Rehabilitation paved way for economic upheaval that shaped modern China

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 November, 2008, 12:00am

One moment in 1976, propaganda broadcasts were criticising Deng Xiaoping as a 'counter-revolutionary revisionist and capitalist-roader' who 'worshipped foreign things'.

A month later, the political winds had shifted to accusing the radical Gang of Four of pursuing a 'counter-revolutionary revisionist line', the veteran foreign correspondent Dennis Bloodworth wrote.

Mao Zedong's anointed successor, Hua Guofeng , had the Gang of Four arrested in October 1976.

Mao's wife Jiang Qing , her associate Yao Wenyuan , Shanghai party chief Zhang Chunqiao and former Shanghai textile worker Wang Hongwen would later be blamed for the 10 years of chaos during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.

Deng's rehabilitation would come several months after their arrests, at a July 1977 meeting, when he was reappointed as vice-premier and to posts in the Communist Party's ruling Politburo and the military structure.

Although China's direction would waver in 1977 and 1978 because of divisions between Hua and Deng, the return of the diminutive Sichuan native paved the way for economic reforms that are still shaping China today.

'In the 1970s and 1980s, we were still very reluctant [about reforms] and we had a lot of doubts,' said Ji Zhu , a professor at Beijing Technology and Business University's school of economics. 'Looking back, all this seems very naive.'

Deng was a political survivor who returned from purges to lead China into the modern age. He was earlier ousted along with Liu Shaoqi and other high-level officials at the outset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966.

He returned from the political wilderness in 1973, becoming vicepremier.

The members of the Gang of Four, who rose to prominence through the Cultural Revolution, saw him as a threat, especially the former Shanghai actress Jiang.

Wang, Zhang, and Yao were all members of the Politburo.

Despite political disgrace, Deng still had supporters within the party and played an increasingly larger role as the health of premier Zhou Enlai worsened.

After Zhou's death in early 1976, the campaign against Deng gathered steam and he was blamed for the spontaneous mourning for Zhou in Tiananmen Square. Deng fled Beijing not long after, but returned the following year.

A party meeting - the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee - in late 1978 declared victory over the Gang of Four, whose members were tried in 1980. Portions of the trial were shown on state television, including a defiant Jiang shouting at the judges.

The plenum stressed the 'Four Modernisations' (agriculture, industry, national defence, and science and technology), which Deng would use to free the country from its isolation and establish special economic zones.

Significantly, as recounted by historian Jonathan Spence, the meeting also allowed farmers to engage in 'side-occupations', a move away from agriculture under the state plan.

Deng moved the country away from the excesses of the Cultural Revolution to a more pragmatic approach.

Deng would side against the 1989 pro-democracy protesters, some say because of his dislike of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.

'Experience has proven that political stability is the key to sustainable economic development,' said Zhang Erzhen of Nanjing University.

Economic reforms are now a given in China's development, yet Deng's move towards a market-oriented economy was radical.

'We never imagined the achievements we have made. These changes are unprecedented,' Professor Zhang said.

Madness ends

The Gang of Four wielded considerable influence during the Cultural Revolution. But after Mao Zedong's death, they were put on trial from 1980-81 - a move which set the stage for the country?s economic transformation. Here?s what happened to the gang

Jiang Qing

Sentenced to death, suspended for two years, but later commuted to life imprisonment. Committed suicide on May 14, 1991

Zhang Chunqiao

Also sentenced to death, with two-year reprieve. Penalty was commuted to life imprisonment in January 1983. Died of cancer on April 21, 2005

Wang Hongwen

Jailed for life and died of liver disease on August 3, 1992

Yao Wenyuan

Received 20-year term and died of diabetes on December 23, 2005