China: What Did Deng Xiaoping Really Reform?

by Li Xuewen

(February 22,2017, Beijing, Sri Lanka Guardian ) In the world of Chinese Communist Party propaganda, the image of Deng Xiaoping (邓小平) has been molded into that of the master architect of China’s reform and opening up. He’s said to have helped China through two major transformations: the reform and opening up following the Cultural Revolution, and then the development of a market economy following his Southern Tour in 1992. Thus, in the mythology of the Chinese Communist Party, Deng is the second deity following Mao Zedong (毛泽东).

But if we step back, take in a broader historical perspective, and make a rational examination at the twentieth anniversary of Deng’s death (February 19, 1997), it quickly becomes clear that Deng Xiaoping managed to effect only one transition: launching China onto the road of crony capitalism after the June 4 massacre. The baneful consequences of crony capitalism have saved the Party but are a crime against the nation.

Historians have already used a wide variety of documentary sources to show that during the anti-rightist movement of the 1950s, Deng Xiaoping was a “leading vanguard” and a chief perpetrator. But there’s no need to rehearse that history here — after all, the chief culprit in the anti-rightist campaign was Mao, and Deng only truly came into his own as a historical figure following the Cultural Revolution, as the so-called “second generation core” leadership. This essay aims at analyzing why Deng Xiaoping only oversaw a partial, not a full, transition, and it argues that this is the key in any evaluation of Deng.

The first matter to address is why the first so-called transformation wasn’t a transformation at all.

By the end of the Cultural Revolution, China had been so thoroughly ravaged by Mao that people could hardly get by, the economy was ruined, and the Chinese people were living in unspeakable misery. Mao, as head of the Party, had driven the country into the ground. When Mao died and the Party carried out so-called “reform and opening up,” they said it was to save the nation and save the people — but it would be better put that they were mainly about saving themselves. The Party’s decision for Deng Xiaoping to take the lead was no more than a passive historical choice, the only option when there were no options. In the years following 1949, all the outstanding political leadership of the Nationalist Party had either fled to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek, or were slaughtered by the communists. During Mao’s dictatorship, the communist’s own pragmatists, for instance Liu Shaoqi (刘少奇) and Zhou Enlai (周恩来), had either been struggled to death or had their careers stifled out. The designated successor, Lin Biao (林彪), died trying to flee to Mongolia, and other veteran revolutionary cadres were either too old to be of any use or were already dead. The remnants of this corps, including Ye Jianying (叶剑英) and Li Xiannian (李先念), had ideals, but were too old to be at the helm. The only two remaining figures who had the resourcefulness and strategic measure to rule the country were Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun (陈云). Overall, Deng was more capable than Chen, and so it became a matter of “none but Deng.”

Given what a wreck China was at the end of the Cultural Revolution, no matter who the successor was to be, their only option was to reform and open the economy. This was a product of circumstance, the trend of history, and not something that any individual could reverse. The fact that Hua Guofeng (华国锋) was unable to keep the Maoist antics going is a prime example. If it wasn’t Deng who took control, it might have been, for instance, Lin Biao — and he may have taken things much further than Deng, and been still more groundbreaking. Simply taking a glance at the seditious, anti-Mao thought in Lin Liguo’s (林立果, son of Lin Biao) “Project 571 Outline” (《五七一工程纪要》) makes clear the possibilities. My claim that the circumstances overrode the individual is to say that at that point in China, whoever took charge simply had to carry out economic reform and opening. Besides, the official propaganda around Deng Xiaoping being the grand architect of reform and opening doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. As scholar Wu Wei (吴伟) revealed in his recent book “On Stage and Backstage: China’s Political Reform in the 1980s,” (《中国八十年代政治改革的台前幕后》) Deng lifted many of his ideas about governance from Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) and Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳). In particular when it came to political system reform, Deng was no architect. Thus, attributing the entire reform and opening program to Deng, as Deng’s achievement and the first post-Mao transformation, is simply not supported by the historical evidence.

These days, there are many people of my father’s generation who hate Mao but feel a great sense of gratitude toward Deng. The reason is simple: they were persecuted in the Mao era, and in Deng’s time they were able to live a normal life. But rarely do they think it through a step further: they should have been able to live unmolested in the first place. The Party under Mao robbed them of that, and under Deng it simply gave them back a bit — not all — of what was stolen. Not to mention that their youths, and most of their lives, had been wasted — giving them their lives back shouldn’t be seen as the grace and magnanimity of the Party, but simply the basic rights they are entitled to as citizens.

