Deng Xiaoping, Saving the Party and New China

By Jahanzaib Choudhry.

Presentation given July 31st, 2021 at the symposium “China’s Rise: Its Meaning to Humanity’s Strivings” as a part of the Saturday Free School and Church of the Advocate’s Commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of the Communist Party of China


As we learned from our reading of W.E.B. Du Bois’s unpublished masterpiece Russia and America, the Russian Revolution was a great experiment in social science. If we are willing to follow Du Bois in rejecting the anti-communism at the heart of American social and political science, we can attempt to understand the Chinese Revolution and the leadership of the Communist Party of China in the same way. With many successes as well as setbacks, the CPC’s record is a great body of knowledge for the study of people’s democracy. As we continue our theme of rejecting the anti-communism notion, we can work towards understanding Deng Xiaoping Thought in the period of Deng’s leadership and the years after, as a great experiment in socialist modernization in a very complex country.

Deng the man, was truly a remarkable figure. Like many of the party’s founding generation he was born to a prosperous peasant family during the years of Sun Yat Sen’s nationalist activities, in a home deeply invested in education. He was given the opportunity to go to France, which was thought of by many Chinese as the most advanced country for education. Yet upon arriving there in post World War I period, he and his contingent of fellow students, were shocked to find economic downturn, very poor opportunities for immigrants to work, and became unable to afford French university. He worked difficult odd jobs where he learned first hand about the industrial factory system and the exploitation of labor as well as white racism. His contingent of Chinese students, under the leadership of Zhou En Lai, founded a nascent Communist organization inspired by the Soviet Union. Deng had the opportunity to study Marxism Leninism in the Soviet Union and then was sent to serve in the Communist Party of China’s revolutionary efforts in the mainland. 

Initially, being responsible for work in urban areas, Deng saw firsthand the failure of the CPC’s urban policy. In the aftermath of the Kuomintang’s assault on the CPC, he was deeply impressed by Mao’s rural strategy and his ability to build up a rural base. He became a loyal member of Mao’s faction in the struggle for leadership of the party, for which he faced his first punishment, a purge as well as abandonment by his first wife. His children would remember this was a period in which the happy-go-lucky Deng became hardened. He was restored to a leading position in the party as Mao’s faction came to take the lead after the 1935 Zuinyu conference. He worked side by side with Mao during the Long March, being put in charge of propaganda including editing a newspaper called the Red Star. When printing materials had to be abandoned, he was tasked with orally rallying the troops. He made the 6,000 mile trek half on horseback and half on foot, as he battled a severe case of typhoid. He went on to command troops in the Red Army against the Japanese and Kuomintang in many significant battles. He developed tough physical and mental discipline as well as an ability to think quickly and experiment with new tactics on the battlefield. He also developed a deep connection with the party cadre and an ability to communicate with and rally them in the most dire circumstances. After the founding of the people’s republic, he served in senior roles in the party including as General Secretary in the 1960.

He was purged by Mao twice during the Cultural Revolution, but Mao always left open the possibility he could return to the party due to his loyalty. However, he felt the chaos of this period firsthand, as members of the Red Guard brutally attacked his son, leaving him paralyzed for life. During his time away from the party, he reflected on the damage of the Cultural Revolution as well as how a creative understanding of Marxism could meet the needs of the Chinese people in a way that Mao’s policies were not.

As we have discussed regarding the Cultural Revolution, Deng inherited a country and a party on the brink. It is important to remember that after Mao’s death in 1976, the party was under the leadership of the Gang of Four, led by Mao’s last wife, who were intent on continuing the disastrous policies of the Cultural Revolution.

Deng, despite his purges, was highly respected by the party cadre as well as the Chinese masses. There were large protests in Tiananmen square and elsewhere against the Gang of Four, with many calling for Deng’s reinstatement. Ultimately, a power struggle within the party led to the defeat of the Gang of Four, who were subsequently tried for treason for their activities during the Cultural Revolution. 

Deng and other colleagues who had been part of the founding generation of the Chinese Revolution, but had opposed the Cultural Revolution, came to power in a China that was on the brink. Economic growth had slowed to a standstill. Popular unrest led to a society at war with itself. Despite a rapprochement with the US in Mao’s last years, China still faced official diplomatic isolation and tensions on its borders. One can imagine that Deng faced this situation with serious anxiety. All the blood and tears of the past five decades of struggle to build a New China could have slipped away.

