Revolutionary China

Deng Xiaoping: 1904-1997

Revolutionary China

This is a historical article from an early issue of China In Focus magazine.
Deng Xiaoping dominated Chinese politics after Chairman Mao and steered China onto its current course. This article was written shortly after Deng's death in 1997.

For some time now economists have been predicting that China will probably have the largest aggregate economy in the world by the second decade of the next century. To the extent that any individual can be held responsible for the massive transformation of a communist party state into the world's most dynamic economy, then that person was Deng Xiaoping. The reform era that started in 1978 indelibly bears his name, even though that change in the direction of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) policies was brought about and sustained by a collective leadership in which Deng Xiaoping, though regarded as 'primary architect' (of reform) or 'paramount leader', was never chairman or general secretary of the CCP, or president of the People's Republic of China, or premier of the State Council. Together with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, Deng is usually regarded, with reason, as one of the key figures in the evolution of communism in China. Whatever else he may have achieved, more than anyone else it was he who was responsible for reversing the political and economic lunacy of Mao's later years, and for starting the process of bringing China into the twentieth century.

The image of Deng Xiaoping as a communist moderniser acceptable to the capitalist world first emerged during the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the years before Gorbachev, Yeltsin, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the CCP under Deng's leadership abandoned the political strait-jacket Mao Zedong had imposed on the PRC during the Cultural Revolution, decided on a programme of modernization and instituted considerable political reforms. At times it even seemed that the CCP was prepared to abandon any pretence of communism.

Deng Xiaoping
Vice premier Deng Xiaoping at a workers' gala party for May 1st 1973 at the Summer Palace

Both reform and modernisation were based to a large extent on foreign economic involvement in China. There was an urgent need for China to improve its image abroad and its foreign relations. Deng Xiaoping was a key player in those efforts, speaking at the United Nations and touring the world, visiting the United States, Japan, Western Europe and South East Asia at the head of government delegations. Appearing on television in a ten-gallon hat when in Houston did his and China's cause no harm at all. A short man with a round face, he projected a comfortable image like everyone's favourite uncle. For the United States government, China under Deng seemed an appropriate ally in its strategic moves against the Soviet Union, and it was fully prepared to play the China card. In 1979 Deng was even nominated as Time magazine's 'Man of the Year', the first time a communist had been so honoured.

However, there is also a less comfortable image of Deng Xiaoping with which many of us have still not come to terms. In 1989 the CCP under Deng's leadership suppressed a popular demonstration in Beijing by sending in units of the People's Liberation Army. This confrontation between the population on the one hand and the CCP and the government of China on the other came to a head on 4 June with considerable loss of life. Deng Xiaoping's responsibility was not something attributed to him by an outraged Western public opinion; it was a responsibility he publicly welcomed in order to ensure, in his view, that modernisation could and would continue: turmoil had been developing into a 'counter-revolutionary rebellion' which had to be brought into line. In Deng's words, 'This was the storm that was bound to happen... it was just a matter of time and scale. It has turned out in our favour.'

There is no real contradiction in these two images: Deng Xiaoping was never a political liberal in any sense other than preferring to emphasize economic growth as opposed to class conflict in the programme of the CCP. On the contrary, he was a committed communist for all his adult life, and part of his adolescence. However, this has probably been as much an organisational and social commitment as one including ideological concerns.

Young activist

Born in 1904 in a township to the north of Chongqing in China's inland Sichuan province. Deng was the second child but eldest son of a fairly wealthy family. At the age of five he began a classical education but that was abandoned after two years with China's changed political circumstances. At the age of 14 in 1918 he left home to study in Chongqing and eventually enrolled in a preparatory school for students intending to travel to France, where he duly arrived in late 1920.

From the age of 16, as a worker-student in France, he was socialised into what rapidly became the leadership circles of the CCP, and a long and varied career in its service saw him develop the political connections and relationships that ensured both survival and continued influence, at the same time providing him with the tools and experience for putting ideas into practice. His five years in France saw him travelling around the country as a political activist, occasional student and occasional worker. In early 1926 he left France for a year of study as a trainee political activist in Moscow; and a year later he returned to China as a tangible manifestation of Nationalist Party-Communist Party co-operation: he was a political instructor in Xi'an, under the direction of Nationalist Party general Feng Yuxing. Co-operation was short-lived and Deng travelled south to Wuhan where he was reunited with former colleagues from France - notably Zhou Enlai, with whom Deng later lived in Shanghai and whom in his own words he always regarded as an elder brother.

In 1929 Deng was assigned to work as a peasant organiser in Guangxi province in south-west China. Though the combination of local peasant activists, defected Nationalist Party soldiers and CCP officials was successful at first, over a period of two years the momentum of local rebellion was gradually dissipated. Deng returned to Shanghai to face censure, though not criticism or punishment. The lessons he learnt from the experience surely followed him to the Central China Soviet, where he moved in 1931 with the CCP's central offices. There he first encountered Mao Zedong and established one of the central relationships in the history of the CCP.