At the end of the Cultural Revolution, a group of veteran cadres used classic coup d’état-style tactics to purge the remaining Maoists. The Party, with Deng at the helm, then transitioned from Mao’s mode of frantic political violence to a form of stable, pragmatic politics: so-called abandonment of class-struggle as the guiding principle, and a turn to economic development as the central focus. Through this, Deng was able to gradually establish his personal power and authority, and forge for himself the historical role as so-called grand architect.

And yet for all this, because what Deng presided over was always merely a maimed transition — economic reform without political reform — China’s reform never resolved the most fundamental issues and it failed to achieve the genuine transformation that would have brought true political modernization. Throughout the 1980s, Deng constantly suppressed the political reformist leanings of Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, he personally ordered the June 4 massacre, and then he used his personal power and prestige to make clear that “whoever fails to promote economic development will be sacked.”

This was the direct catalyst for ushering in the period of China’s crony capitalism, which persists to this day. It’s not only through the Jiang Zemin (江泽民), Hu Jintao (胡锦涛), and Xi Jinping (习近平) eras that discussion of political reform has been out of bounds — nothing comparable to the political reformist aspirations of the 1980s in the Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang period has been allowed to appear. As Wu Wei reveals in his “China’s Political Reform in the 1980s”: “Deng Xiaoping added a line to a draft of the document ‘Overall Considerations in Political System Reform’ (《政治体制改革总体设想》), saying: ‘We absolutely won’t carry out Western-style separation of powers, with periods of elected office.’ Without this line being added, Deng wouldn’t have felt reassured. And without Deng’s approval, the entire political reform program at the time would have died in its crib.”

The liberal intellectuals have mocked the “Five Nos,”* proposed by the then-National People’s Congress Chairman Wu Bangguo (吴邦国) in 2011 that summed up the key political changes that the Party rejects. Few know that Deng Xiaoping was the one who first set out the “Five Nos.” Rejecting political modernization is in fact rejecting reform, because true reform must have at its heart reform of the political system. Any reform without political reform is ersatz reform — all simply a matter of using the banner of “reform” to monopolize power and plunder the people of their wealth. For these reasons, following Deng there was simply no more so-called reform. Reform was long dead. What was left were a pack of political swindlers.

People who think clearly ought to be able to see that Mao and Deng were not at loggerheads. Their commitment to the sustenance of Communist Party totalitarianism was identical. Mao pointlessly set the Cultural Revolution in motion, and Deng caused the June 4 massacre; Mao created a one-man dictatorship, Deng demanded eternal adherence to the Four Cardinal Principles (四项基本原则).** Whether under Mao or Deng, the same one-Party dictatorship was up there all the same, lording it over the people. This is the fundamental commonality in the ruling power clique, and could be said to be the Party’s core, unshakable mafia code.

The only true transition that Deng Xiaoping oversaw was his opening the road to crony capitalism. It was this transition that threw the Communist Party a lifeline following the 1989 massacre — and which also threw open the floodgates for the mass expropriation of the Chinese people by corrupt officials, which continues to this day.

This historical turning point that Deng presided over comes into clearer focus twenty years after his death because, as the Party’s crony capitalists continue their mad plunder of the citizenry, the regime is getting closer and closer to the mouth of a volcano that threatens to erupt. If we concede that his reform and opening following the Cultural Revolution saved the Party, then we must say that his inauguration of crony capitalism will lead to the death of the Party, and the June 4, 1989 massacre was the historical inflection point.

Deng ended the madness of Mao, but he ushered in another form of madness. The latter has led to an enormous wealth disparity in China, to a corrupt class alloyed with power who act as they wish, to environmental disasters, moral collapse, and the plunder of the country’s patrimony. Perhaps even Deng failed to foresee all that.

*Five Nos: No multiparty rule; no diversification of the Party’s guiding principles; no separation of powers and no two parliaments; no federalism; no privatization.

**The Four Cardinal Principles of Deng Xiaoping: Keeping to the socialist road, upholding the dictatorship of the proletariat, upholding the leadership of the Communist Party, and upholding Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought.

Li Xuewen (黎学文) is an independent writer in Beijing. This article was first published to WeChat, and later censored. China Digital Times preserves an archived version.

《黎学文:邓小平转了什么折?》 translated by China Change.

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