The 1980s Are Buried but Not Dead in China

A new history explores an intense period of hope, reform, and death.

By , a professor of Modern Chinese History and Literature at Birkbeck College, University of London.
A man rests in front of a poster of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in Shenzhen, China.
A man rests in front of a poster of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in Shenzhen, China.
A man rests in front of a poster of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in Shenzhen, China, on Nov. 8, 2018. The slogan on the poster reads: "Adhering to the [Chinese Communist] Party's basic line for a hundred years, with no vacillation." WANG ZHAO/AFP via Getty Images

When I began visiting China in the late 1990s, the 1980s already felt untouchably remote. In English-language books on the 1980s in China, I read about an era in which the fundamentals of life were openly and fervently debated: the legacies of the Mao Zedong era (and especially of his most destructive campaign, the Cultural Revolution); the relevance of Western, capitalist societies to a socialist China; the role of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the country’s modernization.

The China I personally encountered, as a first-time visitor, was very different: It was a place in which people’s energies were absorbed in keeping up with the new speculative market economy; in which press freedom seemed limited to shuffling photographs of the leadership printed first in the CCP’s main newspaper, the People’s Daily. By this point, the “China model” looked set in stone: breakneck economic growth, presided over by authoritarian, one-party rule. The memory and credibility of the 1980s—as a decade of open, imaginative possibilities—had been thoroughly erased from public history within China.

Julian Gewirtz’s excellent new book, Never Turn Back: China and the Forbidden History of the 1980s, provides the most detailed analysis so far written in English of the intense arguments about China’s political, economic, and social futures that raged throughout the 1980s. Since Xi Jinping became “paramount leader” in 2012, control over the writing of history, and access to sources, has dramatically intensified. China’s zero-COVID policy has, of course, made it impossible for most Western researchers to visit China in person for some two and a half years, with no reopening yet in sight.

When I began visiting China in the late 1990s, the 1980s already felt untouchably remote. In English-language books on the 1980s in China, I read about an era in which the fundamentals of life were openly and fervently debated: the legacies of the Mao Zedong era (and especially of his most destructive campaign, the Cultural Revolution); the relevance of Western, capitalist societies to a socialist China; the role of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the country’s modernization.

The China I personally encountered, as a first-time visitor, was very different: It was a place in which people’s energies were absorbed in keeping up with the new speculative market economy; in which press freedom seemed limited to shuffling photographs of the leadership printed first in the CCP’s main newspaper, the People’s Daily. By this point, the “China model” looked set in stone: breakneck economic growth, presided over by authoritarian, one-party rule. The memory and credibility of the 1980s—as a decade of open, imaginative possibilities—had been thoroughly erased from public history within China.

Julian Gewirtz’s excellent new book, Never Turn Back: China and the Forbidden History of the 1980s, provides the most detailed analysis so far written in English of the intense arguments about China’s political, economic, and social futures that raged throughout the 1980s. Since Xi Jinping became “paramount leader” in 2012, control over the writing of history, and access to sources, has dramatically intensified. China’s zero-COVID policy has, of course, made it impossible for most Western researchers to visit China in person for some two and a half years, with no reopening yet in sight.

But the tenacious, resourceful Gewirtz has been studying the 1980s long enough to have stockpiled a diverse, illuminating archive of firsthand sources on the decade—leaked internal documents, oral histories, flea market propaganda directives—which he deploys compellingly.

His book begins with the country’s emergence out of the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s shadow. Gewirtz, a former Harvard University scholar who now serves as a China director on the U.S. National Security Council, acknowledges that, as Frank Dikotter, Joshua Eisenman, and others have shown, farmers had already begun carving off private plots to stage a partial return to private production in the early 1970s. Yet poverty and underdevelopment remained widespread at the time of Mao’s death in 1976.

Roving researchers discovered shocking rural deprivation.  In heavy and light industry and household consumption, China was years, even decades, behind the West and Japan. Ideologically, the country was also on the rocks. In the late 1960s, at the start of the Cultural Revolution, the cult of Mao had reached its feverish peak. In 1971, infatuation began to fade when Lin Biao—his designated successor and fellow architect of the Cultural Revolution—was killed in a plane crash while fleeing after allegedly attempting to assassinate Mao.

Straight after Mao’s death, party veterans purged Mao’s closest personal allies—including his wife—bringing the Cultural Revolution to an end. Ideological puritanism was, apparently, over, but what would replace it? The first option was the inadequate “Two Whatevers” of the brief rule of Mao’s immediate successor, Hua Guofeng: “We will resolutely uphold whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave.” The harder option was that of Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s extraordinarily tough near-contemporary who survived the purges of the Cultural Revolution to oust Hua and become CCP leader by 1978. His solution to China’s complex economic, political, social, and cultural ills was “modernization.” The country and party would spend the next 11 years arguing—sometimes behind closed doors, sometimes on the streets and squares of China’s biggest cities—about what this term meant.

