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The Political and Economic Legacy of Deng Xiaoping for contemporary China

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How decisive was Deng Xiaoping for China?

Deng Xiaoping is considered the first leader and reformer of post-Maoist China. Indeed, it is not a case if his secretary is labeled as a turning point in communist China, born in 1949 with the official proclamation of the Popular Republic of China by Mao Tse Tung. Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978 after being purged and excluded by national politics during the years of both “Socialist Education Campaign” (1963/1966) and “Cultural Revolution” (1966/1976), even though it seemed for years that he was the most likely successor to Mao in the leadership of CCP, after siding and collaborating with Mao himself in the position as a most trusted comrade (a status that was especially owed to the role he had had in repressing the rebellions in the southwest regions, such as Tibet in the 50s) [1].

Furthermore, Deng was seen as one of the main “rightist” leaders of the CCP during the apex of Mao’s leadership throughout mainland China (those are the years of the so-called “Political Adjustment”, 1962/1966). He was considered also as one of the more skeptical voices about the economic policies that were adopted during the years of the “Great Leap Forward” which led the whole country to the “Great Famine” (namely, those years from 1958 to 1962), despite Mao’s initial purpose of tremendous industrial and agricultural advancement in just a few years, a strategy which culminated in the Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the People’s Republic of China in 1950 [2].

According to Mao’s forecasts, the Chinese industrial output should have exceeded Britain’s within 15 years. Mao promised not only agrarian liberation for all the masses but also rapid industrial growth through collectivization and massive economic planning. This choice resulted in several agreements with the Soviet counterpart for technical support and intellectual know-how, even if Maoist thought believed that social freedom from capitalist means of production should have been granted by peasants and farmers’ revolution and not from the urban proletariat, on the contrary of Sovietism [3].

The rise of Deng Xiaoping

Once that paramount role of the CPP was held, following the vacuum power that was partly ended by the short leadership of Hua Guofeng, who resigned as paramount leader in 1978, Deng strengthened his leadership, according to a coherent Leninist view of the Socialist State guided by Central Commission of the CCP party (a core principle that was learned during his doctrinal studies in Moscow) and launched an ambitious program of reforms to lift China out of poverty and make it an influential power in world politics. This reformist program, in its fundamental spirit of graduality, was characterized by the willingness to “put things in order” (zhengdun) and enhance “economic development” (fazhan).

Deng was a pragmatic leader and, as proof of that, his motto and policy criterion was “seeking truth from practice”. Deng refused the dogmatism typical of Mao’s era which was close to making Chinese socialism a complete failure. In line with that, he synthesized his national plan for revitalizing China in the so-called “Theory of Four Modernisations”, in which technological advancement was a key factor for the industry, agriculture, scientific research, and defense strengthening (the PLA was now expected to be a technological and global power and not merely a global tool of class war, unlike Lin Biao thought).

To accomplish that, according to Deng, it was fundamental to take the West as an example of successful economic development to demonstrate to all of the world that socialism was not equal to poverty: “To Get Rich is Glorious!”.

The Japanese example

Therefore, his first intention was to show that socialism was no more a matter of planning and equally to prove that there must be a place too for a Chinese way to wellness in the world. In these years, the CCP had to look at the Qing past as an economic inspiration (indeed, after being banned by Mao, the ideas of “self-strengthening” of Feng Guifen were positively re-evaluated now) and to emulate those Westernised nations such as Japan, which became not only the foremost model but also a close ally in the region. As a matter of fact, we can mention some fundamental agreements made between Beijing and Tokyo at that time such as: first, the Japanese/Chinese Entente signed in 1978; second, the Treaty of Friendship that was signed then in 1988; last, the remarkable economic and financial exchange between the countries, symbolized by the overall packet of Japanese direct investments made by Japan in China and boosted by its rugged economic emergence in the 80s) [4].

It was the Chinese intention and interest to follow the path of the Asian Tigers’ strong economic advancement in East Asia, a phenomenon which took place since the 60s with the emergence of Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South Korea in the region. That means decoupling of the Soviet Union even more than Mao Tse Tung did: Popular China and CCP definitely “broke up” with Moscow, by preferring the strategy of “Triangular Diplomacy”, “Politics of Engagement” with the US as well as the aforementioned “Entente with Japan”. This comprehensive choice even resulted in the “Great Refusal” from Popular China of Brezhnev’s proposal of “Détente and Normalization” after the Damanskij-Zhenbao Conflict in 1969 and summed up in the “Tashkent Speeches”. USSR and PRC re-engaged just later on in 1989, on the push of the “Vladivostok Speeches” made by Gorbachov to restore peace in the Pacific after the escalation in the Okhotsk Sea during the years of the “Second Cold War” [5].

