China’s latest Five Year economic plan covering the years 1981 to 1985 was finally unveiled last December at a session of the National People’s Congress, two years behind schedule. The reason for the delay was that it was drawn up twice — once under the leadership of the now-disgraced leader Hua Guofeng in 1980 and again following his fall from power in 1981.
The plan aims to provide the base for the quadrupling of the country’s economic output by the year 2000, and with two years of the economic plan period already gone, the planners had a head- start in “predicting” what economic gains would be registered by 1985. Even so, the plan was a study in prudence and sober realism compared to some of its predecessors.
It was a product of the government of Deng Xiaoping, an administration which in economic terms at least has marked a welcome break with the radical socialistic ideas of the first three decades of Chinese communist rule. As the Dengists have gained control of the economy, they have introduced measures to cut government spending, to control money supply and inflation, to make use of foreign investment and to raise the standard of living of the peasants who make up 80 per cent of China’s population.
The country is now in a sounder economic position than it has been for some time, thereby strengthening the grip that Deng and his lieutenants have on political power. And with the greater economic stability, Deng has begun the important task of reforming the Communist Party, corrupted and weakened by decades of turmoil.
There is still plenty of opposition of course, especially from unrepentent leftists in the armed forces and in the middle and lower levels of the bureaucracy, but Deng has put them firmly on the defensive. The next major event in China’s political history is likely to be Deng’s death, although at 79, he looks reasonably healthy and is apparently cutting down on his work load with the express intention of living as long as possible. The longer he survives, the better chance his reforms will have of becoming permanent. But as with China’s last “strongman” Mao Tsetung, Deng’s death could result in a whole new political ball game.
Before that happens, he hopes to completely restructure Chinese politics, and introduce a system of succession providing for the orderly retirement of leaders and the hand-over of power from one generation to another without the unseemly leadership struggles which have been China’s bane for so long. The new state constitution, approved at the same time as the Five-Year economic plan last December was an important step in this direction with its provisions for a maximum of ten years in office for the Premier, Vice-Premiers and State President, a newly-revived post.
But Chinese constitutions don’t have much of a reputation for longevity — the latest is the fourth since the People’s Republic was founded — and history suggests official assurances that the new document will last “well into the next century” should be treated with caution.
China still has plenty of problems to deal with, even if the economic crisis that was brewing in the late 1970s has been averted. There is the huge and increasing population (now officially past the one billion mark), massive employment or under-employment, inefficiency in industry, corruption and incompetence in officialdom, bad management at just about every level of the economy and a slow-down in energy production.
How these problems develop and how the leadership deals with them will be crucial in determining China’s long-term development. For the moment, Chinese affairs seem to have lost that touch of melodrama they possessed in the past, but it is probably only temporary. A country consisting of one quarter of mankind is capable of pulling all sorts of surprises out of the hat.