Deng Xiaoping and the Four Modernizations

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  • 0:06 Deng Xiaoping
  • 1:19 Deng & Modernization
  • 3:01 The Four Modernizations
  • 5:53 Success of the Four…
  • 6:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

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. 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.

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