Deng’s study of the situation led him to believe that the great error of the Cultural Revolution was to emphasize the continuity of class struggle under socialism as well as to ignore the need to build productive forces. After becoming paramount leader in 1978, at the age of 74, he called for a program of “eliminating chaos and returning to normal”.

This meant the end to the policy of class struggle and a new program for socialist construction and modernization.

His basic points on this were two: a policy of reform and opening up of the economy and society, along with adherence to four cardinal principles: 1. Upholding the socialist path, 2. Upholding people’s democratic dictatorship, 3. Upholding leadership of the CPC, 4. Upholding Mao Zedong Thought and Marxist Leninism.

This was a unique program of simultaneously adopting market reforms and allowing for foreign investment while reasserting the political authority of the CPC and the Chinese model of democracy. Many observers at that time and to this day, misinterpreted Deng’s program as the restoration of capitalism in the western model and thought it was a matter of time before China would adopt the western model of democracy. In fact, there are antecedents for what Deng attempted. He was a student in the USSR during the Soviet New Economic Policy, a period of about a decade in which the war torn nation allowed for a great deal of leeway for Russian entrepreneurs as well as sought foreign trade and investment while maintaining the Soviet Communist Party’s rule. Some thinkers in the Soviet Communist Party even argued for a continuation of this policy though it was defeated by Stalin’s proposals for collectivization. Similarly, Mao’s own program of New Democracy, on which the Chinese Revolution was won, called for giving the National Bourgeoisie who were loyal to the nation a role in society, but limiting their political power; something which was increasingly abandoned with the West’s isolation of China and with the ultra left policies of the Cultural Revolution. Additionally economics and the philosophy of markets has been a topic of study in China since ancient times, indeed some of the European Enlightenment study of political economy was inspired by translating Chinese texts on the topic. So, Deng and his colleagues, rather than be guided by foreign experts, were able to construct an economic model based on a creative understanding of Marxism and Chinese philosophy, and constructed to meet the needs of the Chinese people in that moment. This would form the basis of Deng Xioaping Thought which would be added to Mao Zedong Thought as one of the leading principles of the CPC.

Deng himself attempted this opening up as a series of experiments. He realized the need to involve the masses in this change of policy in order to achieve a new national consolidation and consensus. In the rural areas, it began with giving peasants living in agricultural collectives the right to experiment with new techniques to deal with food shortages. Many of the peasants, dissatisfied with the collective policies of the Cultural Revolution, decided to divide up the collectives into small family plots which brought about increased crop yields and helped deal with the discontent in the countryside. However, while individuals and some companies were given rights to land, this was on a leasing basis, with the state maintaining permanent ownership of land.

Similarly, experiments were undertaken in urban areas with special economic zones (SEZs). Rather than mass privatization, as would happen in the socialist states of Eastern Europe, Deng allowed SEZs – beginning with the Shenzhen SEZ in Guangdong, neighboring Hong Kong. Seeing that many desperate Chinese were willing to risk life and limb to cross into Hong Kong during the slow years of the Cultural Revolution, Deng invited Chinese and other investors from Hong Kong as well as the surrounding areas of East Asia and eventually from around the world to invest in industrial projects in this port area. The successes were replicated in SEZs in other regions of China. However, while small and medium private enterprises were encouraged in SEZs along with foreign direct investment, most large state enterprises were kept in tact. Additionally, while the foreign banks were allowed some activity in China, the domestic banking sector was highly regulated with most large banks remaining under state control. The party’s top leadership continued to set Five Year plans guiding the economy at all levels. This unique model came to be known as market socialism or socialism with Chinese characteristics. Deng proposed it would help China become a moderately prosperous society in the decades to come.

