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China: The First Wave of Reform, 1979-84
Country Study > Chapter 11 > The Political Process > The First Wave of Reform, 1979-84


In the process of introducing reforms, China's leaders for the most part have acted cautiously and introduced new programs incrementally. In the period of the Four Modernizations, they began a broad search of foreign sources for ideas to introduce and test in the Chinese environment. Their pragmatic approach entailed following the progress of newly introduced concepts closely in order to make any necessary mid-course corrections or deletions. Maintaining the momentum of the reform program required the leaders to interact constantly to meet the challenges, failures, and setbacks inherent in their experiment.

The major changes introduced by key reforms inevitably provoked tensions in the political system. Strains developed between those who would not benefit or could not adjust to the new conditions and those who saw the new opportunities afforded. The resulting pressures on the system required constant attention of and mediation by the top party leaders. The goals, contents, and progress of the reform program reportedly were reviewed and discussed regularly at the highest-level party meetings. Leaders on the Political Bureau Standing Committee strove for consensus on the contents of the reform program and its agenda and participated in an ongoing process of bargaining to reconcile different policy orientations and institutional interests. The competing interests that emerged throughout the country when a new wave of reform was introduced appeared to have spokesmen or advocates in the highest party circles. The issues that emerged were debated in authoritative party meetings with the aim of arriving at a consensus and preserving harmony on the reform agenda. If this became impossible, personnel changes tended to follow, as was the case when Hu Yaobang apparently broke the consensus, moving ahead of what the cautious and stability-minded leadership could accept as a safe and reasonable course.

In this way China, under Deng Xiaoping's leadership, appeared to follow the tenets of democratic centralism. Policies that originated at the authoritative party center were tested and evaluated in practice, and reports of their results, including problems and setbacks, were then channeled back to the system's center for debate. In the 1980s it became something of a leadership art to keep the reform program going, balance the tensions it provoked, and maintain the political system intact. Seen in this context, a key question became whether or not political leaders other than Deng Xiaoping would have the prestige and political skill needed to direct and preserve this delicate balance, especially after Deng passed from the scene.

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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