261. Telegram From the Embassy in China to the Department of State1
5360. Subj: The Post Deng Era.
1. C—entire text.
2. Summary. China is now set on a course that appears to Western observers to be the most sensible it has followed since 1949. Despite the new Chinese respect for law and order and their ardent pursuit of science and technology, observers cannot help but recall that modern Chinese history has been wracked by sudden drastic reversals. Chairman Mao reveled in these manic political swings and his absence may now be the biggest single element contributing to political and social stability. There are several areas in which the PRC will face hard tests in coming years that will coincide with the passage of the current old guard who have run China for thirty years. These include leadership continuity and the orderly transfer of power, control over the arbitrary excesses of political authorities, maintenance of sustained economic development, the distribution of the fruits of development to the Chinese [Page 918] masses in a way that will assure them they are indeed seeing progress and the management of severe political strains created by new policies. Economic and social trends have begun to develop in China which could place China on heretofore uncharted courses. Generational change, foreign educated students and an educated elite leading a less politicized bureaucracy would undoubtedly change the nature of Chinese political life. A less visionary and revolutionary political system might be more concerned with meeting the needs of the Chinese populace and more able to cope with the outside world on a basis of confidence in equality. End summary.
3. Three years of refutation of latter day Maoist excesses and establishment of new practical policies have set China on a course that appears to Western observers to be the most sensible it has followed since 1949. A stable collegial political leadership is committed to pragmatic economic policies, codification of laws, orderly bureaucratic procedures, and normal intercourse with the international community. Chinese economic, political and cultural leaders with whom the Embassy has contact appear to be more relaxed than they have been [omission in the original] not wracked with factional struggle and whose policy making is not dominated by revolutionary romanticism. While attempting to assess the political temperature of the Chinese populace is a tentative and tricky process, we would judge that the people at large are genuinely satisfied with recent major policy decisions and are grateful to be delivered from the excesses and stresses of the previous decade.
4. In looking at the new pragmatism preached by Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues, the renewed PRC emphasis on respect for law and order and their ardent pursuit of science and technology, observers cannot help but recall that modern Chinese history has been marked by sudden drastic policy reversals. Waves of reform have been followed by troughs of reactionary narrow-mindedness; passionate interest in the outside world has been followed by violent xenophobia. Chairman Mao himself reveled in these manic political swings and his absence from the scene now may be the biggest single element contributing to present political and social stability. Meaningful and sustained reform has escaped China’s grasp. This was strikingly evident in a recent People’s Daily commentary, which wistfully pointed to the Meiji Restoration in nineteenth-century Japan as a possible model for China.
5. There are several areas in which the PRC will face hard tests in coming years. These include leadership continuity and the orderly transfer of power, control over the arbitrary excesses of political authorities, maintenance of sustained economic development and the distribution of the fruits of development to the Chinese masses in a way that will assure them that they are indeed seeing progress. If the leader[Page 919]ship cannot handle these challenges successfully, the possibility exists that China could turn in dangerous directions.
6. Succession. The leadership struggle which followed the deaths of Chou Enlai and Mao Zedong almost tore China apart. This experience may have offered a sobering experience to the PRC’s aging revolutionaries. Implicit in much of the political activity of the last two years has been an effort to dampen explosive competitive tensions. Deng Xiaoping now appears to have started preparations for his departure from active political life by placing his supporters in key positions.
7. Despite these efforts and despite the basic agreement on important policies, there is no one apparent in the leadership who could provide the drive and purpose that Deng has given the PRC in the last three years. Over the short term we would expect a fairly bumpy and troubled transition as Deng’s colleagues and older senior cadre purged during the Cultural Revolution remove the more leftist survivors on the Politburo. This process should probably be advanced during the Twelfth Party Congress which might be convened as early as 1980.
8. We do not see a catastrophic succession struggle as likely, but do forecast problems in maintaining leadership continuity and effectively exercizing political power in a transitional period, the beginnings of which are already underway. The immediate post-Deng Xiaoping leadership will find it difficult to replace the strong direction that he has provided since his rehabilitation in 1977. He not only has the impatient will needed to force action upon a giant inert and often hostile bureaucracy, but has also an unequalled chain of reliable followers throughout the Army, Party and government who can make things happen. With Deng gone or forced by age into a less active role, we would predict the emergence of a group of technical leaders on the Soviet model with economists, military officers, foreign affairs experts, Party bureaucrats and agricultural experts representing their constituents within the leadership councils. The diffusion of authority under such an arrangement may lead to more ponderous and cautious decision making. The policy process could be similar to that which has recently occurred in the area of economic retrenchment where major new turns were taken without assigning political blame or tearing down those who had advocated policies later judged to be mistaken.