Certainly, the role of the United States in this story cannot be ignored. China had taken an increasingly anti-Soviet position under Mao and cooperation with the US had begun under his leadership after Nixon’s visit. However, it was under Deng in December 1978 that the Carter administration officially recognized the People’s Republic of China and conducted a full normalization of relations. The official communiques from this period stated that the US and the People’s Republic of China disagreed on everything in world affairs except the threat of “Soviet hegemony”. Though no official treaty or alliance was established between the US and China, in what has been termed by US officials as an “ideological armistice”, extensive cooperation occurred between the two nations against the common Soviet threat. Although Deng abandoned Mao’s policy of exporting revolution, he retained a role for the military on China’s borders. Some of the worst moments of the unofficial anti-Soviet alliance were hostility towards Vietnam, including support for the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia and ultimately Deng’s decision to mount a short-lived invasion of Vietnam as well as Chinese support for the anti-Soviet mujahideen in Afghanistan. These decisions earned Deng the ire of progressive forces around the world.

This cooperation with the US meant the lessening of tensions in the Taiwan straits. While the US did not end its defense treaty with Taiwan, a relaxation of tensions meant international shipping could travel to China’s western ports through the Taiwan straits. Additionally, the Asian Tiger economies such as Taiwan itself, Japan, and South Korea engaged in major trade, investment and technical cooperation with the PRC. In many ways this was a restoration of the trade and cultural links that had been suspended by Cold War hostilities. This also began a process of economic integration in these major economies of East Asia, that would lead to Asia becoming the center of the world economy in our time.

Deng Xiaoping and Jimmy Carter in 1979

While Western investment as well as the process known as globalization certainly played a role in making China industrialized – the proverbial workshop of the world – the contrast with how globalization has played out in the rest of the world is telling. Whereas globalization, especially in the years since the end of the Cold War, has led to massive exploitation of labor in the third world, the penetration of third world economies by finance capital, and the weakening of state sovereignty; the uniqueness of the Chinese model as well as the strategic decisions on foreign policy have led to China becoming the fastest growing economy in history. Hundreds of millions of Chinese have been lifted out of poverty in a time in which neoliberalism has impoverished much of the global working class. Some of the credit for this must go to Mao, for despite the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution, the first decades of Chinese socialism built a healthy, educated labor force of an immense scale. With the market socialism model, private enterprise was able to benefit from this extremely productive labor force, and while some have certainly gotten richer than others, much of the working class and peasantry was able to improve their standard of living as well. The surplus from this activity was also invested by the state in the four modernizations: agriculture, industry, national defense, science and technology – creating not just a sovereign but a sophisticated and powerful Chinese state. These policies would be carried through even after Deng’s death in 1996, by his successors. Indeed, one can make a good argument that despite never earning a PhD in economics, it was Deng Xiaoping, schooled in revolutionary Marxism and Chinese philosophy, who has been the world’s most successful economist.

Perhaps, the most important lesson for the left, is the contrast between Deng’s actions as leader of the CPC and Mikhail Gorbachev’s as leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Gorbachev’s reforms, perestroika and glasnost, not only opened the economy but also the political system to outside forces. He transitioned the USSR from socialism to social democracy, abandoning the principle of the democratic dictatorship of the people, and that weak social democracy gave way to the collapse of the USSR through the pressure of reactionary forces in the CPSU and Soviet society in alliance with the West. In contrast to China’s path in the 1990s, the former USSR, broken up into the Russian Federation, Ukraine and several other nations, experienced an extreme increase in poverty and decline in life expectancy as Western finance plundered the economy in the name of free market reforms. It would not be until the rise of Putin in the year 2000 that this would be undone. Putin’s own visionary leadership would lead not just to a reversal of this economic crisis but also a renewal of Russia-China relations with the signing of the Russia China Treaty of Goodneighborliness and Cooperation in 2001.

This is not to say there were not forces in Chinese society and indeed within the CPC itself who wanted China to move towards Gorbachev’s vision for Russia. Indeed, perhaps Deng’s greatest accomplishment was to maintain the unity and integrity of the nation and party from challenges within and without.

In a May 1985 speech, Deng stated: “Since the downfall of the Gang of Four an ideological trend has appeared that we call bourgeois liberalization. Its exponents worship the ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ of the Western capitalist countries and reject socialism. This cannot be allowed. China must modernize; it must absolutely not liberalize or take the capitalist road, as countries of the West have done.” Indeed Deng would embark on an anti-liberalization campaign in this period. However, many elements of the CPC thought China should embrace full liberalization.

