August 22 marks 110th anniversary of the birth of Deng Xiaoping, the architect of reforms in the People’s Republic of China. His role in shaping the history of modern China is difficult to overstate. His Chinese model is too specific to be copied in other countries, such as Russia.
August 22 marks 110th anniversary of the birth of Deng Xiaoping, the architect of reforms in the People’s Republic of China. His role in shaping the history of modern China is difficult to overstate.
It is essential to give credit to a man who practically assumed leadership of the country in the fateful time after Mao Zedong’s death. He was not the party’s general secretary, but having the authority and will, he appointed and dismissed top-ranking officials. He had the last word on China’s political course and strategy, although this did not always correspond to the rules of the game of party and government life.
Deng transformed the ruling Communist Party of China from an ultra-left-wing and revolutionary party into a left-wing centrist one. With a firm hand, he refined the management of the party and established a system of collective leadership that continues to play a key role in implementing effective economic reforms.
At one time Deng objected to Mao’s pernicious economic experiments, and for this he suffered persecution during Mao's “cultural revolution.” However, Deng did not succumb to a sense of resentment, and did not seek to subvert Mao (for fear of provoking a rift in society). He was right when he said that revolutionary leaders are not gods but people, who should not be idolized. On the one hand, we cannot deny people the right to point to the mistakes of their great leaders, but on the other hand, we cannot repudiate their historical merits because of their mistakes.
Deng reformed the state and developed a new type of socialism that differed from the Stalinist-Maoist model. Heated debates about the models of socialism continue without pause, but regardless of what verdict history passes on Deng, everyone agrees that he had a major impact on China’s political and socio-economic life, and his reforms led to a turning point in China’s history. Nobody can deny him credit for changing the destinies of his compatriots by allowing them to see the world as a complex reality.
Under Mao, China rose from its knees and achieved true independence, while under Deng, the country's economy began a rapid upsurge, making society strong and prosperous. Compared with 1978, when reforms were launched, the average annual salary in China was almost 80 times higher in 2013 (inflation grew by 15 times during this period). Roughly speaking, we are now living more than five times better.
But for all my respect for Deng, I wouldn’t risk saying that he is an example to follow. First, his Chinese model is too specific to be copied in other countries, such as Russia. Luckily (or unluckily), the situation in Russia was not as bad as it was in China after Mao’s death, when any change was an improvement. Moreover, Russia never had such an abundant and eager labor force, willing to work from dawn until dusk for next to nothing.
Secondly, Deng was far from perfect as the leader of a great country. He succeeded only in suppressing (and not without massive bloodshed), rather than preventing, the events on Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Third, he failed to settle relations with one of China’s major neighbors: Vietnam. The two countries narrowly escaped war, and the consequences of this are still being felt today. This list is far from complete…
Deng’s heritage is multifaceted, and it remains relevant for China today. Guided by his legacy, the current Chinese leaders are striving to continue his course of reforms and openness.
“It doesn’t matter what color the cat is, as long as it catches mice,” Deng used to say, emphasizing that the results of reforms are much more important than pretty words and statements. I’d like to quote him once more, speaking on what remains an urgent issue in China: “Reforms should include changes of the political system.” The latest proof of this is China’s titanic struggle against large-scale corruption among party functionaries and government officials.
But according to the Western understanding of matters, there will be no political transformation. The fundamental restructuring of the political system is ruled out. Political institutions will be improved, but the main role will continue to belong to the Communist Party.
Celebrating the 110th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s birth, the Chinese need not worry: the cause of the reformer is in the reliable hands of Xi Jinping and his like-minded accomplices. Following Deng’s legacy, they will not allow any changes that would weaken the party’s leading role or put the brakes on economic and political reforms.