A Sinicized way for development?

Chinese communist intelligentsia, aiming at realizing a fast but harmonized economic development, first imported Western macroeconomic theories and then translated them in a “Sinicized way”, in line with the belief in China’s uniqueness.

However, the core of Deng’s view for China was the so-called principle of “Gaige Kaifang”, namely “Opening Up”. The following reforms coherently follow this ideological pattern: to begin with agricultural issues, the CCP decided to abolish communised peasantry (tequ), compulsory quotas of Mao’s Era and finally to liberalise the means of productions in order to let peasants hold some surplus to reinvest in a primigenial layout of free-market (the so-called Yangtze’s experiment); then, for what concerns the birth of small enterprises, Deng let the governors create the so-called TVEs, namely a complex system of small enterprises constituted by joint ventures of private and public capitals, the so-called “Anhui experiment”; to conclude, for what concerns plans of development, Deng and Zhao Ziyang theorised the system of SEZs that was inscribed in the “Chinese Strategy of Coastal Development”, namely a system of liberalised and open to foreign investors areas with tax benefits and similar capitalist legislation (at that time, this proposal received many critics especially by the conservative leaders among the CCP, such as Chen Hu). Concerning this latter inventive system, it is interesting highlighting some notable similarities with the case of the old “Treaty Ports” imposed by the West with the entry into force of the “Unequal Treaties” in China and Japan, something that literally “opened up” and revolutionized both the Qing Empire and the Tokugawa.

Moreover, referring to other important reforms, the CCP decided: to end the monopoly of the Central Bank of China; to liberalize food prices (yet soon a food shortage ensued in the country); to encourage the fiscalization of firms; to introduce the principle of “managerial responsibility” in State-owned enterprises [6].

However, in the meantime, Deng launched the so-called “Cardinal Principles” that rapidly enforced the CCP Leadership (i.e., democratic dictatorship, rule of the CCP, adherence to a socialist path, upholding Maosim and Marxism-Leninism). Not a political liberalization of internal politics followed then, even though many political opponents, gathered within the current of “Wall Democracy” which later came to explode in Tiananmen protests in 1989, claimed the application of a “Fifth Modernisation”, namely “Democracy”. Wei Jingsheng, the foremost leader of the democratic movement, was a utilitarian thinker and a strong opponent of Deng Xiaoping’s leadership, but also a clear estimator of the past movements of “April Fifth” and “May Fourth”, which struggled for inclusive participation of the mass to the power. Notwithstanding Deng Xiaoping, having a Leninist vision of power did not encourage any democratization of politics even at the cost of putting at risk the “Politics of Engagement” with the US: coherently, he let Jingsheng be imprisoned very soon. The main goal of the CCP was to build up an “Economic Democracy” through technocratic reforms [7].

It seems obvious that Deng Xiaoping has been a prominent figure in the history of contemporary and communist China, not without reason a “turning point”: his political and economic legacy, even if controversial for some aspects, is a vademecum to understand nowadays China. Deng Xiaoping’s reforms have been the key to the economic success of China. His political legacy has been an inspiration for the succeeding Chinese leaders: Hu Jintao took inspiration from Deng when he theorized the “Scientific Outlook on Development” but even Jiang Zemin with the “Three Represents Theory”, [8], [9].

Thus, it is impossible to have a deep and unbiased understanding of China without first knowing what Deng’s China was.

  1. “Wealth and Power, China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century”, Orville Schell and John Delury;
  2. https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/docs/DOC_0001086032.pdf;
  3. “The Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung”, Foreign Language Press, People’s Publishing House 1960/1965;
  4. “Wealth and Power, China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century”, Orville Schell and John Delury;
  5. “The Cold War in East Asia (1945/1991)”, James G. Hershberg;
  6. “Unlikely Partners: Chinese reformers, Western economists and the Making of Global China”, Julian Gewitz;
  7. “Deng Xiaoping: My Father”, Deng Rong;
  8. http://www.cscc.it/upload/doc/full_text_of_hu_jintaos_report_at_17th_party_congress___qiushi_journal.pdf;
  9. https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/topics_665678/3698_665962/t18872.shtml

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