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The "Four Basic Principles"

Deng's speech on March 30, 1979, at the Theory Forum where he made the Four Basic Principles the basis of all political debates. This seems to be the only official photo from this conference that lasted almost three months.

Deng Xiaopings attitude towards the Democracy Movement and critical posters has completely changed between October 1978 and March 1979 - at least as much as we can verify from his public and internal statements.

In November 1978, in a meeting with journalists from the US and Canada, Deng still called dazibaos "a good thing", and he emphasized that critical opinions were not something to be feared. In another meeting with a delegation of the Japanese Socialist Party a few days earlier, Deng had made similar remarks.  

Three months later though, Deng had changed his opinion by 180 degrees. In his famous speech at the end of the Forum on Theory Work on March 30, 1979 (in front of additional participants from the provinces and the PLA who had just been invited to listen and to debate this address), Deng proclaimed the so-called "Four Basic Principles" (sometimes also translated "Four Cardinal Principles"), meaning in essence to maintain the Marxist-Leninist and Maoist teachings and the exclusive leadership by the Communist Party.

The decisive phrases in Deng's speech went like this:

The Party Center believes that in realizing the Four Modernizations in China we must uphold the Four Basic Principles in thought and politics. They are the fundamental premise for realizing the Four Modernizations. They are as follows: One, we must uphold the socialist road. Two, we must uphold the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Three, we must uphold the leadership of the Communist Party. And four, we must uphold Marxism‑Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought. ... Moreover we must resolutely fight the ideological tendencies that cast doubt on the Four Basic Principles mentioned. (Cheng Zhongyuan, Dramatic Years, p. 301)

Has Deng really changed his mind within a few weeks? Or were his positive comments on the Democracy Wall and critical posters more of a tactical nature, by unleashing public criticism to contain the conservative adversaries of his reforms? Or did he want to appease the United States before the establishment of full diplomatic ties and his planned visit to Washington?

We do not really know as we do not have enough insight into Deng's personal views and feelings, but we do have some indications that he was at odds with himself to some extent in regard to the issue of liberties and democratization, and that he has actually changed his mind. On the one hand he considered himself a reformer (and he wanted to act like one), but he was not sure how far he should or could go. On the other hand he was up to all the dodges of a long-standing communist politician who had got to know the "dangers" of debate becoming too liberal.

How Deng Changed His Mind

We do possess a few indications why Deng Xiaoping has changed his originally liberal attitude in favor of such strict principles. Li Honglin (李洪林) led at that time the Party History Department of the Chinese Museum of History, 1980 he became a leading official of the Central Committee's Propaganda Department. In 1979 he was also a delegate to the Theory Forum, and he was regularly asked to draft speeches for political leaders. He remembered later how Deng had changed his opinion (quoted from: Ding Dong e.a.: How China's political reforms of the 80s came to an early end. Hong Kong 2015):

In a preliminary debate on the planning of the Theory Forum in mid-January 1979, Deng had demanded, "there must not be any forbidden zones or topics" (p. 63). But Li remembers that there was pressure coming also from a different direction: From Sichuan (from the Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang) and Shanghai there was criticism that protest by young people who had been sent to work in the countryside and now wanted to return to the cities, or by victims of the Cultural revolution who demanded rehabilitation, were getting out of control. Li Honglin quotes a voice of discontent of that time: "The emancipation of minds is going too far, it has created ideological confusion, the unfolding of democracy is going too far, it has created unrest in the society." (p. 64).

Li was only told in mid-March 1979 that it was not Party Chairman Hua Guofeng (as originally indicated) who would hold the closing remarks of the Theory Forum, but Deng Xiaoping, who did not hold formal top positions in the party and in the state, but who had clearly consolidated his power as the most influential politician in China in the weeks and months before.  On March 27, Li was - together with three other officials - summoned by Deng Xiaoping to help to draft the speech he was to give three days later. The officials listened and made notes on Deng's remarks in order to put them later into the draft for the speech. Li remembers:

What has surprised me most, was that he did not talk of an emancipation of minds any more, but criticized the extreme democratization of society and the weakening of ideological work. He spoke in a very severe mood, in short he said, things could not go on the same way, they had to be corrected! Now, thirty years after, I cannot remember Deng's exact wording any more, but I do remember that the tenor of his remarks was 180 degrees different from what we had prepared before for Hua Guofeng's speech. ... The speech that Deng eventually held, was the one "On Upholding the Four Basic Principles" that everybody knows. ... Deng Xiaoping's original draft was even more strident, but the text officially published later, was made softer. Still, after the conference, some people said it rather were "Four Cudgels". (p. 65)

Hu Yaobang's Attitude

On April 3, Hu Yaobangheld a second closing speech at the conference, and he also adapted his tone in accordance with Deng's remarks, says Li. At the same time it was clear that Hu did not want to snub the delegates. He does not know exactly when and how these decisions were taken, writes Li Honglin, whether there was for example a meeting by the innermost circle of the CCP Central Committee, but he adds:

What I could notice, was a relatively liberal mood at the beginning. When (Hu) Yaobang and (Hu) Qiaomu spoke to me, they certainly did not just express their personal opinions, but they hade made their deliberations some time together with (Deng) Xiaoping and Hua Guofeng, and what they told me, was also the opinion of the central leadership. So when did these changes happen? It was during the time when the conference adjourned. And there was one important event during this time, namely Wei Jingsheng's dazibao "Democracy or New Despotisms" that he had posted on March 25, personally criticizing Deng Xiaoping. (p. 65)

In a footnote though, Li Honglin remarks that this big-character poster could not be the original reason for Deng Xiaoping's change of mind, as Deng had already in another speech on March 16 severely criticized the Democracy Wall and the Theory Forum. Deng said:

Looking closely at things, there are still many elements not in accordance with stability and unity. We must resolutely uphold the great banner of Chairman Mao which is very important for the issue of stability and unity, and it also touches upon the question of international influence. The media also need to uphold the banner of Chairman Mao in their articles, we must not damage this banner. Whoever disowns Chairman Mao, also disowns the People's Republic of China and the whole history connected to it." (p. 65)

It was already in this speech that Deng had attacked Wei Jingsheng in person. This criticism had reached Wei's ears, and his poster nine days later, was actually a reaction to Deng's speech, and not the other way round!

Within this context, Li Honglin also refers to an episode that happened months later after the court verdict against Wei Jingsheng (in September 1979, when he was sentenced to 15 years): When Li happened to meet Hu Yaobang (meanwhile CCP Secretary General), he asked him why the sentence against Wei had to be that harsh? Hu then told him that it had been Peng Zhen (a former mayor of Beijing and high-ranking victim of of persecutions during the Cultural Revolution) who had brought the text of Wei Jingshengs dazibao to the attention of Deng Xiaoping, and who had convinced Deng to his harsh reaction, to Wei's arrest and later to the closure of the Xidan Wall. Hu Yaobang is said to have added: "I did not agree to his arrest. One could have chosen a softer method, more like teaching him a lesson." (p. 66)

Back at the Theory Conference, Deng Xiaoping's March 30 speech was to be debated during two days. And at least some of the delegates openly criticized Deng's "Four Basic Principles", as Cheng Zhongyuan reports (pp. 303-304):

When Deng Xiaoping mentioned in his speech shortcomings and deficiencies in the theory work, this was met by diverging opinions. In his address Comrade Deng Xiaoping had mentioned that the theory work in the field of ideology had not been tight enough since the Third Plenary Session, the speed had not been fast enough. There was too little effort to look ahead. Some historical issue debated at the Third Plenary Session had to be treated with extreme caution, not with too much haste. Some comrades thought that the implementation was not resolute and comprehensive enough. Others thought the criticism was right, and some spoke of an encouragement. And all said that they would make efforts in the future, so the differences were not too big.

The most important and fundamental difference of opinions though, arose in debating the question what the "main danger" was. Some even became fixated on this issue, and they did not agree with Deng's upholding the Four Basic Principles.

One group's briefing paper said: Is it really that the main danger at the moment comes from troublemakers and rightist tendencies such as the "Chinese Human Rights Group" or the "Discussion Group for Democracy", or does it rather come from an "Association for the Study of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought" who thinks that the Third Plenary Session means a restauration of power, and from revisionist "leftist" tendencies? Such a view needed to be seriously considered, and one should take account that the rise of extreme leftist phenomena in the party and of "leftist" tendencies under the disguise of "defending" Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought could be even more blinding. And it were difficult of course to avoid that a small group in the society would oppose socialism, the Dictatorship of the Proletariat and reactionary elements within the Communist Party. 

Then the authors of the book whose first edition has been published in 1998, try to explain that criticism of Deng's speech mainly came from a few persons closely connected to the "People's Daily", people who were purged some years later during the campaign against "bourgeois liberalism" and the Tiananmen events of 1989, so they constituted a "suspicious" group already then:

A comrade [Hu Jiwei] contradicted Deng's assessment: "Of course one has to analyze what constitutes the main obstacle and the main danger." "Comrade (Deng) Xiaoping in his speech, has put the former tendency in the first place, but he did not speak any more about it, while he made the latter tendency the prime point and main issue of his whole speech. I think of course that this second tendency has also to be paid attention to and carefully brought to a solution, but comparing to the first tendency, it is less dangerous and subordinate. What constitutes the most dangerous and most dominant ideological tendency, is in my opinion the erroneous view that the central leadership, after crushing the Gang of Four and especially after the Third Plenary Session, has pursued a political line that was not in accordance with Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought." [He did not share Deng Xiaoping's assessment but held this opinion] "This tendency of being against the Four Basic Principles ... is by far not as dangerous as the revisionist reactionary tendency of negating the Third Plenary Session or the attacks on the central leadership." A scientist [Zhang Xianyang] held the opinion that "comparing the two tendencies, the latter seems to be less treacherous, and people are quite able to make this distinction. If we just pay attention to the one aspect, we might have to pay a high price for this." A small number of people also contradicted Deng's criticism of the Theory Forum violating the Four Basic Principles. At party conferences it were not forbidden to express dissenting and contradicting opinions and even print them in briefing papers, these were just manifestations of a democratic style.