Mao's lieutenant

In 1933 in the Central China Soviet Mao's opponents within the CCP finding themselves unable to attack Mao directly - turned on four of his supporters, one of whom was Deng Xiaoping. Deng was severely disciplined in consequence, but thereafter until the Cultural Revolution Mao relied heavily on him as the ablest and most reliable of his lieutenants. As Mao's star rose with the start of the Long March, so too did Deng's prospects. By the start of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937 Deng was one of the representatives on the Joint Mobilisation Committee with the Nationalist Party. When Mao wanted to reorganise the leadership of one of the three major Communist Party armies, whose original troops were predominantly from Sichuan province, he almost naturally turned to Deng Xiaoping to be his eyes and ears.

Deng Xiaoping served in the military from 1938 until 1952 and was so successful that he ever after became almost universally regarded as the communist military's favourite political cadre and the CCP's favourite soldier. He was nominally appointed as political commissar but was frequently engaged in military activities, often with Liu Bocheng, the commander of the 129th Division of the Eighth Route Army. Based in the southern part of the Taihang Mountains, these forces were always small and weak, both physically and in terms of armaments.

However, they rapidly gained a reputation for military success and political mobilisation, and evolved by the end of the war into the new People Liberation Army's Second Field Army. From war against Japan these forces moved into East China and civil war against the Nationalist forces. With Deng in a leading role these forces participated in the decisive Huai-Hai Campaign, then crossed the Yangtze at Nanjing and went on to establish Communist Party rule in south-west China from late 1949 on.

Deng Xiaoping in disgrace
Workers and PLA soldiers denounce Deng Xiaoping 1976

Capitalist roader

After 1949 Deng's commitment led to high office. In 1952 he moved to Beijing and became vice-premier, occupying a number of roles including minister of finance and leader of the committee responsible for drafting the nascent People Republic's electoral laws and regulations. In the mid-1940s he was appointed to the CCP's Political Bureau and to be its general secretary. Deng occupied this central position in China's politics until the mid-1960s and his persecution and vilification in the Cultural Revolution. In 1966 he was dismissed and castigated as China's 'Number Two Person in Authority Taking the Capitalist Road' - the second most important 'capitalist roader' after Liu Shaoqi in opposition to Mao Zedong.

Deng was recalled to office in 1973. No doubt his earlier relationship with Mao Zedong provided part of the explanation for his return. However, it also cannot have been completely irrelevant that the then Political Bureau contained a substantial number of members who had been Deng's subordinates in the 129th Division during the Sino-Japanese War and the later Second Field Army. Deng's relationship with Mao at this time was not what it had been, and Deng rapidly moved (with the support of other senior leaders including Zhou Enlai) to campaign for the ideas later associated with his reform era.

Confrontation was always on the cards, and in 1976 - during Mao's last days and when severely attacked by the Gang of Four - Deng Xiaoping was again criticised and removed from the leadership. On this occasion he was cushioned from the worst effects of dismissal through assistance provided by his supporters. As when he had been disciplined in 1933, Deng accepted the need for Party discipline to be maintained through the process of criticism and self-criticism - though not necessarily the conclusions of that criticism. He accepted Party discipline as stoically as possible and waited for the opportunity to re-present his case. With Mao's death and the arrest of the Gang of Four the opportunity on this occasion was not slow in coming, and was assisted by the degree of support for Deng and his position within the leadership.

Deng Xiaoping's policy position of the mid-1970s was nothing new. He had always been a committed moderniser and nationalist, determined to make China both economically strong and politically powerful in international terms. In that endeavour he is often misleadingly characterised as a pragmatist. It is certainly true that he was no slave to dogma, and he clearly did not believe that all the truths of the successful road to socialist development were to be found in the works of Marx, Lenin or Mao. Though he always, including into the 1990s, urged China to follow Mao Zedong and Mao Zedong Thought, he was not the communist politics equivalent of a 'blackletter lawyer'. It was the spirit of what Mao said that Deng regarded as important, the direction in which Mao wanted to see China go, not the written word.


Indeed, Deng repeatedly emphasised that even his own speeches and writings were time- and situation-specific. One of his more famous comments is: 'It doesn't matter whether a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.' Despite its immediacy and accessibility, any deeper meaning is not clear. To some this phrase has been taken as a manifestation of Deng's inherent pragmatism and it was the subject of some enquiry even within China. However, when asked by fellow senior Party leader Bo Yibo what he had meant by it, Deng provided two separate explanations. The first was that he could not recall exactly what he meant; the other was that it did not matter since it was a statement suited to the conditions at that time (1962) and not infinitely transferable.

