The leadership that came into power after Mao’s death shared his aspirations to develop an economy sufficiently strong to compete with the rest of the world. This, however, is virtually the only element of economic continuity. The methods employed by Deng Xiaoping and his government contrasted significantly with Mao’s. Their ‘four modernisations’ of 1978, two of whose aims included agricultural and industrial advances, removed several of Mao’s restrictions on the economy and so allowed for a much freer market. In the 1980’s this gave the economy a growth rate of 10% per annum, one of the largest worldwide.
Today, in fact, it is the fastest growing economy, as China experiences unprecedented economic expansion – foreign investment in 2003 amounted to $50 billion, and Chinese steel comprised over one quarter of total global production. Naturally, this has led to the migration of (ten million) peasants each year from rural into urban areas in support of this development and thanks to China’s “embrace of private enterprise” these immigrants have found work and their living standards have improved. Evidence of this is to be found in the consumer society that China has become, with disposable income growth reaching five hundred percent.
The sale of cars rose by 50% in 2002, and more than ten million Chinese now go on holiday abroad – and this figure is expected to rise to one hundred million in the next fifteen years. Concerning those remaining in the countryside, the communes introduced under Mao’s Great Leap Forward were disbanded and a system implemented in which each family has its own, albeit it small, plot of land, thereby creating the incentive to work harder that the previous arrangement lacked, since aside from the taxes due to the government, all profit made is retained by its makers.
So in hope of earning more money and so improving their lifestyles, the farmers have better exerted themselves, causing agricultural growth which supports those in the cities. Since the death of Mao the people of China certainly have been better off as far as their country’s economy – in particular those in the urbanised areas, who have enjoyed considerable improvements in their standard of living. The One Child Policy introduced in 1980 brought about substantial social change for the Chinese people.
In addition to the understandable emotional effects of limiting one’s offspring, many rural families required large numbers of children to help cultivate their land and maximise already small profits. Also, the incentives offered to families of only one child, coupled with the general preference of sons over daughters, led to the murder of thousands of unwanted firstborn baby girls, whose parents wished to comply with the policy but also wanted a male child. Other changes that China experienced after Mao’s death were social benefits and improvements.
One of the aforementioned ‘Four Modernisations’ was progress in levels of education, which were indeed realised. Further improvements came as a result of the economic expansion, in housing, healthcare, and hygiene – many people in towns and cities were eating far better than in Mao’s time. These changes, however, belie many of the social aspects of life in post-Mao China. The massive economic growth and consequent social developments in the urban areas potentially blind one from the abject poverty in many rural areas that had not changed since 1976 (and Mao’s death).
The growth the country experienced ought to have filtered down to the lowest classes in society and aided their lives too, but this was not the case and in this respect there has been little change since Mao’s death. In all, there may be some elements of the social spectrum that suggest improvements (living standards in urbanised areas) but there was no nationwide enhancements, especially considering the potential there was for such developments, and in general the changes are not quite as significant as they may initially seem.
For this reason it is fair to say that the Chinese people have not been better off since the death of Mao. Deng Xiaoping did little to alter the political system imposed by Mao. He consistently defended the right of the Chinese Communist Party to rule without opposition. In addition to the maintaining of a one-party state, the new government was equally ruthless when it came to dealing with resistance of a less formal sort – that is to say, freedom of speech was still denied and those who contravened this denial still met with, and do so even to this day, harsh and often inappropriate punishments.
This brutality appeared to be subsiding, however, in 1978, when posters began to appear along the main street in Beijing criticising Mao and his Communist ideals and pro-democratic support blossomed alongside free speech. This “Democracy Wall,” as it was referred to, seemed to herald the end of the suppression of anti-Communist thought and a new, more liberal era for China.
Ultimately, though, the government became too concerned for its threatened legitimacy and imposed further restrictions on free speech, pro-democratic opinions, and human rights movements, imprisoning many of those who had been advocating these. Subsequently, the Gang of Four was put on trial, and in reality it was the policies and leadership of Mao himself that was being judged. These were criticised at the end of the trial and once again it appeared that China was progressing into a more moderate and liberal state.
The areas of change highlighted above, namely the Democracy Wall and the outcome of the Trial of the Gang of Four, briefly suggested that China was becoming a more forward country. In the longer term however it is clear that freedom of speech and other features of democratic states are never really more than ideals in China, and the brief flirtations the country enjoys with such things are soon crushed by the government, Mao’s or otherwise, as they become insecure for the safety and security of their power.
In reality, the fundamental political principles underpinning China have remained as they were before Mao’s death. This continuity is most brutally exemplified in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, during which forces dispatched by the government began to use tear-gas shells and violence to disperse the crowds, eventually open fire and killing five thousand citizens.
Harsh crackdowns on pro-democracy leaders ensued and since then little opposition of any sort has emerged in China. This epitomises the approach of both Mao and the post-Mao government of China to resistance and general disagreement and it is an area of significant continuity between the two. Overall, the political elements of China have experienced little lasting change, and its people have not therefore been better off in this area since Mao’s death.