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Chen Yun

(b. c. 1905)

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(b. Shanghai, c. 1905; d. Beijing, 22 Apr. 1995)

Chinese; economist, economic theorist; Chinese Communist Party Politburo member 1934–87 Chen Yun is perhaps one of the least well known, but one of the most influential of China's first generation of Communist leaders. He was one of the few post-1949 leaders who had a ‘soviet’ style background in the urban trade union movement whilst working as a typesetter for Commercial Press in Shanghai in the 1920s. Having joined the party in 1924, Chen was involved in the early part of the Long March, but then left for Moscow for ideological and organizational training. On his return to China, Chen led the Party Organization Department but increasingly turned his attentions towards economic affairs during the 1940s.

Chen's economic theories became a source of considerable conflict with Mao Zedong. Chen rejected Mao's view that rapid economic development could and should be assured by exploiting the revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses. Instead, he argued for a slower but more sustainable pace of economic development, and that some market mechanisms should be used instead of political mobilization to encourage agricultural production. These markets should be localized and strictly limited in scope and importance, and it was essential that the party retained overall control over the economy through strong centralized planning, co-ordination, and control. This relationship between dominant plan and subordinate local markets became known as the ‘bird-cage’ theory, where the bird (the market) was allowed freedom to move, but was always constrained by the bars of the cage (the plan).

From 1949 to 1954, Chen Yun led the committee in charge of financial and economic work which successfully managed the first stage of industrialization and economic recovery. This strategy was based heavily on the Soviet model of industrialization, and once the Communist leadership decided to move away from the original Soviet blueprint to a distinctive Chinese road to socialism, then the conflicting approaches of Mao and Chen began to manifest themselves in political conflict.

The first major conflict occurred in 1956–7, when Mao forced through a strategy of rapid collectivization of agriculture and a quick dash for growth, even though the party central committee had earlier endorsed Chen's strategy for the second Five-Year Plan. Mao's radical experiment was ultimately to lead to the disastrous Great Leap Forward, and the deaths of 40 million Chinese from starvation between 1958 and 1961. Chen's criticisms of the Great Leap policies were accepted by other key leaders such as Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, and Zhou Enlai, and by 1962 Chen's ideas were again the main impetus for economic policy. Chen gradually brought about a significant economic recovery, only for his policies to be overthrown by Mao for a second time in 1966 with the onset of the Cultural Revolution.

Whilst disappearing politically, Chen did not personally bear the brunt of Mao's hostilities during the Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution decade had once again severely damaged the Chinese economy, and in 1978, the party turned to Chen Yun once again. In addition to his economic work, Chen also returned to his leadership origins in party organization, becoming the first head of the Central Discipline Inspection Commission, and for a short time, Chen Yun and Deng Xiaoping developed a strategic partnership in the central élites. However, by 1984 Chen Yun had become one of Deng's fiercest critics as economic reforms moved away from Chen's original bird-cage thesis, and more and more market forces were introduced at the expense of central planning. Like Deng, Chen continued to exert considerable political influence behind the scenes despite gradually relinquishing his formal political offices. He consistently berated the reformers for forgetting the importance of grain production, producing unbalanced regional growth, and for continually failing to balance the national budget. Furthermore, he abhorred the declining socialist morality of party members, complaining as early as 1985 that many cadres seemed to have forgotten that they were meant to be Communists.


Subjects: Social sciencesPolitics

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