Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China

Deng Xiaoping’s name has been familiar to me for some time. The first time I heard of him was associated with the words attributed to him- it doesn’t matter the color of the cat so far as it can catch the mouse. Deng is considered by Lee Kuan Yew as the most impactful leader he has ever met. Given that Kuan Yew transformed Singapore from a Third World Country to a First , such an utterance from him should not be taken lightly.

I find Deng interesting; otherwise why write about him? I will tell what about him I find interesting . But at the outset I would want to state two reasons I find him admirable. The first is the sheer scale of the problems he had to deal with- striving to industrialize the most populous country in the world. The second is his ability to let facts lead the way. This is seen in his interest in education, science and technology and his support for the doctrine Practice Is the Only Criterion for Truth- much on that later.

Information in this essay is based on a biography of him written by Ezra F. Vogel , and the title of the book is Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China. I have also skimmed the Wikipedia entry for Deng. The book seems consistent with the Wikipedia entry. This is to say that I will make factual errors in this essay if the book and the Wikipedia entry are wrong.

The making of a communist
Deng was born on August 22, 1904 and died at age ninety-two. Deng is his family name. I’ve learnt that in Chinese the family name usually comes first . I would limit myself on his background information so we can get to what made him a great leader as soon as possible. But before we go to that, it’s necessary to know what made him tick and how he came about some of his beliefs. I am not going to psychoanalyze him. I will only put some flesh on him to make him more familiar.

In Deng’s late teenage years he travelled to France and became a factory worker. It seems there were a lot of Chinese youth who did same during that era. It was in France that Deng became familiar with the thoughts of Marx and Lenin. He sympathized with labor because he saw firsthand how poorly Chinese workers were treated. I consider myself a classical liberal. I am pro-capitalism. But I try not to be ideological. What I mean by not being ideological is that I am skeptical of dogmas that seek to explain everything. I also think it is not enough to evaluate issues from first principles. This is not to say looking at matters from first principles is not important. It is. But then, first principles arguments are not guaranteed to work in the real world. Therefore, what appears logically feasible in our heads might not work in practice. Although I disagree with Deng’s embrace of Communism I can understand how he came to adopt it. He did not reach his conclusion based solely on his experience in France. He realized what most people in failed nations conclude with time- the leaders of China didn’t care about their people. If he would come to such a conclusion, wouldn’t he agree that a system where everyone would be equal is a better system? Why wouldn’t he think that a system that would give workers the respect they deserve isn’t correct? I talked about striving not to be ideological, I feel at some recess of Deng’s soul he had some misgivings about all encompassing systems too. His assertion that it doesn’t matter the color of the cat but the most essential was that it caught the mouse is testament to his non-ideological way of thinking.

After Deng’s short stay in France, he went to the Soviet Union for political education. I am not sure if this was before or after the Long March. These were experiences that cemented his political beliefs as a Communist. I need to explain what the Long March is about as it was one of the events that led Deng Xiaoping to become who he was. At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, China was an unstable state. It had a lot of warlords. No one group or political party had a firm control of the country. However, there were two groups that had the potential to be in charge of the country. One was the Kuomintang and the other was the Red Army, which later became the Communist Party. During World War II these power blocks worked together in order to keep China out of the clutch of the Japanese. They had a common interest in doing that, although they had different worldviews. After the war, they returned to fighting for power. From my recollection the Kuomintang was traditional. They respected indigenous Chinese values. It seems to me they were more aligned to the right. The Communist were on the left. It was the conflict between these two powers after the war that led to the Long March, with Mao Zedong rising as the Supreme Leader. The Communists and their supporters had to flee the Kuomintang. Of the estimated 300,000 that embarked on the 600 mile journey, only one in ten survived. The Long March if for nothing at all invested the Communists emotionally in their ideology.

The Long March wasn’t the only misfortune that befell Deng in his long life. He lost his first wife and child during the delivery of the child. His second wife divorced and criticized him when he run out of luck and was relegated to the peripheries of power. If I remember correctly, he was sidelined twice, and was a victim of the cultural revolution. He had a hearing impediment which rendered him deaf in his later years. His son got crippled- this could have been prevented if he had received the appropriate treatment. The misfortunes that paved Deng’s path were overwhelming. Not to talk of living in the shadow of the mercurial Chairman Mao.