Some commentators have suggested in consequence that Deng never had any principles or political vision at all, and by extension this was one major reason why he was unlikely to have opposed Mao before the Cultural Revolution in the ways that were claimed at that time. In this interpretation of Deng's political behaviour, he was an 'organisation man' who saw his duty as one of serving the Party and its leader, and implementing the ideas of others within the leadership. However, Deng does seem to have had a relatively clear vision - if neither very structured nor particularly sophisticated - of the ways in which China's modernisation should proceed, and particularly of the ways the CCP should operate in that process. It was those ideas which provided the opportunities and excuses for his opponents within the CCP to remove him from office on the three occasions when he was purged - 1933, 1966 and 1976. It was a vision of socialist development which had its origins with Mao Zedong in the early 1930s in Jiangxi, which is where Deng first came into contact with him, and was later developed by Deng and others in their attempts to mobilise the peasantry of north China during the war against Japan, in Deng's case in the Taihang region.

The essence of the strategy was to build a revolution in China from the countryside into the cities and from the bottom up, and it was not tied to dogma or over-impatient with the revolutionary cause. There was a realisation that it would take time to transform China, and that what was required at each stage of the revolution would be maximum popular participation and support, as well as a sound economic base. Thus, for example, in the process of land reform not all the peasants were to be dispossessed of land. Only the very richest should be made an example of and even then they too should be allowed to benefit. The overwhelming majority - including middle peasants, who might be quite wealthy in relative terms - should certainly not feel threatened by CCP campaigns.

Poverty is not socialism

In these the CCP had hoped to maximize both popular support and economic production. These principles, entailing slow but steady change, lay at the heart of its appeal as the CCP prepared for national power under conditions of war. Though in the 1950s Mao abandoned these policies for the politics of mass mobilisation, Deng Xiaoping did not. On the contrary, he always expressed doubts about the 'leftist' excesses that came with mass mobilisation campaigns. Throughout his career he preferred to emphasise economic growth and improving living standards rather than political correctness: as he pointed out in 1987, 'poverty is not socialism'.

In short, Deng was pragmatic, rather than a pragmatist: a committed revolutionary throughout his political career, attempting to ensure that the CCP achieved power and China's modernisation. For Deng Xiaoping communism was an organisational as much if not more than an intellectual response to the problems China has faced in the twentieth century. What was required was a united China, strong leadership and the energy of the Chinese people, all of which could only be provided, in Deng's opinion, by the CCP.

Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher
Hong Kong hand-over discussions. Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher take tea. December 1984

It was these beliefs that led him in his mid-1970s, together with Chen Yun, who was the main architect of economic reform, to overhaul the social, political and economic institutions of the People's Republic of China. Despite the importance of collective leadership Deng's own role was not negligible. After the mid 1980s, when the coalition that had launched the reform era started to drift apart, it was often his personal intervention that maintained both the pace and direction of reform. This was most notable in early 1992. An economic crisis in 1988 and 1989, when the economy overheated and there was nearly runaway inflation, had led to a deliberate government-induced recession for the best part of two years. In 1992 part of the leadership was (for largely political reasons) unwilling to allow economic growth to accelerate once again. Deng forestalled objections by making a much publicised 'Inspection Tour of the South', where he visited the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone and other areas famous for being in the vanguard of economic growth and the 'new China' created by the reform era. Putting his personal authority behind such developments ensured an almost immediate policy change.

Despite his high profile, even in China itself Deng Xiaoping remained a very private person. His daughter Deng Rong, in the biography which she wrote for his 90th birthday, portrays him as something of an introvert, a family man and rather laconic. Despite the political context of her remarks there is considerable evidence to support her interpretations. Deng was married three times: to Zhang Xiyuan, who died in early 1930; to Jin Weiying, who divorced him in 1933; and to Zhou Lin, his partner since 1939. They had five children: three daughters and two sons. Unlike the wives of some other leaders of the CCP, Zhou Lin has not come to play any role in China's public life other than that of being the wife of Deng Xiaoping. However, their children have had a higher profile, particularly during the 1990s, when their daughters have often accompanied Deng on his public appearances.

Travelling in his youth - to France and Moscow, as well as around China - clearly opened Deng's eyes to a different world to some extent, and appears to have made him more open to new and foreign ideas than most in the leadership of the CCP. He was, for example, an avid soccer fan, and in his later years spent much time watching recorded international games. He liked French food, and once on a journey back from the USA stopped over in Paris and bought croissants.

However, he was also traditionally Chinese in many ways. He preferred Chinese opera to Western music, and his leadership style was more imperial than presidential. That difference not only underlies his inability to deal constructively with student demonstrators in 1989, it also explains his withdrawal of support for his two closest lieutenants - Hu Yaobang in 1986 and Zhao Ziyang in 1989 - when their actions met with his disapproval.

History will probably judge Deng ambiguously. It will acknowledge his role in restoring China's drive for economic modernisation after the disasters and dislocations of the Cultural Revolution. However, it may also regard his vision of that process of modernisation as being fundamentally flawed. As the events of 1989 in Beijing demonstrate only too clearly, considerable skill and favourable circumstances are required to enable economic liberalisation of the kind that China has experienced to coexist readily with political authoritarianism. Deng's goal might have been sustained in his lifetime but the role of the CCP is very much an open question for the future.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006 : an extract from SACU's magazine China In Focus 2, Page 24, March 1997

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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