The 1978 Plenum: The historic turning point

Deng Xiaoping (R) at the Third Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee in 1978 Photo:

The Third Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee, which was held in Beijing from December 18 to 22, 1978, was a turning point in the history of both the Communist Party and China.

The plenum, which Deng Xiaoping used as a springboard for his ambitious overhaul of China’s economy, came two years after Chairman Mao Zedong’s death, paving the way for China’s opening to the world and the country’s once-inconceivable transformation over the last three decades into an economic behemoth and global super power.

The plenum criticized the principle of “two whatevers” ("we will resolutely defend whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave"), while approving a complete and accurate study of Mao Zedong Thought.

It held a key discussion, which was themed "practice is the sole criterion for testing truth"; established some new watchwords including “emancipating the mind”, “seeking truth from facts”, and “uniting to face the future”; it rectified erroneous slogans and shifted the emphases to socialist modernization and the policy of reform and opening up from class struggle; issued decisions on promoting agricultural development and set the goals of strengthening socialist democracy and improving the socialist legal system; it also re-evaluated some former State and Party leaders. The plenum decided to set up the CPC Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

After the plenum, the second generation of the Party leadership, which was under Deng Xiaoping, was formed. The meeting marked China's entry into a new era of socialist modernization and construction.

Researchers agree that this meeting was a landmark in China's history, lifting the curtain on the period of reform and opening up.

In the following six years, China embarked on major economic structural reforms. The reform started in the countryside with the historic household land-contracting system in Xiaogang Village in southern China's Anhui Province.

At the same time, industrial and commercial enterprises in the cities also experimented with reforms that gave them greater autonomy in decision-making.

The key feature of the reforms in the early period shrugged off the shackles of the planned economy and explored a brand new system.

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