Deng Xiaoping and the Future

John Heathershaw

Originally published in 1996/1997, Issue 2

On the nineteenth of February Deng Xiaoping, the dominant figure of Chinese politics for 19 years, died and left behind him a booming China, and a nation with many unresolved questions. The British media proclaimed the passing away of ‘the last red titan’ and it certainly seemed the end of an era for a country that has held a fifth of the worlds population outside democratic governance and bucking the trend towards political openness which occurred among other communist states. The career of Deng took place over the full course of the history of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC), with him as a prominent actor in Chinese Communism since the early 1930’s. Despite his reputation as a reformer he was also pragmatic and conservative. While he was purged three times he returned to prominence using his connections and political skill, and became the dominant force which shaped modern China. Although officially retired since 1989, he remained the dominant figure. Deng’s legacy to his former subordinates, including new leader Jiang Zemin, is twofold: a modern, booming economy, and an unresolved question of democracy. The question of if and how democratic reform will follow economic growth is the essential challenge facing post-Deng China.

Born in 1904, Deng is the last revolutionary leader to figure prominently in Chinese politics. He was 92 when he died and in his later years he obtained an almost Maoist-type reverence among the politburo as his contemporaries of the pre-PRC era had all passed away. The son of a wealthy land owner he moved away from his native Sichuan province at 16 to study French in Shanghai. He soon won a scholarship to France where he experienced poverty and low-paid menial labour as a student, and developed an appreciation for communism which he interpreted as the organisational solution to China’s structural problems, and the cement which would hold the large state together as a coherent nation. Thus in 1926 he travelled to Moscow to study Marxist-Leninist thought and communist organisation. As an official returning to China he experienced attempts at co-operation with the nationalists of Chiang Kai Shek, under the supervision of the USSR, breakdown into conflict and the Long March which he followed Mao Zedong on, and nearly died from typhoid, in 1934 . It was in these early years that he developed the political connections that would help shape his position in the Chinese political seen for over sixty years.

Deng met Mao in 1931 and sided with him long before he was paramount leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), coming out in support of Mao’s tactic of mass mobilisation of the peasants, and guerrilla action to fight the nationalists, and later the Japanese in the Sino-Japanese War. For Deng it was the start of a relationship of servant to the paramount leader of the future that was eventually broken down by Mao’s ideological fervour for mass mobilisation as the mechanism for economic and political progress in the post-revolutionary PRC. Deng saw the deaths of an estimated 30 to 40 million in a famine which had resulted from the failure of the Great Leap Forward and the collectivisation of agriculture in the 1950’s, and the genocide of the Cultural Revolution in which the passionately communist students of the Red Guards persecuted ideological deviants as unnecessary and foolish. Deng himself was condemned as a ‘capitalist roader’ but saved from grave punishment by Mao and sent into exile.

Famously Deng declared, “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.”[Time, March 3, 1997; 33] However, although Deng quietly opposed the practical foolishness of collectivisation in agriculture he is by no means a convinced pragmatist or capitalist, despite his later modernisation’s, as some have interpreted from this statement. As Goodman has suggested Deng was pragmatic without being a pragmatist. He explains, “For Deng Xiaoping communism was an organisational as much as, if not more than, an intellectual response to the problems that China has faced in the twentieth century.” [Goodman; 5] Nevertheless, Deng commanded respect across a broad base of the CCP hierarchy, and it was his ties and connections that prompted his return to politics. His return as Vice-Premier in 1973 brought him to conflict with the Gang of Four, which included Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, who wished to protect the ‘revolutionary reforms’ of the Cultural Revolution from those, like Deng, who opposed the organisational turmoil it brought about and favoured modernisation.

This was a time of extreme and fluid factionalism in Chinese politics, as the leaders argued over the legacy of the cultural revolution. Although purged for a third time at the instigation of the Gang of Four, Mao’s death on 9 September 1976, the dismissal of the four, and the appointment by the CCP Politburo of Hua Guofeng as Chairman set the way for Deng’s re-emergence once again in 1977. His power base was more extensive than Hua’s and by the end of 1978, with the 3rd plenum of the 11th Central committee, it was clear that Deng possessed the balance of power. The committee was a forum for the launching of reforms for greater political efficiency, economic modernisation, industrialisation, and the development of Science and technology. Such moves had originated from the now deceased Zhou Enlai’s Four Modernisation’s and were a complete rejection of the Cultural revolution. In hindsight it became obvious that this was a landmark moment in PRC history.

The two images of Deng Xiaoping which stand out to the western observer and yet seem irreconcilable, are those of the economic liberal and the culprit of the Tianamen Square massacre of 1989. While it is true that he oversaw both occurrences it would be unfair to characterise Deng with the ruthlessness of Mao or the zeal of a genuine liberal. He was far from both. The portrayal of Deng in the Chinese media, the four images of family man, soldier, politician, and reformer, provide, as Goodman notes a useful basis to assess his legacy to China.

Deng revelled in the perspective of family. He was a private man who lacked the sexual adventurism of Mao and enjoyed the simple pursuits of bridge and football. China’s revolutionary leader recognised the personal qualities that brought Deng success and offered a favourable appraisal of his political skill: “Deng is a rare and talented man. Deng has idea’s. He does not assault problems head on without thought. He deals with difficult problems responsibly.” [Goodman; 116] His portrayal as a soldier rests not on his high political positions he held in the PRC government but his experiences as political commissar from 1938 to 1952, initially in Taihang region fighting the Japanese and nationalists. His success in that role in expanding the army and launching victorious military campaigns earned him a reputation as a good leader and soldier, and thus a respect from the army which would be vital to his political future. His former subordinates during this period would be positioned by him later as allies within the government.

