The year 1976 saw the deaths of the three most senior officials in the CCP and the state apparatus: Zhou Enlai in January, Zhu De (then chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress and de jure head of state) in July, and Mao Zedong in September.
In April of the same year, masses of demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in Beijing memorialized Zhou Enlai and criticized Mao’s closest associates, Zhou’s opponents. In June the government announced that Mao would no longer receive foreign visitors. In July an earthquake devastated the city of Tangshan in Hebei Province. These events, added to the deaths of the three Communist leaders, contributed to a popular sense that the “mandate of heaven” had been withdrawn from the ruling party. At best the nation was in a state of serious political uncertainty.
The radical clique most closely associated with Mao and the Cultural Revolution became vulnerable after Mao died, as Deng had been after Zhou Enlai’s demise. In October, less than a month after Mao’s death, Jiang Qing and her three principal associates– denounced as the Gang of Four –were arrested
The jubilation following the incarceration of the Gang of Four and the popularity of the new ruling triumvirate (Hua Guofeng, Ye Jianying, and Li Xiannian, a temporary alliance of necessity) were succeeded by calls for the restoration to power of Deng Xiaoping and the elimination of leftist influence throughout the political system.
Deng Xiaoping, the logical successor as premier, received a temporary setback after Zhou’s death, when radicals launched a major counterassault against him. In April 1976 Deng was once more removed from all his public posts, and a relative political unknown, Hua Guofeng, a Political Bureau member, vice premier, and minister of public security, was named acting premier and party first vice chairman.
Within days it was formally announced that Hua Guofeng had assumed the positions of party chairman, chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission, and premier.
The post-Mao political order was given its first vote of confidence at the Eleventh National Party Congress, held August 12- 18, 1977. Hua was confirmed as party chairman, and Ye Jianying, Deng Xiaoping, Li Xiannian, and Wang Dongxing were elected vice chairmen.
By July 1977, at no small risk to undercutting Hua Guofeng’s legitimacy as Mao’s successor and seeming to contradict Mao’s apparent will, the Central Committee exonerated Deng Xiaoping from responsibility for the Tiananmen Square incident. Deng admitted some shortcomings in the events of 1975, and finally, at a party Central Committee session, he resumed all the posts from which he had been removed in 1976.
The year 1978 proved a crucial one for the reformers. In February and March, serious disputes arose over the apparently disproportionate development of the national economy, the Hua forces calling for still more large-scale projects that China could ill afford.
Rehabilitations of Deng’s associates and others sympathetic to his reform plans were stepped up. Not only were many of those purged during the Cultural Revolution returned to power, but individuals who had fallen from favor as early as the mid-1950s were rehabilitated. It was a time of increased political activism by students, whose big-character posters attacking Deng’s opponents–and even Mao himself–appeared with regularity.
Rapid change occurred in the subsequent months and years. The year 1979 witnessed the formal exchange of diplomatic recognition between the People’s Republic and the United States, a border war between China and Vietnam, the fledgling “democracy movement” (which had begun in earnest in November 1978), and the determination not to extend the thirty-year-old Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance with the Soviet Union.
Economic advances and political achievements had strengthened the position of the Deng reformists enough that by February 1980 they were able to call the Fifth Plenum of the Eleventh National Party Congress Central Committee.
One of the more spectacular political events of modern Chinese history was the month-long trial of the Gang of Four and six of Lin Biao’s closest associates. A 35-judge special court was convened in November 1980 and issued a 20,000-word indictment against the defendants.
In June 1981 the Sixth Plenum of the Eleventh National Party Congress Central Committee marked a major milestone in the passing of the Maoist era. The Central Committee accepted Hua’s resignation from the chairmanship and granted him the face- saving position of vice chairman.
Several days after the closing of the plenum, on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the CCP, new party chairman Hu Yaobang declared that “although Comrade Mao Zedong made grave mistakes in his later years, it is clear that if we consider his life work, his contributions to the Chinese revolution far outweigh his errors… His immense contributions are immortal.” These remarks may have been offered in an effort to repair the extensive damage done to the Maoist legacy and by extension to the party itself.
