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Resistance and the Campaign Against Bourgeois Liberalization

In late 1986, during the critical period when the Chinese political system appeared threatened by student demonstrators burning copies of party official newspapers, General Secretary Hu Yaobang failed to act to restore order. Hu refused to denounce the demonstrators or their intellectual mentors or to retreat from the political reform agenda. Instead, Hu favored the introduction of more "democratization" or plurality into the political system. He called for more movement on political reform than the system could bear. In effect, Hu had outstripped the consensus concerning the pace and content of the reform agenda. In response, Deng Xiaoping had to make the difficult decision to remove his protege from the post of party general secretary, a step taken by unanimous decision at an extraordinary expanded Political Bureau meeting in January 1987. Hu was replaced by Zhao Ziyang, one of the chief architects of the economic reform program, who explained that democratic reforms in China required a "protracted" process for their implementation.

At the same time that Hu Yaobang was removed from office, a campaign was initiated against "bourgeois liberalization." Given heavy play in the official media, this campaign sought to discredit Western political concepts and emphasize the importance of adhering to the four cardinal principles (see Glossary). The campaign against bourgeois liberalization became the means for conservatives led by Political Bureau members Chen Yun, Peng Zhen, and Hu Qiaomu to express their opposition to some of the reforms, especially the pace of the reform agenda, and to the increased democratization advocated by Hu Yaobang. Having responded to major conservative concerns, Zhao then emphasized the limits that had been placed on the campaign against bourgeois liberalization. The ideological campaign was to be limited to the party, and it was neither to reach the rural areas nor to affect economic reform policies. In addition, experimentation in the arts and sciences was not to be discouraged by this campaign. The imposition of these limits was inspired no doubt in large part by the need to avoid disruptions such as those that had accompanied the spiritual pollution campaign in 1983 and 1984. Besides affirming his support for the ongoing campaign against bourgeois liberalization, within specified limits, Zhao stressed that the economic reform program--including opening up to the outside world--would continue.

In March 1987 Deng Xiaoping made it clear that political reform also was to continue and that a "tentative plan" for political reform would be included on the agenda of the Thirteenth National Party Congress in the fall of 1987. Deng's revelation suggested that with Hu Yaobang removed, China's senior leadership had reached a consensus on the sensitive issue of political reform, which had been discussed by many of them in general and cautious terms for some time. Even conservative senior leaders such as Li Xiannian and Peng Zhen made statements supporting political reform. This development did not limit the likelihood of very intense debate before and during the next National Party Congress on the specific implementation of this most sensitive program. But it did suggest that, with Hu Yaobang's demotion, China's top leaders could discuss key details of the future role of the party in China's reformed political system at the upcoming congress.

Data as of July 1987