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In 1978, China had some big industrial issues it was trying to correct. In this lesson, we’ll talk about one of its most elaborate solutions, as well as the person who implemented it.

Deng Xiaoping

After World War II, China adopted the economic and political philosophy of communism. This wasn’t something many people expected China to do, but the nation did it anyway and, under the leadership of Mao Zedong, China focused on correcting the perceived class-based inequalities of a capitalist history. Unfortunately, Mao was less successful in correcting widespread economic issues in China, including poverty and starvation.

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When Mao died in 1976, people in China found themselves questioning the role of China in the world and wondering how to improve some of the issues they faced.The man who emerged to tackle this challenge was Deng Xiaoping. Deng was never the official head of state, but through political influence he became the practical ruler of China from 1978 through 1992. It was Deng Xiaoping who was responsible for resolving China’s economic crisis. Did he accomplish this? Let’s put it this way: pick up something around you and see where it was made. There’s a reason the phrase ‘made in China’ surrounds us today.

Deng ; Modernization

Following Mao’s death, China began looking for solutions to its economic difficulties. Deng Xiaoping represented a group of Chinese politicians who believed fervently that in order for China to reemerge as one of the world’s dominant nations, it had to learn to compete with the West in technology and economic growth. That was actually a pretty dramatic assertion. What it meant was that China would need to step back from the purely communist focus on class struggle and instead open up the nation to industrialization and some degree of free market competition. That’s a significant change for a communist nation to undertake. In 1978, Deng had the political support he needed to advance a plan based on the economic theories of his mentor, Zhou Enlai, which focused on targeted economic modernization to make China a global economic powerhouse.

This plan was called the Four Modernizations, and was focused on four target areas of industrial modernization: agriculture, industry, science and technology, and the military. In order to make this a viable plan, Deng realized that China needed to operate within the global economy, and so he did what few politicians had done since China became a communist nation: he reached out to the West for support. The Four Modernizations would require a lot of startup capital to get the ball rolling. In what was called the Open Door Policy, Deng invited American and European interests to invest in Chinese industrial development. Of course, they did, and the Four Modernizations were underway.

The Four Modernizations

But, what exactly were these Four Modernizations? Well the first of the Four Modernizations involved agriculture. China was still a predominantly agricultural nation in 1978, relying on traditional farming methods.

The goal of this first modernization was to modernize the agricultural practices of China, thereby producing higher yields, a stronger economic foundation, and a healthier society with access to quality food products. Accomplishing this meant introducing new farming technology, bringing in advanced irrigation systems, and reframing the communist ideas on communal property. Under the Household Responsibility System, each farming family received a plot of land they were responsible for maintaining, which afforded them certain political and economic benefits. By 1989, 90% of households had joined this system and China had become one of the largest agricultural producers in the world. The economy thrived more on agriculture alone than had been expected from the entire modernization plan.The second of the Four Modernizations involved industry, with the goal of diversifying China’s economy and making it a global producer of industrial products. Most of the attention was placed on steel, iron, oil, and coal.

This meant instituting some changes in worker relations and allowing for some growth of corporate enterprises, though the government still formally owned all means of production. Industrial production rose, worker productivity and motivation increased, and China’s economy grew more stable. It should be noted, however, that this was less successful at first than the agricultural sector had been, and the plan had to be revised a few times.China’s third area of targeted modernization was science and technology. Under Mao, education had ground to a halt, the sciences stagnated, and China refused to adopt many basic modern technologies used around the world. The goal after 1978 was to catch up, so to speak, and revive scientific production in China. This meant bringing in scientists to work in China, as well as rewriting the national curriculum to focus on math and science.

The last of the Four Modernizations involved the military. This was actually linked to the idea of making China a scientific and technological powerhouse. China has a major army, one of the largest in the world, but it was behind in terms of military technology. So, great amounts of effort and money were put into making China’s military something that would demonstrate the nation’s ability to participate in international relations in any and all ways.

Success of the Four Modernizations

Now for the obvious question: did the plan work? Well, for the most part, yes. Not every goal of the Four Modernizations was met, and China still suffered from many social and political challenges, but economically the nation recovered quickly and became a global powerhouse.

Industry, agriculture, and science flourished, and China’s international reputation improved in many respects. No economic plan is perfect, but the Four Modernizations was certainly a good start to getting China back on top.

Lesson Summary

In 1978, Chinese politician Deng Xiaoping proposed a set of targeted modernization policies aimed at reviving the Chinese economy called the Four Modernizations. This program focused on bringing the areas of agriculture, industry, science and technology, and the military up to modern global standards. This was a big change, as it meant shifting the focus of China’s communist party away from class struggle and opening up relationships with the West. While far from perfect, the Four Modernizations did accomplish many of their goals.

This policy was just one of many things that Deng would likely be proud to say was ‘made in China.’

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