CBC Digital Archives

China reaches out

"When the sleeping dragon awakes," Napoleon once said of China, "he will shake the world." In the 20th century, multiple upheavals shook the Asian giant. The rule of emperors gave way to civil war and the Communist revolution, closing China to the world. The doors slowly opened in the 1970s with new diplomatic ties and economic reforms. The crackdown on democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989 barely checked China's growth, and today the world's most populous nation is on its way to superpower status. CBC Archives presents China as CBC journalists have seen it over the decades.

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It's a scene that was unthinkable during the Cultural Revolution: Chinese citizens exercising their constitutional right to criticize the government. In Beijing, it takes the form of the "Democracy Wall," a public space where large posters challenge Mao's ideas. Discussion groups have formed to explore the merits of democracy. And, as CBC Radio's Sunday Morning discovers, that's just one sign that China is opening up under Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping.

China is also taking a new direction with its economic policies. It's planning to invest billions of dollars on modernization, building steel mills, coal mines, and ports. It's a potential bonanza for Western corporations, and American oil companies are scrambling to sign contracts for oil exploration. China's new openness also has implications for global politics and its triangular relationship with the U.S. and Soviet superpowers. 
• The first posters to appear on the Democracy Wall at Xidan were in the form of poems. They attacked a Communist Party member for his involvement in a crackdown on a 1976 public demonstration. By late 1978 the posters emphasized three main themes:
- Condemnation of Mao for permitting political persecution.
- Redress for those persecuted in the Cultural Revolution.
- Advocacy of democracy and human rights in modern China.

• Later, the posters demanded more sexual freedom for Chinese citizens and began to attack Deng Xiaoping. Deng came under increasing pressure from the Communist party to crack down on the posters and resulting discussion groups, which he had previously tacitly approved.
• In March 1979, Deng announced that activities at the Democracy Wall would no longer be tolerated. Posters were officially prohibited in December 1979.

• The government designated another spot in Beijing, far from downtown, where activists could put up posters. But anyone who wished to display a poster there had to register with the government. It was declared illegal to give away "state secrets" or false information on the posters, and riots or disturbances at the site would be punished.

• Proponents of democracy were not immune from retaliation by the Chinese government. Wei Jing-sheng, the most vocal of them, was charged with treason and found guilty in a one-day trial in October 1979. He was jailed for almost 18 years.
• Wei was best known for authoring a document calling for China to make democracy its "fifth modernization" along with the economic changes of the late 1970s.

• Deng Xiaoping visited the United States in January 1979, and China also allowed 10,000 Chinese scientists and technicians to study in the U.S. The exchange worked the other way, too, as 100,000 American tourists visited a newly open China.
• It was also at this time that China's economic policies began to favour the manufacture and sale of consumer goods to foreign markets.

• The economic reforms also changed the way China approached its agricultural output. Farmers were permitted to create sideline businesses as an "adjunct" to the socialist economy.
• Another change was that farmers received financial incentives for increasing their production and were allowed more latitude in what to grow and how to grow it. Previously, farmers had been under the watchful eye of rural managers.
Medium: Radio
Program: Sunday Morning
Broadcast Date: Dec. 3, 1978
Guest(s): Doak Barnett, Emily McFarquhar, Jean Pasqualini
Host: Bronwyn Drainie, Warner Troyer
Reporter: Richard Thwaite, Banning Garrett
Duration: 12:33

Last updated: October 21, 2013

Page consulted on November 7, 2014

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