As a politician his ‘open door’ policy to the outside world created a deliberately comfortable impression of China to the international world. Deng wished to abandon Mao’s aim towards self- sufficiency by increasing trade and encouraging foreign investment. Newsweek describes his performance during his monumental 1979 visit to the United States, “hobnobbing at a cocktail party in the National Gallery with every American capitalist CEO who could wangle an invitation; applauding John Denver and the Harlem Globetrotters at the Kennedy Center, and donning a ten-gallon hat at a Texas rodeo arena.” [ March 3 1997; 16] However, despite his move away from mass mobilisation, he clearly saw the CCP as the only body to galvanise Chinese society, and socialism as its method, all be it one which must show its material advantages to the people. Deng declared, “To build socialism it is necessary to develop the productive forces. Poverty is not socialism.” [Goodman; 121] Moreover, although he held no official titles other than honorary President of the China Bridge society, and favoured democratic centralism and debate within the party rather than a Maoist cult of personality, it was his paramount personal power that allowed him to initiate his reforms.

Those reforms were orchestrated to bring about political efficiency rather than openness and it would be grossly inaccurate to portray Deng as a liberal, something which the Tianamen Square massacre sadly confirms. Moreover, it is said by many that his reforms were never part of some overarching movement for a new China. Bedeski writes of Deng: “he is not a great political visionary. He is a fixer, an organiser and a reformer.” [Goodman; 15] Deng spoke of his middle-term approach, to “cross the river by feeling the stones.” [Newsweek, March 3 1997; 17] However, his changes were enormous, and some might say they have initiated an evolution towards a new China which will be realised post-Deng, certainly they leave a profound legacy for Jiang Zemin. In agriculture he dissolved Mao’s communes and leased the land back to private households. Similarly in industry he encouraged private business, upgraded technology, encouraged foreign investment and trade, and approved stock markets. Newsweek asserts: “With the new engine of private profit, Chinese private-sector entrepreneurs and non government workers made production figures skyrocket.” [ibid.]

To the western world, then, Deng’s approach to Tianamen seemed on the surface to spell the end of the friendly reformer character that they were warming up to. However, this fear was unfounded because it didn’t appreciate the separation Deng made between economic and political liberalisation. Deng continued China’s active role in the international free market and his capitalist style Special Economic Zones, such as Shenzen, just across the border from Hong Kong. In the long run, though, it may well prove that economic and political reform must go hand-in-hand.

Jiang Zemin faces this challenge ahead of him if he remains at the helm of the CCP. At 70, he obviously lacks the revolutionary heritage of Deng, yet to his advantage possesses a higher education. A former Mayor of Shanghai he was brought to Beijing in 1989 as No.2 to Deng, and came with a reputation for sound crisis management. Despite being an outsider, lacking a charismatic presence, he has made enough appointments in the period of transition from Deng to hold his position for the foreseeable future at least. Long term his ability to hold favour will depend on his personal alliances being maintained, and, more importantly his success in addressing a number of key problems and challenges which confront China’s future.

Economic gain for the new private entrepreneurs has unsurprisingly been accompanied by increasing inequality, failing state enterprises and rising unemployment. Time describes: “As the gap between rich and poor individuals yawns, so does the divide between the wealthy and impoverished provinces, creating competing regional principalities that threaten the growth of the central government in Beijing.” [March 3 1997; 24] To appease the rural poor (whose average annual income at $190 is 40% of the urban average), Jiang plans something like a Chinese New Deal to head off peasant uprisings. The ailing state enterprises must be a target for the new leader. They employ 100 million Chinese but half of the companies operate at a loss, pay poorly, and still receive massive state subsidies. Corruption, which was partly responsible for the Tianamen protests, will antagonise again if Jiang failed to establish a judiciary which can check it. Pollution, environmental degradation, and neglect of industrial safety, all need to be addressed for China to be established as a modern market economy and be offered the seat on the World Trade organisation that it covets.

If comfortable economic growth continues, however, the CCP will have a possible new challenge as logic suggests the financially mighty will demand similar political might. Time describes: “Once people are rich enough and fat enough, they begin to demand a say in their own governance.” However, a breakdown in economic growth would surely be more threatening to Jiang’s government. A backlash could come from the poorer provinces. By 2000 all China’s 1 million peasant villages will be able to elect not only communists, but also independents to govern their local interests. When Marxist – Leninism has already been vastly undermined, some in the CCP feel this policy will allow control to slip away from Beijing. This creates problems not only for the government as a whole but for Jiang particularly whose major problem is that he is first among equals.

Deng Xiaoping has perhaps left Jiang a more complicated picture of China than he himself faced when he initiated the Four Modernisation’s; a China which is facing a crisis of identity. Democracy for a diverse population of 1.2 billion may be a more uneasy and volatile system than the repressive control which the CCP implements today. What is clear is that, symbolically at least, an era passed on 19 February when the last revolutionary red titan passed away and beckoned in an uncertain future. In the immediate future Jiang must increase and consolidate his power-base and oversee the smooth transition of Hong Kong to Chinese rule. How he deals with the political future of Hong Kong may well indicate the political direction of the Chinese state in the aftermath of the death of Deng Xiaoping.


  • Dietrich, Craig. Peoples China: a Brief History (Oxford, Oxford University Press; 1994)
    Goodman, David S.G. Deng Xiaoping and the Chinese Revolution: A political biography (London,Routledge; 1994)
  • Newsweek
  • Time
  • The Guardian
  • The Telegraph
  • The Times