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by Anton Graham in Beijing

Political meetings in China rarely make any important decisions: they simply confirm and solidify policies already decided upon by the leadership after behind-the-scenes lobbying by the various factions.

So it was with the l2th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in September last year, one of the key events in modern Chinese history which formalised the position of Deng Xiaoping as the true leader of China, and his policies as the new gospel.

To the outside world, Deng has appeared to be China’s leader for a number of years already, but his rise to almost-supreme power has not been quite as smooth as the Deng-controlled Chinese press would have us believe.

Deng, aged 79 this year, was purged by the late Chairman Mao twice and has been fighting against the remnants of Maoism ever since his return to the political stage in l977. The fight is still not over, but the l2th congress marked an important watershed between the Maoist era and what could be conveniently called the Dengist era.

Like most victories (and defeats) in Chinese politics, Deng’s victory at the Congress was not total. But his undoubted political genius is based on the ability to out-manoeuvre his opponents rather than fight them head-on.

Hua Guofeng, Mao’s successor and Deng’s rival, was finally removed from the Politburo, and a host of other “leftist” officials removed from the Party Central Committee. The Party’s constitution was re-written to remove virtually all references to Mao and to add safeguards aimed at preventing the rise to power of another all-powerful figure such as Mao.

But at the last minute, just before the Congress opened, the hard-liners in the army leadership (Deng’s main opponents), staged a major assault on Deng, obviously hoping to upset the Congress. They failed, but did succeed in keeping the ageing Marshal Ye Jianying and other old leaders in their posts, to Deng’s undoubted annoyance.

One of Deng’s innovations in the party constitution was the establishment of a senior Advisory Committee to accommodate the old leaders giving younger men a chance to gain experience in the art of power-wielding. But at the end of the day, Marshal Ye and a number of other senior leaders were still in the Politburo and not on the new Advisory Committee as had been planned.

The refusal of the old men on the Politburo to surrender their positions of power made a mockery of Deng’s efforts to convince ageing officials throughout the party ranks to step aside in favour of younger, more vigorous successors. But on the other hand, over half of the Central Committee members were new, and two-thirds of them were aged under sixty.

The army began its campaign with an extraordinary article published three days before the Congress opened in two newspapers which directly contradicted Deng’s policies and openly attacked Deng’s protege, party chief Hu Yaobang.

But soon after the Congress ended, Wei Guoqing, the army’s political commissar, was sacked and replaced by a Deng man, Yu Qiuli, presumably as a result of the article. Wei’s departure marked the beginning of an important shake-up in the army leadership, which Deng has to “cleanse” if the left is to be denied any chance of a resurgence.

The new Party constitution, which was the key product of the Congress, was a complete re-write of the last constitution passed in l977 and masterminded by the former Chairman Hua. Hua’s constitution praised Mao in extravagant terms and promised that the disastrous Cultural Revolution of the late l960s would be repeated ” many times in the future,” a line which, for obvious reasons, does not appear in the new document.

In the hope of preventing the party falling under the sway of another despotic leader such as Mao, the constitution specifically states that “the Party forbids all forms of personality cult.” The post of party Chairman, held by Mao for 40 years, was abolished, and power theoretically dispersed between a number of different posts in the hope that they will counter- balance each other.

With the abolition of the posts of chairman and vice- chairman, the party’s secretary-general became the party chief, although it is clearly intended that he should act more as a member of a team rather than an all-powerful leader.

Collective leadership is Deng’s dream but given China’s history, both ancient and modern, it appears unlikely to stand much of a chance in the long-term.

Nevertheless, Deng clearly believes the Chinese Communist Party has reached a crossroads in its history and has to be re- juvenated and ” purged” of unhealthy influences if it is to survive and prosper in the decades ahead. There is no doubt that rule by gerontocracy, such as China has at present, is not a viable long-term form of government.

“The ranks of our party’s officials have long faced the problem of ageing to varying degrees, and a gap between the old and young,” economic guru Chen Yun declared at the Congress. “Unless this problem is solved now, and satisfactorily, the cause of communism may suffer a setback in China.”

With the liberal economic policies of Deng Xiaoping beginning to show results, the Communist Party’ position is probably firmer now than it has been for a number of years, and the Congress also re-affirmed the party’s commitment to those policies.

Deng pledged in his key-note address that national economic output would be quadrupled by the end of the century, while party chief Hu Yaobang predicted that by that time, China would already be in “the front ranks” of the countries of the world economically. But Hu also admitted China’s backward state by referring to the poverty which exists in many parts of the country. “A basic principle guiding China’s economic work,” he said ,” is: first feed the people and second build the country.”

The l2th Congress may have seen the formal abolition of many radical Maoist policies, but it also re-affirmed China’s traditional fear of outside influences (while stressing the need for an “open-door” economic policy). Hu Yaobang warned that “capitalist forces and other forces hostile to China’s socialist cause” were seeking to “corrupt the Chinese people and sabotage the country.”

But the most important part of Hu’s speech was his announcement of the intention to carry out a thorough-going reform of the Party’s ranks, removing perhaps ten per cent of the 40 million party members for being politically un-reliable. Hu Yaobang told the session that all members have to undergo re- registration over the next three years, giving the Dengist leadership the opportunity to withdraw membership cards from opponents of Deng’s policies, and also from the corrupt, self- serving officials who have done so much damage the party’s reputation over the past two decades.

It was Deng’s Congress, and could be said to have marked the true beginning of the “Dengist” era in Chinese history. How long this new, more stable era last, depends largely on how long the man stays alive.

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