To What Extent did the Gradual Abandonment of the Maoist Development Paradigm Between the years 1978 and 1988 Improve or Worsen the Lot of the Chinese Peasant?

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To What Extent did the Gradual Abandonment of the Maoist Development Paradigm Between the years 1978 and 1988 Improve or Worsen the Lot of the Chinese Peasant?

Unlike most modern dictators, Mao Zedong seems to have escaped the posthumous discredit that seems his due. He is still a national hero, and considered the father of the Chinese people. Although his political legacy may have avoided destruction, his economic one has not. Soon after his death, the ascension of Deng Xiaoping caused the beginning of a process that would change China from a large but inefficient nation to a world leader, poised to overtake America as the largest economy on Earth. It is fairly obvious that for the Chinese economy as a whole, the reformist policies of Deng and his successors were good news, but in the great capitalist game there are always losers as well as winners. In this instance the losers may well have been the rural peasants, the people that the party set out to protect. Was the transition from a centrally planned economy for the benefit or the detriment of the rural worker?

There are many issues that must be addressed before an examination of the question proper can begin. For a start, it must be shown that the policies of Mao were actually abandoned. According to Diana Hunt, the Maoist Development Paradigm had as its central aim the abolition of all income differentials (you’re right she does, but is she correct?), be they between individuals or regions. At the same time he wanted the social ownership of all productive assets to lead to a greater material abundance for the people. He was keen to develop and balance productive forces and productive relations, in the knowledge that it was important not only to have the capital and labourers to produce goods but also the correct relations to manage and integrate them. Mao, in the same vein as Stalin, felt that investment in capital goods and heavy industry was essential for the triumph of communism. For this reason he focussed the bulk of China’s resources on heavy industry, most notably steel production. During the latter part of Mao’s reign, capital investment ranged between 22.7% of net domestic material product, and 30%. Interestingly, the figures are similar at the moment. These figures lead on perfectly to the next factor of the Maoist paradigm, the importance of investment. This was to be funded by the extraction of the surplus; from industry in the form of profits and from rural areas via taxation, pricing and savings. Unlike Stalin, Mao believed that a communist regime could win the support of the peasants, rather than destroy them, and therefore wanted to improve their welfare. Despite the aforementioned focus on heavy industry, light industry and agriculture were by no means to be ignored. Light industry was useful not only because it produced goods which were more likely to keep the people happy, but also because any investments would bear fruit more rapidly than those in heavy industry. Finally, Mao emphasised the importance of small scale production units, as typified by his ‘backyard furnaces’ program.  OK, though there are other factors too (mass mobilisation, politics in command etc. 

Now, the policies of the reformist period need to be examined, showing us to what extent the Maoist Paradigm was abandoned. In the period immediately following Mao’s death, reform was slow. Mao’s chosen successor, Hua Guofeng was loath to alter the policies of the man responsible for his rise. He was soon superseded however, and when Deng came to power reform quickly followed. Seen by Mao as a capitalist, Deng was someone the former Chairman never wanted to see in power. Over the 23 year span of his reign Deng opened up the Chinese economy, replaced Mao’s doctrine of permanent revolution with a policy of political stability, and in turn began to run the nation and economy along economic rather than political lines. He offered individuals the chance to organise themselves, giving material incentives to do so, as well as to increase productivity. Mao’s ridiculously excessively? high targets were replaced by achievable ones, and less emphasis was placed on heavy industry. Because of this, a smaller percentage of GDP was invested, with increased consumption. There was a greater role for the market, reflected in the loosening of central control. Because this produced greater efficiency, Chinese goods would now be more suited to the international market, and the Chinese economy soon became export-led.

There were probably going to be drawbacks to what essentially amounted to the abandonment of communism in the economic sphere, and that is what this project aims to ascertain. Did the introduction of a market take the poor out of the driving seat, replacing them with an entrepreneurial elite? Did this in turn lead on to a lowering in the standard of living of the rural working poor? Or is it simply the case that life has always been hard for the Chinese farmer, and all that has happened now is that they have lagged behind their urban counterparts, amounting to a relative lowering in the quality of life, but not an absolute one? Or did life improve, with the fruits of capitalism reaching the rest of society in the form of increased consumption variety and opportunities? And to what extent can the situation of the poor be blamed on the policies of those in power? Can you ignore the effects of the international economy and weather patterns on their lives?

When looking at Chinese statistics it must also be taken into account their suspect nature. Up until 1984 they were not considered anywhere close to being reliable, let alone accurate enough for academic use, and it was only when the SSB (State Statistical Bureaux) was given greater freedom that they have been both widely available and trustworthy. The Bureaux’s work in analysing pre 1984 statistics in order to produce some fairly accurate estimates has been invaluable, but they are still not perfect. There is very little that can be done to remedy this, and it is simply a factor that must always be borne in mind when studying China.

The next problem that any investigation into the situation of the Chinese peasant (or any person for that matter) faces is the issue of how to measure a person’s ‘situation’. Quality of life is subjective, and what matters to one person may be of no consequence to another, and vice-versa. Unless they are widespread, individual reports of brutality are also not of much use. The reasons for this are two-fold. Firstly, this is because most of the human rights abuses in China are carried out against political opponents of the regime as opposed to the peasantry, upon whom this project focuses. Secondly, in a country with the size and population of China you will find examples of all kinds of behaviour by the state, both benevolent and malevolent, and due to the repressive nature of both Mao’s and Deng’s regimes, reliable statistics on state brutality are hard to come by. The logical step is therefore to take various quantifiable and available statistics and from these construct a measure of the standard of living for the Chinese peasantry.

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The issue that needs to be addressed is which measures to use. One obvious distinction that could immediately be made is that between physical and non-physical measures. This refers to the difference between the well-being of the body and the mind. For example, a prisoner could have everything he could wish for, but without his freedom would he be truly happy? Conversely, what use is freedom of action or expression when you are starving to death? For this reason the initial distinction was made. The physical measures used are fairly obvious, consisting of food (intake, variety and starvation rates), ...

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