The main reason why Deng fell out of synch with the powers that be was that he liked to do things than he enjoyed politicking. This is not to say he wasn’t good at politics. He was a finagler in his own rights. If not he would not have been able to quietly usurp power from Hua Guofeng who had been chosen by Mao himself before Mao’s death, as the preeminent leader. Even in Deng’s usurpation of power we see that he is more interested in getting things done than being seen as the person in charge. This is observed in the fact that he was the acting leader in the early 1980s although this didn’t reflect in the title he held. It should be added that the reason why he couldn’t use such titles is more complicated than goodwill on Deng’s part. The Communist Party leaders having learnt the dangers of concentrating power in a single hand through Mao’s example were wary of repeating the same mistake and therefore were careful not to give Deng too much of it.

Free markets
Deng’s interest in getting work done than mere politicking is observed in his embrace of free markets. It appears that he started out asking himself the question-what works? It is difficult to find out if Deng was playing lip-service to tenets of Communism when he realized that it did not produce good results. He believed in merit and that can be seen in most of his policies. This is against a system that rewards people according to their needs. Communism created an incentive for the lazy to parasite on those who were hardworking; this eventually turned those who were hardworking idle, because few of us would want to feed a lazy person. I am not intentionally setting up a straw man. I actually believe that sympathy has its place, and there are circumstances in which people should be rewarded according to their needs. The problem starts when this idea is taken to the extreme, and those who advocate it don’t think of the dangers it can engender when practiced at scale.

Deng’s foray into free markets was not a change in direction he alone led. It is better thought as a transition from a closed society to a more open one. This is especially observed by fact that China reestablished diplomatic relations with the West, particularly the United States and later made cordial its strained relationship with the Soviet Union who used to be a close ally. However the fixing of China’s relationship with the Soviet Union wasn’t a testament to their opening up. It was strategic. It is the initiation of diplomatic ties with the West which should be seen in that light. The opening up of the country had the support of Mao. Hua Guofeng who preceded Deng Xiaoping as the leader of the Communist Party actually took steps in this direction. Mao appears to have given his support reluctantly to the country’s opening. No leader, no matter how despotic, has absolute control of a country. Even Mao had to often read the zeitgeist and dance its tune. I hope I am not being unnecessarily cynical; but I think this is the reason Mao gave his support to the country’s opening.

Rail way centralization and Guangdong experiments
One of the tasks Deng performed as a rising star in the party was to centralize railway stations. They were initially disorderly, with different ticketing systems and lack of coordination that led to frequent accidents. Not to talk of corruption. After Deng’s work in this area, these problems were widely resolved; the railway system became efficient and profitable.

When Deng became heir to Mao or perhaps before then, one of the policies he led was the establishment of Free Economic Zones. One of the first of this kind was set up in Guangdong. It became so popular and led to the prosperity of the province that it reduced migration out of the province to Hong Kong as it increased their standard of living. Other provinces rushed to be given such a title. The Free Economic Zones were accused of corruption by radicals in the Communist Party, but this didn’t deter the support of the Chinese populace for it.

Some maxims
I have already talked about Deng’s interest in what works. This is seen in his support of the ‘Practice is the sole criterion for truth’ doctrine. This was a maxim developed by some political theorists in the party and gained prominence with Deng’s rise to power. It says that if a policy doesn’t work in practice although based on sound ideological presuppositions, you rethink the presuppositions rather than force reality to agree with you. The dictum justified why a Communist government would allow free markets.

One thing I loved about the transformation of China is that it was done gradually. Even the Free Economic Zones were started as experiments. The Chinese consulted with experts including Nobel Prize winning economists to find out what worked and didn’t work in Communist countries that made similar transitions to free markets.

Practice is the sole criterion of truth was however in contradiction with another axiom the Communist Party had held for a long time. This was the Two Whatevers. The Two Whatevers stated that every view or policy of Chairman Mao was correct and that it should be practiced. This is what led to Deng’s final break with Mao. Mao was concerned about his legacy. In relation to the two whatevers, he wanted the top brass of the party to accept that the Cultural Revolution was a good policy. This was a policy that had wasted Chinese talents by taking people to the countryside to till lands. Mao didn’t want his reputation to be stained after his death like Khrushchev did to Stalin. He wanted Deng to accept the proposition that the Cultural Revolution was a good thing- that it was 70% good. Deng, although a pragmatic politician, couldn’t grant Mao’s wish. This event shows that principles are important. You just can’t use a consequentialist approach in all matters. Deng would have immediately profited from kowtowing to Mao. He would have hung on to power. Deng had to take a stand because he didn’t want the radicals in the Communist Party to pose a threat when he became leader of the party. He had to appear firm to gain the trust of intellectuals, including scientists, who had been persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. Also, accepting that the Cultural Revolution was a good thing would have been a lie. Deng’s determination was against the Two Whatevers as the Cultural Revolution was a Mao creation.

