What challenges were there to communism in China during the 1980s?
There were at least two major challenges to communism in China during this decade.
First, there was the challenge posed by the decline and fall of communism in Europe. As communism fell apart in Eastern Europe, the Chinese communists had to chart some path that would allow their country to progress without the Party losing control as it had in the Soviet bloc. This was eventually accomplished by Deng Xiaoping, who managed to modernize the country and set it on its path to its current level of prosperity.
Second, there was the challenge posed by dissidents within the country. This is most clearly seen in the 1989 protests at Tiananmen Square. There were many in the country who were pushing for a more democratic system. This could have led to a loss of power by the communists just as it had in Europe.
In the 1980s, communism in China faced major challenges as the Cold War ended. The Party survived by promoting economic growth while still being quite repressive towards political dissidents.
Firstly, we need to clarify a commonly held misconception. China is a socialist country dominated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP; also known as the Communist Party of China [CPC]). In fact, all of the ‘communist’ countries (China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, and the former Soviet Union) are socialist countries dominated by communist parties. Further, despite having smaller political parties other than the CCP, the Chinese Constitution specifically states that the CCP is to maintain leadership. This means that the other parties must follow the dictates of the CCP. Thus, for all intents and purposes, China is a one-party state.
When we talk about communism in China during the 1980s, therefore, what we are really talking about are the challenges the country faced due to the socialist policies the CCP put in place following its victory in the Chinese Civil War and assumption of power in 1949. Until his death in 1976, Mao Zedong was Chairman of the CCP and the all-powerful dictator of China. Mao’s policies during his 25-year reign often centered on pitting potential rivals and factions within the CCP against one another to maintain control, as well as to further China’s dominance throughout Asia and on the world stage. He did this through implementing socialist policies at various times and degrees. These included the ‘Great Leap Forward’ which encouraged Chinese industrialization at the expense of agricultural production leading to famine and the death of tens of millions. Fearing a rising tide of discontent, Mao launched the ‘Cultural Revolution’ in the late 1960s. This final push by Mao to maintain control saw the destruction of untold amounts of literature, artifacts, as well as the death and imprisonment of academics and CCP party members advocating for reforms.
Thus, the challenges facing China in the 1980s centered on how the CCP could maintain control after Mao’s tumultuous reign. Following Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping assumed the leadership of China. He initiated the ‘Reform and Opening Up’ period that marked the 1980s and what Deng called ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. Deng was a pragmatist and realized that if the CCP was to survive, a reversal of the policies instituted by Mao had to take place. Foreign investment increased dramatically, market reforms were initiated, and burgeoning land reform and property ownership reversed the deleterious policies that signified Mao’s rule. During this time socialism elsewhere began to fall apart, specifically in the former Soviet Union. Deng’s economic policies were not in response to the economic problems of the Soviet Union but probably kept the CCP from losing total control as had the Soviets.
However, political unrest did occur. By 1989, demonstrations began springing up around the country calling for democratic reforms. These culminated in demonstrators occupying Tiananmen Square in Beijing and the movement’s eventual destruction by the Chinese military in what became known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Following the event, political reforms came to a standstill as the CCP feared losing control. Economic growth, however, continued. The challenges facing the CCP since the 1980s have centered on maintaining a quiet understanding between the party and the Chinese people: Political control for the former in exchange for economic prosperity for the latter.
Dikötter, Frank. 2013. The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Naughton, Barry. 2017. Is China Socialist? In, The Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 31, no. 1, pp. 3-24. Nashville: American Economic Association.
Communism faced the issue of lack of incentive economic wise, but when economic freedom was given, people also felt entitled to political freedom. This lead to protests and bloodshed, like in Tiananmen Square.