The culmination of Deng’s drive to consolidate his power and ensure the continuity of his reformist policies among his successors was the calling of the Twelfth National Party Congress in September 1982 and the Fifth Session of the Fifth National People’s Congress in December 1982.
Reform – dubbed China’s “Second Revolution” – was one of the most common terms in China’s political vocabulary in the 1980s. Reform of the Chinese Communist Party and its political activities, reform of government organization, reform of the economy, military reforms, cultural and artistic reforms, indeed, China’s post-Mao Zedong leaders called for reform of every part of Chinese society.
The decade since Mao’s death saw the worst of the Cold War between The United States and the Soviet Union. The People’s Republic, now a nuclear power, defended the Soviet policy, but did not militarily involve itself in the Cold War on either side.
Exploitation of China’s rich natural resources advanced significantly in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s.
As politics and the economy continued to respond to and change each other, China’s reformers had to balance contending forces within and against their reform efforts while maintaining the momentum of the Four Modernizations program.
A sound ideological basis was needed to ensure the support of the party for the reform program. Deng’s political idioms, such as “seeking truth from facts” and “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” were reminiscent of reformist formulations of centuries past and had underlying practical ramifications.
The leadership was altered significantly at a special conference of delegates, called the National Conference of Party Delegates, held September 18-23, 1985. The major accomplishment of the conference was its adoption of the “Proposal on the Seventh Five-Year Plan” (1986-90), the framework for developing the actual plan adopted at the Sixth National People’s Congress in 1986.
The years between 1986 and 1989 saw a resurgence in calls for party reform, modernization and capitalism in the form of infighting among the leftist CCP. The Taiwan issue also began to emerge during this period as a threat to mainland stability. ‘Cross Straight Relations’ became a common term when the ‘renegade province’ of Taiwan found itself having to interact with the CCP on matters of economic development and regional ecological issues.
In May 1986, 30 years after intellectuals were expelled by Mao Zedong into the countryside, the first student call for democracy took place. Even though it was quickly put down, the demonstration’s leader, Fang Lizhi, became a hero to students and liberal intellectuals.
On the political front of the crackdown, some prominent intellectuals were demoted or expelled from the party.
From October 25 to November 1, 1987, the Chinese Communist Party held its Thirteenth National Party Congress. Dozens of veteran party leaders retired from active front-line positions.
The retirees were not left without a voice. Deng, eighty-three and still China’s de facto leader, retained his positions as chairman of the party and state Central Military Commissions, the latter of which designated him as commander-in-chief of the Chinese armed forces.
Below the national level, numerous leadership changes also took place following the Thirteenth National Party Congress. More than 600 younger and better educated leaders of provincial-level congresses and governments had been elected in China’s twenty-nine provinces, autonomous regions, and special municipalities.
In September and October 1987 and again in March 1988, riots erupted in the streets of Lhasa, the capital of Xizang Autonomous Region (Tibet). Calls for “independence for Tibet” and expressions of support for the exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, were made amid violence that claimed the lives of at least six people in 1987 and at least nine more (including policemen) in 1988.
The January 1988 death of Taiwan’s leader, Chiang Ching-kuo, brought expressions of sympathy from Zhao Ziyang and other Chinese Communist Party leaders and renewed calls for the reunification of China under the slogan “one country, two systems.”
The Seventh National People’s Congress was held from March 25 to April 13, 1988. This congress, along with the Seventh Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, held from March 24 to April 10, 1988, was marked by a new openness and tolerance of debate and dissent.
Li Peng was elected premier of the State Council, as expected, and Yao Yilin and fifty-nine-year-old financial expert Tian Jiyun were re-elected as vice premiers. Sixty-six-year-old former Minister of Foreign Affairs Wu Xueqian also was elected vice premier.
In foreign affairs, Beijing continued to balance its concern for security with its desire for an independent foreign policy. China reacted cautiously to the signing of a nuclear arms treaty by the Soviet Union and the United States and refused to hold its own summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
In Sino-American relations, disputes over trade and technology transfer in 1987 were further clouded by United States concern over reported Chinese Silkworm missile sales to Iran, sales of Dongfeng-3 intermediate range missiles to Saudi Arabia, and disclosures that Israel allegedly assisted China in the development of the missile system later sold to the Saudis. Another concern was China’s protest over an October 1987 United States Senate resolution on the “Tibetan question” that focused on alleged human rights violations in Xizang.
