China’s transition from the leadership under the iron fist of Mao Zedong to the more liberal Deng Xiao Ping gave the People’s Republic a gradual increase in economic freedom while maintaining political stability. During Mao’s regime, the country focused on bolstering and serving the community, while subsequently encumbering individual growth and prosperity. Deng advocated a more capitalist economic ideology, which established China as an economic force in the global community while endowing its citizens with more liberties and luxuries than previously granted.
Mao’s period of communal reform and the establishment of the Communist party from 1949-1976 was needed in order for Deng’s individual oriented, capitalist society to thrive. Mao’s period encompassed the structure of a true dictatorial communist government. It strove to concentrate on unifying communities to create a strong political backbone while being economically self-sufficient and socially literate and educated in Maoist propaganda. Under Mao’s leadership individual wealth was seen as a hindrance to community goals in meeting production quotas and was crushed by such policies as collectivization, land reformation, and movements such as The Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Under his rule, modeled under the Stalinist USSR archetype, China raised its masses from poverty and starvation to a standard of living that was considered a substantial upgrade.
Programs such as collectivization and land reformation were essentially a microcosm of Mao’s impact on China. Under the policy of collectivization, the government promoted cooperative farming and redistributed the land on the principle that the product of labor could be better distributed if the land was not under private ownership. As Peter Seybolt ascertains, in Throwing the Emperor from His Horse, the movement was done strictly to remove the power from the rich peasantry and ruling elite, making the communes and peasantry the vanguards of progress. This constituted China’s Great Leap Forward, an attempt by Mao and the State to unify the nation under a common goal in order to overthrow Great Britain and other European giants in agricultural production. Entire communities toiled vigorously in order to drastically increase China’s production output and demonstrate the nation’s growing prowess against the powers of the West. The Great Leap Forward, despite its disastrous failure which cost over 2 million lives, was a clear denouncement of individual freedom, instead raising the status of communities and ‘awarding’ collective freedom.
In Mao’s era, there was also little room for free speech due to the immense censorship that pervaded the period. Individual thinking and Confucian philosophy were renounced with a youth movement, The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, to criticize everything and to revive the spirit of the revolution. Until his death in 1976, when Deng Xiao Ping took control of the Communist Party, Mao accentuated maintaining the revolutionary ideals of communal ‘freedom’ and the ultimate sacrifice of the individual for the enhancement of China.
Even prior to Deng’s ascension as leader of the Communist Party, there was criticism amongst the people and floating ideas of “less collectivity and more individual incentives” (Seybolt 59). When Deng Xiao Ping did rise to leadership, he transformed China into a force in the global community as he sought to strengthen China’s economic backbone at the risk of political insecurity. Deng’s advocacy of private ownership, added luxuries in everyday life, and a broadened capitalist approach greatly altered China’s political infrastructure. Deng’s philosophy gave the individual more power and direction in guiding his/her future. The collectivization system was abandoned for a new responsibility system in which “each household looks out for itself” and “…the people [who] work harder…get more” (Seybolt 85). This osmosis of economic democracy endowed the citizens of China with more freedom for individual prosperity and success than ever granted in Mao’s time.
Under Deng, ideological education (such as the red books filled with Maoist propaganda) were abandoned and individual thinking ‘flourished.’ The power of the Communist Party, which was at the zenith under Mao, began a downward inclination under Deng. Cadres could no longer enforce crimes and local conduct as before, but instead their power began a period of decadence, as the voice of the masses was stronger than ever before.
Deng’s goal was not directed toward ushering in democratic ideals for the people but rather as a means to modernize The People’s Republic by all means necessary. China’s economy was greatly bolstered by Deng’s presence but perhaps at the cost of the political security that was Mao’s trademark. The growing tide of individualism reached the climax with the Tiannenmen Square protests in 1989. Protestors of communism and advocates of democracy were crushed by the army, including scores of deaths and even greater numbers of arrests. The uprising was a clear victory in demonstrating the freedoms achieved by individuals, but the martial influence did reaffirm China’s allegiance to their communist political system.
In Deng’s era, China has also seen an increase in its citizens’ standard of living. The child mortality rate has become miniscule while the average life expectancy has climbed over seventy. In the village of Houhua, nearly half the villagers own televisions and the utilization of electrical power has become commonplace. Also the faith, which was destroyed by the Maoist movements against god and superstition, was restored to the masses as well. As Deng Xiao Ping looked abroad to strengthen China on the world’s stage, his people embraced a wide array of ideas and gained expanse for certain freedoms.
In Throwing the Emperor from His Horse, the difference in philosophy between Wang Fucheng and his son Wang Dejun is microcosmic of each living during Mao’s regime and during Deng’s reign. Wang Fucheng was a staunch supporter of Chairman Mao, believing his ways produced social stability while establishing the fact that it was Mao who paved the way for Deng’s open market system. Wang Fucheng praises Mao with an aura of respect, as he subscribed to the chairman’s propaganda, which curbed his thinking, limited his freedom, and forced him to give himself up for the sake of his community. The elder Wang despised the ideas of decollectivization and “too much freedom” (Seybolt 88). Mao’s period awarded only communities on quotas met, while under the leadership of Deng, hardworking individuals reaped the benefits of their hours of toil. Wang Dejun’s views correspond to Deng’s new order, which is “characterized by increased prosperity on the one hand, and political…insecurity, official corruption, and material inequality on the other” (Seybolt 121). Wang Dejun saw the better clothes and decorative houses that villagers could afford under Deng, and the wider scope of freedom of expression that was privy to each individual.
In the eras of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiao Ping, China underwent great changes that affected the freedoms of individuals and communities. Mao impaired individual rights with his Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, which sought to unify the nation under a single cause (of communal agricultural production) and bring China under uniform thought as well. Thus, in his attempt to accomplish his goals he placed less emphasis on freedom and more on developing a sturdy political backbone. Deng, on the other hand, wanted to thrust China in the global community for economic fortune at the expense of everything Mao had established. In the process, he brought a freedom and wave of democracy to the People’s Republic, endowing the Chinese citizens with dreams of wealth and prosperity that were never even considered in the time of Mao. As China, progresses further into the twenty first century, its role seems quite unclear. A return to Post-revolutionary authoritarian communism seems unlikely, as does the institution of a true democracy but perhaps a new form of stability will arise to grant greater liberty to individuals or possibly even another Tiannenmen lurking in the future.