Ram Madhav
July 15, 2021

Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China

Ezra F Vogel
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The story of Communist China is the story of three leaders – Mao Tse Tung, Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping. Mao was the supreme leader of the Communist Party of China (CPC) from 1935 until his death in 1976. Deng worked in important positions under him, during the liberation struggle until 1949 and subsequently during the PRC regime. Xi too served in the party as a young leader under Mao right from the 1960s onwards. Deng took over the reins of the Party and the country a couple of years after Mao’s death and attempted to build a new China during his tenure. Xi Jinping was not so much in the reckoning during those transformative decades of the last century.

Mao is credited with bringing Communist Party to power in China in 1949. But his tenure as the unquestioned leader had seen China plunging into a deep abyss. His 27-year stewardship of the PRC will be remembered for its purges of intellectuals and the rich, who were banished to hard labour and dishonourably branded as the bourgeois enemies of socialism, and also for the notoriously violent and disastrous collectivization programs of 1956-66 and Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. Mao’s legacy will record the millions perished, tens of thousands persecuted, and the entire country impoverished and bankrupt. Mao died as a failed leader leaving behind a tottered economy and an isolated country – interestingly, China had just one embassy outside, in Egypt, in 1971 when it managed to secure a seat at the United Nations.

The man who transformed that ‘gloomy story’ into a ‘growth story’ was Deng Xiaoping. For a leader who spent more than four decades under Mao’s tutelage, he led a fascinatingly transformative journey during the remainder of his two decades. It was a journey of a hardcore Maoist turning into a liberal reformist, a journey that not only manifested a totally different avatar of Deng to the people of China but also helped change the course of the nation forever. If China is today the second-largest economy in the world and if an average Chinese citizen is enjoying a per capita GDP of $11,000, one man who is singularly responsible for it is Deng. It was he who had opened up the notoriously secretive and closed regime of China to the outside world in the 1980s and the 90s. In his time, Deng was far more courageous and committed to globalizing China than perhaps the leaders of other developing nations like India and Brazil. Sadly though, if today the CPC can boast of its absolute control over the Chinese government and people, the credit or discredit for that too should go to Deng.

Knowing this man, who was a trendsetter and an icon, is not only a must for all Sinophiles, but also for governments across the world to understand what it requires to be a transformative leader in difficult times. There cannot be a better book for that than deceased Harvard sociologist Ezra F Vogel’s 2011 work “Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China”. It is a 900-page magnum opus that goes into minute details of Deng Xiaoping’s transformative years in power highlighting the various intricate details of the functioning of the CPC and the Chinese government. It is a comprehensive account of the achievements and failures of a “revolutionary romantic” turned “pragmatic implementer”.

Deng had to pay a heavy price for his pragmatism during the Mao years. Mao had a liking for him and always sought to protect him from the radicals in the Party. But the internal politics and his weakened position after the great famine of the 1960s had forced Mao to dump Deng in order to save his own control over the party. Deng was put under house arrest in 1967 at Zhongnanhai – the central complex from where the Chinese leadership and government functions, and was subsequently dismissed to Nanchang in Jiangxi province in 1969. It might be a surprise to know for many that this closest comrade of Mao, who was to replace him in just a decade’s time was condemned by Mao to “physical labour and be reeducated in Mao Zedong Thought” at Nanchang for four years.

From a banished leader to the supreme leader, the ten-year period of Deng between 1969 and 1979 was an episode of in-fighting and intrigue within the CPC. During this most tumultuous phase of his political career, Deng remained steadfast and calm, not giving up on his propensity for openness and political reform, but cautious enough to make the right moves at the right time. He was able to regain the confidence of Mao by 1975 and returned to the Party. Come 1981, Deng reached the position of ‘paramount leader’ from where he was able to motivate the CPC to pursue major reforms and opening-up.

Vogel narrates in detail how Deng had persisted with reform and openness in spite of resistance from the hardliners within and continued to encourage buoyant reformists in the Party like Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. With Deng at the helm of affairs, China started making great strides in the economy. The international relations arena also witnessed an unimaginable transformation. Ties were restored with arch-enemies like Russia, Japan and India and China became an active player in regional politics.

Then came the protests of the students, first in 1987 and later in 1989 at Tiananmen Square. The Tiananmen massacre will remain the darkest blot on Deng’s career and also the saddest turning point in China’s recent history. Before student protests broke out, Deng was on a formidable path to political reform. Zhao Ziyang was assigned the responsibility to come up with a reform plan which he did by the time of the Party Congress in 1987. But the massive pro-democracy protests had given the Maoist hardliners an upper hand once again and Deng was forced to retract. Thus, while the Tiananmen protests were a shining example of the democratic urge of the people of China, they also wrote an obituary of the political openness that Deng was attempting to bring in.

After Tiananmen, Deng became a political hardliner like Mao but continued to pursue liberal economic policies with determination. He insisted upon Jiang Zemin to commit to those policies before handing over the reins of the Party and the government to him. Having enjoyed the fruits of Deng’s liberal economic policies, later leaders like Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping continued to pursue those policies, which they describe as ‘Deng Xiaoping Theory’. They also continued Deng’s denial of political reform much more vigorously.

I haven’t come across any better book than Vogel’s to know about this transformative genius, to understand his qualities and negatives in a contextual and nuanced way. “It is doubtful that anyone else then had the combination of authority, depth and breadth of experience, strategic sense, assurance, personal relationships, and political judgement needed to manage China’s transformation with comparable success”, writes Vogel highlighting Deng’s place in China’s development story.

This book is an important resource on China and a good read, although its size of 900 pages might scare away some readers.

(The article was originally published by Chintan – India Foundation Blogs on July 15, 2021. Views expressed are personal.)

Published by Ram Madhav

Member, Board of Governors, India Foundation

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