Deng clung, for the most part, to an optimistically simple definition. As Gewirtz writes, he hoped that modernization meant “getting richer” through “liberating the productive forces.” He ended the fanatical economic meddling of the Mao years, giving farmers and entrepreneurs “greater control over what they grew and encouraging new forms of ownership to make and sell clothes, gadgets, furniture and much more.” He was willing to contemplate political change also, insofar as it enabled economic transformation and market reforms. He was prepared to decentralize control, strengthen commercial law to boost entrepreneurial confidence and activity, and force ancient ideological die-hards to retire to make way for competent technocrats.

But Deng’s moderate, economically focused proposals for political reform emboldened others—including those deep inside the political establishment, as well as liberal intellectuals—to make far more extreme criticisms of China’s socialist system. In the fall of 1980, a CCP academic called for an end to the party’s control of the economy, culture, and media and for an independent press and judiciary. As the decade wore on, conversation about sweeping political change was normalized in once-orthodox venues. The pages of the People’s Daily were studded with radical proposals: that Chinese socialism under Mao oppressed the individual as brutally as did bourgeois capitalism; that thought and speech should “be increasingly open and free.”

The bad fit between the dispositions of a conservative CCP leadership on the one hand and the freewheeling ideas of other parts of the political and intellectual elite on the other generated profound instability. The centerpiece partnership and then clash of 1980s China was between Deng and his protégé Zhao Ziyang, the pragmatic premier and then party secretary who advocated for China to open entirely to the global economic system.

Deng and other high-ranking political veterans were willing to welcome foreign investment and technology to enable the country to catch up with the West and Japan. But they were deeply uncomfortable with other kinds of Westernization (political, social, cultural influences) that tended to creep in on the back of economic relaxation. “If you unlatch the window,” Deng observed in 1983, “it’s hard to stop the flies and mosquitoes rushing in.” Consequently, China throughout the 1980s jolted through alternating cycles of liberalization (fang) and tightening up (shou) as senior leaders sparred over “spiritual pollution”—a grab bag of pernicious external influences encompassing perms, lipstick, smuggling, and Jean-Paul Sartre—and whether there remained a role for socialist ideology in a China that was ever more closely integrated with global markets.

The tragic climax of the 1980s—the bloody suppression of nationwide protests in 1989—is often popularly imagined as a Manichean political fight: between pro-democracy students and a Communist gerontocracy determined to hang on to power at any cost. Gewirtz gives at least equal weighting to contention over an overheated economy. From the middle of 1988, the leadership argued about the risks posed to political stability by inflation. Zhao, backed most of the way by Deng, stuck to his mantra of rapid economic growth, even while urban prices soared; during 1988, inflation was running at at least 30 percent.

By 1989, China’s Communist government faced a crisis in legitimacy caused by socioeconomic upheaval as well as by dreams of Western-style democracy. At this critical moment, economic instability dented Zhao’s credibility. When protests calling for “democracy and freedom” surged in the spring of 1989, Zhao’s relaxed stance toward opening China to the global system, and to the political and cultural influences that such liberalization might bring, was blamed by party elders for encouraging insurgency. Economics and politics, Gewirtz reminds us, were “inextricable” for “protesters who had motivations ranging from democracy to eradication of corruption and inflation.” Some of the earliest protesters at Tiananmen Square were not students but workers worried about price rises.

The decision to quash the protests with violence, in contrast to the decisions being made in Eastern Europe that same year, set the future course of China’s Communist leaders. After the hard-liners won the argument to send the People’s Liberation Army out against the people, they rewrote the history of the 1980s as one of smooth economic growth, only briefly interrupted by Zhao’s failure to maintain “ideological and organizational purity.” They recast China’s path to modernization as requiring obedience to a “single ‘core’ leader” and to the CCP’s definition of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought, effectively outlawing public disagreement about Chinese politics.

The often turbulent but fascinatingly open-ended debates of the 1980s were, along with Zhao himself, officially erased from history. The CCP’s handling of 1989 also determined the leadership’s primary attitude to the West since. After the crisis, China’s leadership cast the United States and other Western powers as machinating to change “socialist countries into capitalist democracies.” Foreign manipulation had directed the turmoil: “Some political forces in the West,” Beijing Mayor Chen Xitong explained in 1989, “always attempt to make socialist countries, including China, give up the socialist road, eventually bringing these countries under the rule of international monopoly capital and putting them on the course of capitalism. This is their long-term, fundamental strategy.”

Gewirtz’s book provides a fascinating, authoritative account of the paths for China’s future explored during a decade long buried by official, state-sponsored history. It recalls the vibrancy of post-Mao Chinese society and how deeply responses to the chaotic contingencies of the late 1980s have shaped China since. Chinese elite politics today insists that China can only be a successful, wealthy nation if ruled by an authoritarian, one-party government. Gewirtz’s crucial history of the 1980s reminds us of how much there was—and still is—to argue about in China.

Books are independently selected by FP editors. We earn an affiliate commission on anything purchased through links to Amazon.com on this page.

Julia Lovell is a professor of Modern Chinese History and Literature at Birkbeck College, University of London.

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