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40 years of reform and opening up

The inside story of the propaganda fightback for Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms in China

  • Deng Xiaoping’s push for “reform and opening up” launched China’s rise from the wreckage of the Cultural Revolution to the world’s second-biggest economy
  • To mark the 40th anniversary of the start of the process, the South China Morning Post takes an in-depth look at the forces that shaped that transformation
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2018, 12:21am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2018, 2:19pm

Deng Xiaoping remained a powerful figure in retirement but it took clever manoeuvring by the then Chinese paramount leader to get his derailed economic experiments back on track, according to a former senior propaganda official.

The bloody Tiananmen crackdown in 1989 almost killed China’s nascent market reform programme, with conservatives rising to dominate the political scene and the market economy and foreign investment derided as capitalist or revisionist forces undermining efforts to build a socialist country.

It took a trip by Deng to a series of southern cities in 1992 to revive the programme.

Where to now? 40 years after the big economic experiment that changed China

While what became known as the “Southern Tour” to Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shanghai was the turning point in the salvaging process, the way had been paved by a series of articles under the pseudonym Huang Fuping, published in the Shanghai Communist Party mouthpiece Liberation Daily a year earlier.

Accounts of the origins of the articles have varied but Liu Ji, former Shanghai deputy propaganda director and a top adviser to former president Jiang Zemin, has clarified the roles of several key players and how Deng crushed criticism of the articles from behind the scenes.

Liu, who had first-hand knowledge of the articles, said Deng was spending the Lunar New Year holiday in Shanghai in 1991 when he asked then Shanghai party boss Zhu Rongji to go to the Xijiao Hotel where he was staying.

“He summoned Zhu Rongji and talked about the market economy and reform. It was a personal conversation. It was in-depth and not the official line. It was the true thoughts [of Deng] – that is, if you want to reform you have to introduce a market economy,” he said.

Liu said Zhu was very excited that Deng confided his thoughts to him, and relayed the conversation to his secretary and Shi Zhihong in the car on their way back from the hotel.

At the time, Shi was a director in the research department in the municipal party committee, and would later rise to become a secretary to former vice-president Zeng Qinghong, and an adviser to Xi Jinping, now the country’s president.

“Shi was also very excited and he went to talk to Zhou Ruijin [the party boss] from Liberation Daily and an editorial writer from the newspaper [Ling He],” Liu said.

Over 40 years of diplomatic drama, a rising China opens up to, and transforms, the world  

The three men discussed the line of the articles; Ling and Zhou wrote them and chief editor Ding Ximan signed off on them. The three articles were published under the pen name Huang Fuping in March and April 1991.

The articles challenged the official line at the time that market reform amounted to capitalism and that using foreign investment was jeopardising China’s self-reliance.

They also criticised the “new stagnation of thoughts” and charged that China would lose the best opportunity for economic development if it stayed trapped in the ideological debate of capitalism versus communism.

Liu said the articles raised eyebrows among political heavyweights in Beijing, and the Shanghai party committee received phone calls not only from Wang Renzhi, the former propaganda chief, but also from then premier Li Peng and party elder Song Ping. Li and Song were known for their conservative stance.

“Song Ping called [then Shanghai deputy party boss] Wu Bangguo and asked if the writer had any special background. Wu said he didn’t think so, so Beijing media started to criticise the articles,” he said.

Where to now? 40 years after the big economic experiment that changed China

Liu said Zhu and Wu were not on good terms at the time so it was not surprising that Zhu did not tell Wu about the articles.

The media storm from Beijing continued for a few months until Liu was able to enlist the help of Deng’s daughter, Deng Nan.

“I invited her for a meal and I told her about the attacks on Huang Fuping’s articles. I told her these are the opinions of your father and now we are criticised. Can you tell your father?”

The next day, Deng Nan called Liu Ji for copies of the articles and Liu understood that she would show them to her father, who was by then 87 and had not read them.

Deng read the articles, showed them to then president Yang Shangkun, and left it to Yang to offer public support for the content, according to Liu.

“So Yang gave an interview to Liberation Daily. In the interview, Yang said the articles were good and they were totally in line with the spirit of the central leadership. Once he said that, the storm was calmed. Beijing [media] dared not say anything and the criticism stopped,” he said.

“Therefore in China, I believe all reforms and all policies have to do with Deng Xiaoping. We wrote so many articles – that was all because we had the support of Deng Xiaoping,” Liu said.

Zhu was soon promoted to the central government as a vice-premier and then premier.