One Country- Two Systems maxim was used to placate activists who were attracted to Western democratic ideals. This was in opposition to the Chinese one party system. Deng used this term to express the Chinese leadership’s willingness to allow the islands Taiwan and Hong-Kong to follow the Western democratic ideals. Deng was more concerned about people seeing the islands as part of China.

War with Vietnam: a tale of loyalty
Another glimpse into Deng’s character is through the lens of the Sino-Vietnam War of 1979. The Chinese made an offensive attack on Vietnam after the latter invaded Cambodia. The one month war was also as a result of treatment meted out to ethnic Chinese in Vietnam. Deng informed world leaders like the US and the English before going forward with the attack. He was careful to control the backlash of his actions. Another character of Deng was to take his loyalty seriously. This contributed to China attacking Vietnam, because Cambodia was China’s ally. Deng’s loyalty is especially observed in his loyalty to world leaders who have met popular disfavor. He asked to see former President Nixon on his first visit to the United States, even after Nixon had been disgraced by the Watergate scandal. He also visited a Japanese leader who was under house arrest. He thanked them for their efforts in normalizing China’s diplomatic relations with their countries. I am sure these acts would have had a positive effect on those who were then in power. I learnt to be loyal to acquaintances especially when they have problems.

A nod to competence
Deng allowed academics who had been sidelined during the cultural revolution to return to work. He returned them to their areas of competence and didn’t focus on their politics. This was one of his differences with Mao and the Gang of Four. Deng didn’t believe that what made someone competent for a position, especially an academic one, was his political alignment. He allowed hundreds of thousands of Chinese students to study abroad. He was not worried that they wouldn’t return, so there were no stringent sanctions for those who remained abroad. He had hope that most students would return to China and they did.

Tiananmen square massacre
The most difficult moment Deng experienced as a leader was the Tiananmen Square Massacre. For those who don’t know about this unfortunate event, I would retell it in broad strokes. Pro-democracy protestors occupied Tiananmen Square in April 1989 and stayed there for a few weeks. The event culminated in the forceful removal of the protestors, who were predominantly university students. The removal resulted in hundreds of deaths. Some estimates put the death toll at 10,000. The protestors were asking for democracy. However, the Communist Party and Deng in particular saw the protest as a threat to the stability of China; especially when the student leaders went on hunger strike and didn’t want to talk to the Chinese leaders. I think Deng was honest in his opinion. I have thought of the massacre for a long time, and I just can’t say who is wrong. Of course, killing and beating “unarmed” protestors is wrong. But what do you do when protestors seize military vehicles and intimidate soldiers because of their numbers? It is easy to say down with any authority, but the vacuum will create chaos that will likely make things worse. There’s a part of me that says hell with it. Let people say what they want. Ultimately, any society where people can’t say what they want is fragile. What are the Chinese leadership protecting than their own power and privilege? Especially when some find their path to riches in corruption. My conclusion from the massacre is that means are as important as ends. The best way to get results is through gradual improvement. If you tear down everything you might end up having nothing. And if you want to start a revolution, you heighten your risk of failure.

Final thoughts on Deng
I hope I have been able to express how high I esteem Deng Xiaoping. He had insight. The care he put into developing China just blows my mind. The fact that they would hire economists and even import American business schools shows Deng’s level of dedication. Although he suffered a lot, he never let his suffering overwhelm him. I will be glad if I can be a little like him.

3 thoughts on “Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China

  1. “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, it just primarily should be able to catch mice”, once says Deng. He has revived a socioeconomic model, originally proclaimed as an ad hoc measure by Vladimir Lenin, which creates wealth, eradicates poverty and makes the bulk of the population prosperous and contented rapidly, enabling the Chinese People’s Republic to grow at a globally unprecedented pace in social infrastructure, GDP, mass prosperity and intellectual thrust.


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