The West still misunderstands the man who shaped China’s rise — Analysis
Deng Xiaoping died 25 years ago.
Saturday, February 19, marks 25 years since the death of Deng Xiaoping, the leader who succeeded Mao Zedong and oversaw a fundamental transition in China’s place in the world with a policy dubbed ‘reform and opening up’.
For those in the West, Deng’s reign, which began in 1978, heralded a hope that China was going to become more open and more liberal, and that its transition towards market-based economic reforms would spell an end to communism in the country, with his tenure coinciding with the conclusion of the Cold War.
However, it is possible that many people will be dissatisfied to discover this two-and-a half decades since Deng died in 1997. China’s political system neither collapsed nor opened up significantly, and under the rule of Xi Jinping, the country has seemingly moved away from the path which Deng set it on, instead ushering in a fresh era of geopolitical tensions with the West in what has been widely called a new Cold War. Was there any change? And just how relevant is the legacy of Deng in today’s China?
As much as the West may have romanticised Deng, he was far from the ‘revisionist’ to communism in China he was hoped to be. After five years spent studying French, Deng was a descendant of Chinese revolutionaries, who were with the Communist Party since its inception. As well as fighting in the Sino-Japanese War as well as in the Chinese Civil War, he was an active participant. But, in spite of his ideological worldview, he was also a firm pragmatist. He believed things should be done using the most effective means.
This outlook led Deng to be on the wrong side Mao Zedong many times. Mao displayed the power of his ideology through several disastrous campaigns in his quest to consolidate personal power. Although Deng would be purged in the turmoil of it all, it was following Mao’s death that he emerged as the most suitable person to reshape China from these disasters and to move the country forwards.
Famously, he argued that “practice is the sole criterion of truth” and reinterpreting Mao’s theory, Deng oversaw the reform and opening up of China by establishing a ‘socialist market economy’ and laying the foundations for the country to transform itself into an international economic powerhouse, while moderately liberalising society.
This included a policy for rapprochement between the West and America, which is famously illustrated by the photo showing him wearing a cowboy cap while in America. He also oversaw negotiations for the return of Hong Kong with Margaret Thatcher’s UK government, securing the Sino-British declaration in 1984.
This era of optimism in the 1980s has led some in the West to look back wistfully at Deng, assuming that China was then on what they would consider ‘the right track’. However, the world has changed dramatically. The truth is, China in the 1980s wasn’t truly liberal. Deng was responsible for the 1989 end of Tiananmen Square protests. The country was also weaker, poorer, and, critically, more powerful than the West.
With the Cold War coming to an end, the following decade would set the ‘end of history’ narrative that communism had critically failed and that Western liberalism was victorious and necessary for human progress. China seemed to be on the path of transformation, so engagement with Western capitalism was a part of it.
However, this misses Deng’s true role. Deng’s policies did not aim to place China on a path to Western liberalism. They were about finding the best ways to help the country achieve success in that environment. The methods required would change depending on the changing context. Deng’s successors, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and Xi Jinping, have not abandoned the socialist market approach he embraced – far from it, in fact. They have adapted China’s perceived needs to its environment, but what was not understood was that they could also go in a more authoritarian direction in doing so.
China did not become more prosperous as it grew in wealth. The rapid growth of internet and other factors would change the perception of Beijing’s security regime. This was evident in the Great Firewall of China. And as China grew without crystallising into the more liberal state the West had once hoped for, so did the geopolitical dynamic and its impact on China’s foreign relations.
While the West saw Deng as a strategic partner, exploiting the Sino-Soviet split and believing communism’s days in China were coming to an end, now Xi presides over a China which is the world’s second largest economy and is seen as a geopolitical rival, amid widespread fears that Beijing could displace the system of Western hegemony that has dominated world affairs for 400 years. This was not something that anyone thought possible. America’s attitude towards China has evolved from being open to business and embracing it, to becoming a loathing of it and afraid.
While Deng pledged to the United Kingdom that Hong Kong would remain an autonomous entity in the Sino-British declaration, the territory’s unwillingness to come to terms with its new identity and the riots that followed resulted in claims Beijing violated the 1984 treaty, showing how old issues have created new tensions. China has become increasingly insecure and suspicious about the West’s intentions. Xi Jinping hailed the West as seeking to limit and control it, to stop China’s inevitable rise. “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
Deng’s efforts are viewed as the beginning of a journey, rather than the destination, and Xi believes his rule over China will mark the end of that journey. While Deng’s China, given its more vulnerable geopolitical position, had a foreign policy strategy of ‘Taoguangyanghui’ (to hide low), Xi has sought to display more confidence in using the country’s strength and power, be it over issues such as the South China Sea, Taiwan or even to take on nations seeking to oppose China such as Lithuania. As tensions have flared, many aspects of the Deng era are simply no longer applicable to today’s world.
What we see 25 years on from Deng’s death is not a denunciation of his legacy in Beijing, but an adaptation of it that few anticipated, one that comes with a completely changing power dynamic. Deng was the one who laid the foundations of China’s rise as a strong country. His pragmatic approach made a mess of a country that had been in turmoil due to Mao Zedong’s mistakes.
It was the route that China has taken since that the West perhaps didn’t see coming. While Deng was hailed as an ardent and liberal reformer by the West, in reality he was a more skilled bureaucrat and tactician.
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