9. Arbitrary exercise of political power. The peasant who has seen his watermelon patch destroyed by a local official because he has not conformed to some obscure regulation, the urban worker who has his bicycle confiscated without notice for illegal parking and the professor denied travel overseas because of judgments that he is not politically reliable will all agree that some system of rules and procedures must be developed to prevent traditionally arbitrary excesses of official power. While the People’s Daily for three years has condemned the misuse of [Page 920] authority by the Gang of Four and its followers and the lawlessness of the Cultural Revolution, ordinary citizens continue to face unchecked official abuse on a daily basis.
10. Chinese leaders recognize that real changes are necessary, including the establishment of a working judicial system and the implementation of civil law. A new code of civil law has just been adopted and determined efforts are underway to establish a judicial system. Chinese newspapers have run numerous articles stressing the need for equality before the law and the need for strict observation of the code by public security officials.
11. However, there is no guarantee that carefully drafted laws will work in a society where there is no tradition of an adversary judicial process or respect for political freedom. Without some semblance of orderly governmental procedures, widespread abuses, factionalism and occasional political turbulence are likely to continue. Without reform in this area, the leadership will be faced with an increasingly cynical populace, even more difficult to motivate, and perhaps harder to keep in line.
12. Sustained economic development. This last potential pitfall could be the most serious. China’s leaders and economic planners must be able to show progress in delivering on their promises. Until recently economic goals were patently unrealistic and were understood to be illusory by a high percentage of China’s educated elite. Now, instead of reciting the wonders of China in the next century, officials readily admit the existence of serious economic problems and severe difficulties ahead. Some even define modernization as basic urban and industrial development. The new realism, however, has excited expectations that concrete results will be obtained in a near-term time frame. In addition, material incentives and an improved standard of living have become newly respectable. In China’s major cities exposure to foreign travelers and descriptions of Japanese and European life styles through an increasingly open media have begun to stimulate a desire for long withheld creature comforts.
13. A populace initially prepared to support a government that took credit for delivering them from chaos and famine has now begun to want something more out of life, especially with the emergence of a post-liberation generation of young people. Failure to sustain the kind of economic progress which could begin to satisfy these hopes could have serious political consequences for a post-Deng Xiaoping leadership.
14. We have already seen a small-scale outpouring of frustration over economic hardship when thousands of unemployed and undernourished peasants came to Beijing in the winter of 1978/1979 to register their complaints and similar numbers of jobless young people ri[Page 921]oted in Shanghai. Security authorities demonstrated that they could handle low level demonstrations, but this type of frustration is a potentially powerful political force that could be manipulated to discredit rational economic planning and the whole range of current reforms. Resistance to present policies will build inevitably as legions of cadre trained and promoted in Mao’s later years are called upon to run programs which they are not equipped to manage and which are fundamentally discordant with their political upbringing. If the new policies do not bring dramatic results, it will be hard to justify the compromises vis-à-vis Sinocentric and Maoist purity. A more xenophobic Chinese leadership might emphasize the need for “Chinese” solutions and new political campaigns which would turn the country back to past cycles.
15. New forces. Economic and social trends have begun to develop in China which could place the PRC on heretofore uncharted courses. New generations of engineers, economists, scientists, agricultural experts chosen and trained on the basis of academic merit will begin to rise to significant decision making positions in the next decade. Thousands of such students will be returning from overseas. If they survive politically, returned students could have a strong leavening influence in a society long deprived of external intellectual stimulus. New economic forces are bound to be unleashed as planners experiment with foreign investment in China, free but still limited markets, smaller collectives, and even small scale privately organized service shops.
16. The real test for the next generation of leaders, coincident with their assumption of authority from the present septuagenarian old guard, will be to manage these new forces so as to contain inevitable social and political pressures and escape the massive policy reversals of the Maoist era.
17. An educated elite leading a less politicized bureaucracy would undoubtedly change the nature of Chinese political life. Leaders more attuned to the outside world, more confident of their own competence and more innovative in their thinking might be able to bring China to terms with itself. A less visionary and revolutionary political system might be more concerned with meeting the needs of the Chinese populace and more able to cope with the outside world on a basis of confidence in equality.2
- Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790362–0932. Confidential; Priority. Repeated to Bangkok, Moscow, New Delhi, Seoul, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and CINCPAC for POLAD.↩
- Telegram 214362 to Beijing, August 16, responded, “Department commends Embassy on thoughtful analysis provided reftel. We would like to share your assessment with the Japanese if you have no objection.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D79034–0054)↩