Obituary: Yao Yilin

Angie Knox
Sunday 18 September 2011 06:54

Yao Yilin, politician: born Guizhi County, Anhui Province, China 1917; died Peking 11 December 1994.

With the death of Yao Yilin, China has lost one of its senior old-style economic planners. There will be one less voice urging caution as China dashes headlong towards unrestrained capitalism. A former vice-premier, Yao presided over economic work in China from the days of the Communist government's first five-year plan in the early 1950s to Deng Xiaoping's reforms which in the last decade and a half have turned China into an economic powerhouse. He was also, until his retirement two years ago, a memberof the Chinese Communist Party's decision-making elite, the political bureau standing committee.

At the time of his death at the age of 77, Yao counted as a relative youngster within China's ageing leadership. He was not one of the "immortals" but he was closely associated with one of them, the conservative advocate of central planning Chen Yun. Chen Yun's famous metaphor that the economy should be like a bird in a cage remains the main ideological counterweight to Deng Xiaoping's programme of deregulation and market reforms.

Yao Yilin was born in 1917 in the poor eastern province of Anhui, trained as a teacher, and then as a chemist at Qinghua University, in Peking. There, at the age of 18, he joined the Communist Party. and fought with Communist guerrillas in the anti-Japanese resistance in north China.

Yao served in trade and economic government departments throughout his career. He was appointed Vice-Minister of Foreign Trade when Mao Tse-tung's Communist government came to power in 1949, and then became Vice-Minister and subsequently Minister of Commerce. He was one of the architects of China's first five-year economic plan which sought to replace the private sector with the state sector in industry and commerce and laid the foundations for agricultural collectivisation.

He was attacked soon after the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 as a "counter-revolutionary revisionist", and stripped of his party and government posts. But he was reinstated in 1973 and became a key part of the new administration when Deng Xiaoping took power in 1976.

Yao's planning background made him at best a reluctant reformer under Deng. He is reported once to have said that he would not be concerned if the West decided not to invest in China. But he had experience, and Deng appointed him vice-premier and then head of the State Planning Commission in charge of economic policy.

But his second spell in office was brought to an abrupt close after a year. He was replaced by the up-and-coming Zou Jahua, raising speculation that Yao had fallen out with Deng over the pace of economic reform. But there may be another explanation.

In 1988, Yao had instituted a tough economic programme to cool inflation, which analysts believe contributed to bringing protesters on to the streets before the 1989 Tiananmen Square killings.

Yao remained a close economic adviser to the Prime Minister, Li Peng, and retained his top party position as one of the six Politburo standing committee members until he was 75.

Angie Knox

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