The most controversial period of Deng’s leadership in the West were the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. In fact they coincided with Gorbachev’s visit to China as well as the death of Hu Yaobang, the General Secretary of the CPC, who was perceived as a reformist. While the opening up had certainly brought new prosperity as well as new contradictions into China, namely inequality and corruption, seen in the context of Gorbachev’s policies as well as the contemporary counter revolutionary protests in socialist nations such as Poland and East Germany, we can see the path that anti-party protests would have led China down. Despite allowing the protesters weeks to express themselves, their refusal to disperse and increased militancy led Deng to take more drastic actions. Although elements in the party, most notably premier Zhao Ziyang, wanted to give into the protesters demand that the party abdicate in favor of a liberal democratic setup, Deng insisted on sending in the People’s Liberation Army. Though Western media accounts claim this was a massacre, Wikileaks cables show that the Western embassies did not seriously believe there were mass killings. In fact, much of the western media falsely reported that the PLA soldiers killed by protesters were dead student protesters. Since then, the correspondents covering the protests for CBS News and the Washington Post have admitted that Western media manufactured a story of a massacre to defame the CPC. Similarly, information has been revealed about American and British intelligence contacts with the protest leaders, many of whom subsequently sought asylum in the US or UK. Though admitting that some protesters were misguided people motivated by real issues, Deng argued that a decisive move had to be taken to isolate the elements that called for the overthrow the CPC and the socialist system and its replacement with a Western bourgeois republic. He also made a decisive move against the liberal elements in the party including Zhao Ziyang. Similar to his taking the helm at the end of the Cultural Revolution, one can imagine Deng’s, by then in his 80s, feeling that the People’s Republic and the sacrifices he made for it had to be saved.

Significance to the Rise of Asia

All of this leads us to today. In analyzing Deng’s record, we must see it in the context of the rise of Asia.

Through the lens of Du Bois and his vision of a world beyond the domination of the West, we can see the temporary nature of the Western world order. Whatever strategies the US ruling elite took to divide and rule, whatever the ideology of the ruling party in any Asian country and whatever tensions exist between them, the logic of history is for Asia to move towards unity and combined development. The speed and scale of this may vary, and the craven war policies pursued by the West to slow it down may vary, but the logic of history points Asia towards undoing the legacy of 500 years of colonialism. 

The ongoing rise of Asia must have many features, cultural, political, and of course it must represent a shift in moral values. Economics is certainly not everything but it is certainly a strong base on which a future can be built. Economic growth in societies deeply underdeveloped by colonial relations gives dignity to those have been thrust into poverty, representing many unfulfilled dreams. Economic integration between states, whose borders have often been drawn by the colonizers’ hand, increases the possibilities of growth and reduces the possibilities of conflict. One part of Deng’s legacy is not just the opening of China’s economy to the West but more importantly creating conditions for economic cooperation between Asian states that were previously hostile such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam. The sustained growth from these relationships has laid the foundation for what many are calling the Asian century. In fact the phrase Asian Century is believed by some to originate from a 1988 meeting with People’s Republic of China (PRC) leader Deng Xiaoping and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in which Deng said that “in recent years people have been saying that the next century will be the century of Asia and the Pacific, as if that were sure to be the case. I disagree with this view.” Deng was right to say that this is not inevitable, many contradictions and questions remain, yet the possibility is today stronger than it has ever been.

Deng Xiaoping in 1978

We must see Deng’s successes and flaws. The CPC is not a perfect party and nor was Deng a perfect man, nor is the Chinese nation without contradiction. Yet in commemorating their monumental achievements, we are not calling them perfect or condemning them for their sins, but pointing out the significance in this great democratic project, which despite its shortcomings has achieved something superior to what the US has. A rising people’s democracy, whose few border conflicts notwithstanding, has risen peacefully without military expansion, imperialism, or an all out war policy. Certainly, its sins can never be equivocated with that of the racist, imperialist, and anti-people United States government.

Deng Xiaoping thought has guided the nation since the death of Deng. While the US waged the global war on terror from 2001 onwards, China engaged in trade and constructive work within its own borders and throughout the world. While the US spent trillions on wars of occupation and destruction, immense nuclear and conventional weapons buildup as well as 800 military bases, Chinese leaders guided by Deng Xiaoping thought spent their precious funds on peaceful construction in the new millennium. That is something very significant. Deng Xiaoping’s thought succeeded in bridging the nation from the crisis in found itself in in 1977 to the rise of Xi Jinping in 2012.

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