In February 1988 Beijing China achieved its long-sought goal of establishing diplomatic relations with Uruguay, one of the few nations that still had state-to-state ties with Taipei. With this accomplishment China increased its diplomatic exchanges to 134 countries, while Taiwan’s official representations were reduced to 22.
The ideological conviction that China was still in the “initial stage of socialism” provided a still broader ideological basis for continuing the development of the Deng’s reform program in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Political confrontation over the reforms was pervasive and, to many foreign observers, confusing. In simplistic terms, the “conservatives” in the reform debate were members of the post-Mao “left,” while the “liberals” were the pro-Deng “right.”
Self-proclaimed successes of the reforms of the 1980s included improvements in both rural and urban life, adjustment of the structures of ownership, diversification of methods of operation, and introduction of more people into the decision-making process.
Amid these successes, the authorities admitted that there were difficulties in attempting simultaneously to change the basic economic structure and to avoid the disruptions and declines in production that had marked the ill-conceived “leftist experiments” of the previous thirty years.
On May 4th, 1989, a massive student rally began in Tiananmen Square to protest the dismissal of a CCP official in favor of democratic reform. Dubbed the Second May Fourth Movement, the crowd of protestors grew by the thousands each day. Deng Xiaoping denounced the students in public and called for their removal from the square.
On May 27th, Deng declared martial law in effect, and a week later, on June 3rd, ordered Chinese troops to clear the students out of the square.
Still shaken by the protests of the previous year, and nervous over the demise of the Soviet Union, Deng initiated a series of purges within the ranks of China’s leadership in 1991 and into 1992.
In October, 1992, the Fourteenth National Congress of the CCP was held, taking into account that China’s reform and opening-up and modernization drive has stepped into a new era.
n December, 1992, Deng Xiaoping named Jiang Zemin, former mayor of Shanghai, member of the politburo since 1985, General Secretary of the CCP since 1989 and head of powerful government and party military commissions, as his successor and in May, 1993 stepped down as president of China.
Deng and Jiangâ€™s reforms in the 1990s were particularly successful at stimulating economic growth, but they also created problems for the Communist leadership. Chinaâ€™s foreign debt began to increase rapidly, and growing consumer demand led to rising inflation. Uncontrolled industrial and agricultural growth caused environmental degradation in much of China.
1994 and 1995 saw the relationship between China and the rest of the world breaking down. Loans from Hong Kong dried up and the Chinese economy came to a stand still.
In 1996, Taiwan held its first democratic elections and the PRC deployed naval ships to conduct ‘exercises’ in the Taiwan Straight. This action was met with the United States, in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act, sending a naval battle fleet prepared to defend the island in the event of a Mainland invasion.
Since then, the relationship between the two Chinas grew ever colder, culminating in China’s threat to invade should Taiwan declare its independence formally.
With the death of Deng Xiaoping in February 1997 and with Jiang Zemin firmly holding the reigns of leadership, China emerged on the forefront of Asia’s economic explosion.
Hong Kong officially returned to Chinese control ending a 99 year lease on the territory by the British Government in July of 1997.
In early 1998, China began to privatize much of the economy in an effort to stave off nearly a decade of failed government economic interference.
In June, US President Bill Clinton arrived in China for the longest visit by a sitting US president to the country. The end result of the summit led to broader freedoms for the Chinese people and improvement in Chinaâ€™s international standing.
In July 1999, the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia was bombed by NATO forces conducting a support mission in the area. The blame for this action centered on the United States, with a speech given over live television by Hu Jintao.
In November 1999 China and the United States reached a trade agreement in which China agreed to significantly reduce obstacles to imported goods and foreign investments in exchange for U.S. support of Chinaâ€™s application for membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO).
January 5, 2000 saw the return of Macau to China from the Portuguese government. Macau (Aomen) had been assured certain freedoms, similar to those experienced by Hong Kong, at the time of the handover.
The relations between China and the US would again suffer early in 2001, when a US spy plane crash landed in China, causing a diplomatic nightmare and economic threats from China.
After long hours of negotiations with Europe, the US and other nations of the developed world, China formally became a member of the WTO in December 2001.