After Deng: On China's Transformation
Deng never forgot the pain of the Cultural Revolution. During his time in the country he reflected on the party’s failures, and in later conversations with foreigners, Vogel writes, he would passionately describe the period as a disaster for China. When Mao, aging and sick, restored Deng to Beijing in the early 1970s, Deng was determined that the party overcome its obsession with internal purity and political revolutions, and instead devote itself to implementing China’s modernization. The party’s legitimacy would rest not only on ideas but also on providing a better life for Chinese citizens. This might seem an obvious idea, but after decades of Mao’s perpetual campaigns, and his derision of peasants’ lives—Mao famously said that he would sacrifice half of mankind to win a nuclear war—pragmatism and modernization were revolutionary in China. Deng’s visits to Japan, Europe and the United States in the mid- and late 1970s, where he witnessed highly automated manufacturing, high-speed trains and other state-of-the-art technology, further convinced him of China’s benighted state. Unlike Mao, he was willing to admit that China had fallen behind economically, as even other poor Asian nations like South Korea had begun to take off, and that to modernize, China needed help from abroad and the rule of law (at least in economic areas). “Chinese scientists had to learn foreign languages so they could read foreign reports…China should cherish its experts. It needed to introduce automation into its factories and to support talented scientists,” Deng insisted at party meetings, according to Vogel. In a country just emerging from the Cultural Revolution, during which a tyranny of the mind mocked expertise and punished or crushed those who possessed it, and where leaders had for millenniums believed that China was the center of the world, these, too, were shocking ideas.
Deng had always been a relatively pragmatic person, but his pragmatism became a secular religion as he ascended to the top of the leadership. “Practice is the Sole Criterion for Judging Truth,” read one article championed by Deng. Results, not ideology, would determine policies. (Today Chinese students study Deng Xiaoping Theory alongside Mao’s life and maxims, but Deng’s theories consist mostly of common-sense maxims on governance and economic management.) Following Mao’s death in 1976, Deng used his political skills and popularity among senior leaders and the public to outflank Mao’s appointed successor, Hua Guofeng, and the Gang of Four. Deng maneuvered Hua into the background but did not have him murdered or jailed, setting the stage for future peaceful transitions.
Nor did Deng try to completely erase his predecessors, as Mao had attempted to banish all of China’s traditions, leading to vast cultural devastation. Deng maintained Mao as a father figure of the party, keeping his portrait atop Tiananmen and mostly whitewashing Mao’s grievous crimes. Yet he recognized that much of Mao’s thinking on political and economic development had been wrong. Deng also removed the poison from the idea of learning from the West and even from hated Japan. When visiting the United States, Deng told his aides that the one place he wanted to see was Wall Street, a symbol of American economic might, the wellspring, more than tanks or aircraft carriers, of US power. “China must catch up with the most advanced countries in the world,” he warned. He allowed universities to open again and met with Chinese-American Nobel laureates to understand how China could improve its basic sciences. He oversaw growing state funding of basic research and fostered a new atmosphere of respect for learning. Deng even supported the idea that Chinese graduate students should study abroad, another implicit admission of how far behind China had fallen.
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In foreign policy, too, Deng adopted a humble approach, one that would be followed until recently by successive Chinese leaders. During the 1970s and ’80s, Deng slashed government spending on the military and declared that China must quietly build its strength while maintaining a low profile in international affairs. As Deng told one visiting African leader in 1985, “Please don’t copy our model. If there is any experience on our part, it is to formulate policies in light of one’s own national conditions.”
Most important, beginning in the late ’70s Deng relaxed economic and social rules, unleashing pent-up entrepreneurship and allowing average people to live their lives without fearing that the party would be lurking in their bedrooms and kitchens. Journals, fiction publishing houses and cinemas were reopened. Foreign investment was welcomed, particularly in the new special economic zones in southern China, where investors were given tax incentives and largely insulated from China’s laws, or lack thereof. The government allowed farmers to start selling their crops, began cutting state subsidies and promoted town- and village-level enterprises. Perhaps more significantly, Deng, the most visible figure in China, purportedly said that “to get rich is glorious,” signaling that, unlike in previous decades, the state would support capitalists instead of punishing them.
But contrary to the beliefs of many Americans who met Deng, his focus on modernization and his abandonment of radical Maoist social and political engineering did not make him a democrat. After Nixon’s breakthrough visit to China in 1972, Washington and Beijing strengthened their relationship; facing a common enemy in Moscow, American policy-makers wanted to see only the best characteristics in their Chinese peers. And upon meeting Deng, they found it easy to think of him as a reformer. He talked in terms that Americans eager to befriend China as an ally could understand, and he used the kind of casual, direct language common to American politicians. In 1978 Time named Deng “Man of the Year” for launching China’s modernization; Chinese state media, in return, portrayed Deng’s 1979 trip to the United States in a positive light, spreading images of American life that helped to inspire Chinese desires for growth, entrepreneurship and Western consumer goods. Deng told an audience at Temple University that he respected the college’s commitment to academic freedom; at other stops he praised the openness of American society.
But he didn’t honor the values he praised. In late 1978, thinking that Deng would promote not only economic but also political reforms, activists began posting demands for greater freedom on a wall near Tiananmen Square. Sprinkled among them were implicit criticisms of Mao. The movement would become known as Democracy Wall, and the postings attracted wide attention. Rumors spread that Deng supported the activists. Thousands of people, and then hundreds of thousands, came daily to read the wall and to write essays and personal accounts about their suffering during the Cultural Revolution. In January 1979 some wall supporters launched a march to the party’s leadership compound near Tiananmen Square. But as the Democracy Wall movement grew, Deng began issuing warnings, Vogel writes, “that some postings were not conducive to stability….When protestors attracted huge crowds and resisted basic rule by the Communist leadership, Deng moved decisively to suppress the challenge.” By March, Beijing city officials had banned posters, books and other writings that challenged the leadership; soon, the security forces arrested the leaders of Democracy Wall.
Deng believed, above all, in the Communist Party. He was a pragmatist, and in theory he accepted freedoms, but not if they threatened the party. He had spent his entire adult life in party politics; he saw no vehicle other than the party for uniting and leading the country; and, especially as other communist states began to reform, in the late 1980s he became convinced that the party could not accept liberalization if it was to survive. If the party was to save itself, only it could be the savior of the people. The only form of democracy acceptable to Deng was “inner-party democracy.” Party members could debate issues in private, but once a decision was reached, it had to be carried out in public by a united front. Because of his crackdown on Democracy Wall, it was Deng, more than any other party leader, who set the stage for China’s economic modernization without political modernization—a process that for decades has defied conventional modernization theory, articulated by political scientists such as Seymour Martin Lipset and Samuel Huntington, which holds that economic reform inexorably creates pressure for political reform, particularly among those in the educated middle classes who will not stand for authoritarian government.
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