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China: The Political Process
Country Study > Chapter 11 > The Political Process


China's "Second Revolution," a far-reaching program of reform designed by Deng Xiaoping, was initiated at the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee (December 18-22, 1978). It marked a major turning point in China's modern political history, as it was intended to make China's institutions and political process supportive of the Four Modernizations, a national program of social and economic development. The first step was to recruit intellectuals and mobilize the population on a course of modernization. Ultimately, it was hoped, these efforts would produce what became identified as "socialism with Chinese characteristics."

To realize this lofty goal, several obstacles had to be overcome. The Cultural Revolution, under Mao Zedong's direction, between 1966 and 1976 had divided Chinese society into competing factions. The deaths of Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong in 1976 left the country without strong leadership and contributed further to social and political divisiveness. The need became obvious to replace Mao's premise of "class struggle as the key link" -- which emphasized class conflict and disruptive mass campaigns -- with a pragmatic style that stressed stability and a problem-solving approach to difficulties encountered in carrying out developmental programs. The overly centralized political system, patterned after the Soviet Union's Stalinist model, had to be revised to decentralize decision-making authority.

Probably the greatest impediment to the success of modernization was the unwieldy Chinese bureaucracy. Steeped in revolutionary tradition but advanced in age and largely untrained in modern administrative procedures, party and government cadres operated through personal connections and patriarchal attitudes. For the party and government to exercise effective control over modernization programs, these cadres would have to be replaced by younger and better trained administrators, a development that not surprisingly would provoke considerable resistance from within the bureaucracy. Finally, the means had to be found to engage urban workers, peasants, and intellectuals in China's modernization process by separating them from their traditional and often backward viewpoints and providing them with a more practical and scientific basis for their actions.

The substantial revisions to China's social, political, and ideological system, required for the success of the "second revolution," caused serious tensions within the political system. The introduction of major economic reforms also caused considerable strains. But the economic reform measures, first introduced in China's rural areas, provoked an enthusiastic response and a substantial following. With this success as a base, additional reform measures were prepared in October 1984 for introduction into China's more diverse and complicated urban sector. Concomitant with measures to promote rural and urban development, plans were made for substantial revision and reorganization of the political and administrative structure in China, particularly the party and government cadre system.

Because of the innovative nature of the political and economic reform programs, each wave of reform stimulated a constituency supporting its development. Beneficiaries of the new measures carried them out with enthusiasm, sometimes even taking them beyond their originally intended scope. At the same time, a substantial segment of the affected population found itself undercut and showed varying degrees of opposition to the reform initiatives. The reform measures, initially designed by China's top party leaders, took on a dimension of spontaneity as they were implemented. The dynamics of the reform process, generating degrees of support and opposition, played a substantial role in shaping the political process in China after 1978.

Operating within this context, China's top party leaders had a twofold task. First, they had to preserve a consensus among the senior party leadership (the Political Bureau) concerning the nature and content of reform measures and the pace at which they would be introduced. Second, that consensus had to survive the continual dislocations and permutations that accompanied the implementation process. Some reforms provoked instability by being zealously pursued; others bogged down in resistance. By 1987 it appeared that the resolution of these emerging issues and problems was accomplished mainly by internal bargaining among key leaders, who often represented major institutional interests, and by disciplinary measures. The latter case was exemplified by the forced resignation of party general secretary Hu Yaobang early in that year. In a more general sense, the major function of reform leadership was to maintain stability in the political system while preserving the momentum necessary for perpetuating the overall reform program. In short, as in other developing societies, China's leaders have had to manage the tensions inherent in a society undergoing rapid and thoroughgoing change.

Finally, Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought -- the official state ideology -- needed continual substantive revision and changes in emphasis by China's political leadership. Under Mao Zedong's leadership, China's recognized ideal had been to create the true "socialist man." In the 1980s Deng Xiaoping set for his government the perhaps equally idealistic goal of leading the enormous population of this developing country, still imbued with "feudalistic" traditions, toward the achievement of a modern, developed state by the year 2000. It was a goal that seemed to require frequent revision if it were ever to be achieved.

Data as of July 1987

Last Updated: July 1987

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for China was first published in 1987. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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