What is to be regretted though, is that regarding the upholding of the Four Basic Principles a few theorists continued after the conference, in newspapers and public statements, to adopt a tone of openly opposing Deng Xiaoping's speech that he had held in the name of the central leadership. Someone in the "People's Daily" [Editor-in-Chief Hu Jiwei, on May 9 on the theory page] has published in several instalments an article [by Li Honglin debating the Four Basic Principles] spreading doubt and repudiation of the Four Basic Principles; others [Wang Ruoshui on August 14] did not hesitate, in a speech at the East China Normal University in Shanghai, to reject that Deng Xiaoping's assertion that upholding the Four Basic Principles was a fundamental precondition. From this starting point, a small minority has removed itself more and more from the party, and some have even positioned themselves on the opposite side. (pp. 304-305)

For Cheng Zhongyuan this is also a way to legitimize the purge and expulsion from the Communist Party of the conference delegates mentioned here a few years later.

A few days after Deng's programmatic speech, Hu Yaobang delivers his final closing remarks. He somehow squirms himself from the situation, he does not dare to contradict Deng, tries to varnish the course of events at the Theory Forum, as Cheng quotes Hu Yaobang:

Comrade (Deng) Xiaoping has expressed some criticism of the theory work, "and a critical opinion of course, does not constitute an encouragement or something that gives hope for our work. He has demanded of us very strict and high standards." In his final remarks, Hu Yaobang has analyzed all the points of the speech of Comrade (Deng) Xiaoping, he has explained that they were appropriate, and that they signaled esteem for those responsible for theory work. ... The Theory Forum has been "by and large successful," Deng had said on the first part of the conference, Hu Yaobang also took this up and agreed with it in his "final remarks". (pp. 306-308)

Zhang Xianyang (1936-2013)

The Turnaround

The well-known Marxism expert Zhang Xianyang (张显扬, also from the Academy of Social Sciences), in his detailed account of the Theory Forum (in Chinese) names some of the reasons why Deng Xiaoping would have suddenly changed his view on the Democracy Wall by 180 degrees: Zhang speaks of "da renwumen 大人物们" (big personalities) who have changed their attitude, but it is clear that he is talking about Deng who on March 30, in his big speech at the end of the conference laid down the "Four Basic Principles" that interdict any criticism of the leading role of the Communist Party, of the "socialist system", of Marxism-Leninism and even of "Mao Zedong Thought". Zhang writes:

The attitude of big personalities has changed. Why? ... First, because at the Democracy Wall criticisms of Mao Zedong have become more intense, touching also on his private life, when people write about "sons and grandsons in the same cage"; secondly, there was a letter to US President Jimmy Carter posted at the Democracy Wall, signed by "a young Chinese worker" expressing the hope to receive an invitation to visit the US as a friend of Mr. President in order to see how the American people really live; thirdly, at the Democracy Wall the sensitive issue of human rights was also touched upon, and there were appeals to the international community to carefully pay attention to it; and fourthly, probably the most important, Wei Jingsheng had posted a dazibao titled "Democracy or a New Despotism" which personally attacked Deng Xiaoping warning people of his dictatorial inclinations. Today all this would not constitute a crime any more ... 

Tang Xin (唐欣), a "Beijing Daily" (Beijing Ribao 北京日报) reporter, names still another reason: Exactly at that time, in early 1979, China was preparing its "punitive" military attack on Vietnam which had invaded Cambodia. For this it particularly needed unity and stability at home. (Memories of the Xidan Democracy Wall ..., p. 12)

In any case, when Deng Xiaoping held his speech on March 30, he clearly exercised his full authority. At this point Deng had already become the most powerful politician in China that nobody could question any more. After his declaration, the Four Basic Principles stood like a law (and they were in fact formally written into China's constitution shortly after). Inner-party debates on the issue virtually ceased after that. Deng's speech also signaled an end to the era of the Beijing Spring and other political grass-root initiatives. Only during the local elections of 1980, there was a short and limited flaring up of dissident voices, but the last ones died down when in spring 1981 Deng banned all activities criticizing the regime and ordered the detention of several dozen dissidents. Hardly any party leader now dared any more to protest these decisions.


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