Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

The Man Who Lit China's Rising Expectations

Deng Xiaoping's passing does not mean the end of the legacy he shares with free-marketeers Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher

Deng Xiaoping has been one of the world's preeminent leaders of the late 20th century. His impact will be felt well into the next century as China looms as the world's next superpower.

Deng's life spanned the century, involving him in many of the major events of modern China's revolutionary development, although his activities were primarily noticeable during the 1980s and early 1990s. Deng was born during the waning years of the last imperial dynasty. He had a fairly typical peasant upbringing in rural Sichuan before being dispatched for study to Europe, where he met other would-be revolutionaries. Deng experienced the proletarian life of Paris and received Comintern training in Moscow.

About these ads

From his return to China in 1927 until the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seized power in 1949, Deng's exploits were the militant revolutionary activities of the time: urban underground organization; peasant uprisings; public propaganda and political indoctrination among Red Army troops; the Long March; and numerous battle campaigns during the anti-Japanese and civil wars.

After 1949 Deng served initially as a regional administrator in his native southwest, before moving on to a succession of key party, government, and military posts in Beijing prior to the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). By 1954 he was one of the inner circle of CCP leaders and as such had a hand in virtually every key policy and event from 1954 to 1966. Like so many other CCP elites, he came under vicious attack during the Cultural Revolution and endured six years in internal exile.

The mid-1970s saw him rise again to the pinnacle of power only (again) to fall suddenly just before Chairman Mao Zedong's death. With the fourth political "rehabilitation" of his career in 1977, Deng set about deconstructing the Maoist state and constructing his comprehensive program to reform China and bring it into the front ranks of world powers.

Deng's career was certainly not without its blemishes, the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 being the most noteworthy. His legacy will be complex and his historical verdict no doubt mixed. Yet there is no denying that Deng was responsible for a monumental transformation of one-fifth of humanity, awakening China from its socialist slumber with the prospect of an unprecedented future.

Deng Xiaoping pursued many goals during his lifetime, but none more persistently than strengthening the Chinese nation-state. Deng was a staunch nationalist who sought to restore China's wealth and power. This quest of Deng's was not unlike that of previous Chinese reformers during the 19th and 20th centuries: creation of a modern industrial base; transformation of China's agrarian social structure; attainment of a materially comfortable standard of living for the populace; reclaimed national independence, dignity, and freedom of maneuver in foreign relations; a strong national defense and maintenance of territorial integrity around China's borderlands; and attainment of great-power status. In these respects, Deng's vision for China shares an essential continuity along a historical spectrum of Chinese reformers dating from the late Qing reformers Li Hongzhang and Kang Youwei.

Deng Xiaoping was not the first Chinese leader with these goals during this century, but he was the most successful in realizing them. He inherited from Mao Zedong a stagnant economy, alienated society, and paralyzed polity. He bequeaths to his successors a robust economy and rejuvenated society but an antiquated political system.

China's political system is antiquated partly for reasons common to Leninist party-states but also because of Deng's steadfast refusal to create meaningful channels of political participation for China's citizenry. In significant ways Deng was a true Leninist. Unlike Mao who assaulted the commanding heights and tore asunder the Communist apparat during the Cultural Revolution, Deng sought to rebuild the party-state. Deng believed, like other Chinese reformers before him, that a strong state that monopolized political power was essential to economic development. His view was reinforced by the East Asian developmental model.

About these ads

Yet, at the same time that Deng rebuilt the party-state from its fractured condition of the Cultural Revolution, he also sowed the seeds of its potential demise. His economic reform program and the autonomy from state control that he created for Chinese from many walks of life inexorably decreased the Communist Party's previous hegemony. In the wake of Tiananmen, Deng and the Chinese leadership sought to refurbish the instruments of Orwellian state power - subjecting the society to considerable coercion, propaganda, and economic austerity - only to realize that these instruments had dulled as a result of the 1980s reforms.

From the collapse of Communist regimes across the globe between 1989 and 1991, Deng drew the lesson that only material gain can ultimately save socialism. Of course, he also concluded that tight political control and the loyal support of the security services were important elements, but without material gain no degree of coercion could ensure the party's survival.

Consequently, in 1992 Deng reignited radical economic reform. The results were impressive indeed: 12.8 percent gross national product growth in 1992. Foreign direct investment poured into China at unprecedented levels. But overheating, inflation, corruption, and many other negative manifestations resulted.

Deng ruled very differently from Mao. Deng did not rely on coercion, charisma, or ideology but preferred to rule through formal party institutions and Leninist norms. Only late in life did he, like Mao, grow distrustful of the party-state he had created. When this occurred in 1991-92, Deng, like Mao, circumvented his chosen successors and the bureaucracy by taking his case directly to the people during his famous Southern Tour (nan xun). Not a populist by nature, Deng was acting out of frustration with his chosen successors.

At the same time, it must be recognized that, unlike Mao, Deng trusted in the entrepreneurial spirit in Chinese culture and did much to remove state strictures from people's lives. In this sense he shares a legacy with free-marketeers Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Getting the government "off the backs" of average Chinese, in order to free their essential commercial instincts, will be one of Deng's most enduring legacies. He rolled back much of the intrusive apparatus that had intimidated a vast nation, and thus he provided the stimulus for the realization of the Napoleonic prophecy of the awakened Chinese giant.

In doing so, however, he unleashed powerful centrifugal forces in society that are progressively undermining Leninist rule and Communist Party control. In this respect Deng may be remembered more like Mikhail Gorbachev.

This is true of many of the world's great reformers, who satisfy the people's cravings only to create new and insatiable desires. Deng's lasting contribution was to stimulate the revolution of rising expectations.

* David Shambaugh, director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at George Washington University in Washington, is editor of "Deng Xiaoping: Portrait of a Chinese Statesman" (Oxford), from which he adapted this article.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.