole economy. Deng never made that mistake, but the fact that he is regarded as the guy who almost single-handedly set China on a new historical course demonstrates how alluring the Great Man theory still is. "Xi Jinping is unquestionably the fundamental figure managing the flow of history," according to Xinhua, China's official news agency.
However, neither Xi nor Deng were able to control the course of history. Deng acknowledged that certain changes were unavoidable, but his reforms were nothing more than legalizations of already existing activities that he took credit for. Another question is why the party should still be honored for it.
Deng's soldiers and generals were ready to kill on the basis that his leadership was in China's best interests when he ordered the tanks into Tiananmen Square. The party's grip on power would have been much thinner if he hadn't been obliged to implement changes; fact, it may have crumbled if he hadn't been forced to do so. Ironically, the party's survival may be due to the exact individuals it formerly despised as "capitalist roadies"—those whose bottom-up changes allowed the government to survive.