Last Friday marked the 110th birthday of Deng Xiaoping, the man who in many ways is the architect of contemporary China. A partner and occasional victim of Mao Zedong, he broke with his predecessor in critical ways upon becoming China’s supreme leader. Deng cast aside the ideological dogma that marked Mao’s reign, embracing instead a pragmatism that serves as the foundation for Chinese policy today. A victim of Mao’s periodic campaigns against enemies, he blunted the sharpest edges of political struggles that occurred while he was in power.
While he held no top positions of the Chinese state or the Chinese Communist Party — he was chairman of the China Bridge Association (the card game, not the infrastructure project) though — he was unable to end the cult of personality that marked Mao’s life: No important political decision could be made without his say so. Moreover, Deng’s status 17 years after his death is testimony to the role played by “the great man” in Chinese politics. His thought remains the lodestar of China today, and his legacy is the mantle to which all Chinese leaders aspire.
Four principles guided Deng’s thinking. The first was “emancipate the mind, seek truth from facts.” This was sometimes translated to the more folksy aphorism that “it doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.” He rejected the ideology that had served as a straitjacket for Chinese policy during the Mao years. Deng was a pragmatist above all who focused on results.
The second principle, which extended from that first motif, was “to get rich is glorious.” (Many question whether Deng actually said that: A more accurate translation is likely “let some people get rich first.”) This mentality served as the cornerstone of China’s reform and opening up policy, inaugurated in the late 1970s and jump-started with his southern tour of 1992. Deng was foremost a nationalist and he sought to build and ultimately project Chinese power. He rightly concluded that the fervor and commitment of a billion Chinese paled beside the economic and military strength of smaller nations. Reclaiming China’s place on the world stage meant establishing the material basis for the assertion of its international status.
A close examination of the record showed that more open economies performed better than the autarkic planned economies of the communist system. He thus launched a series of reforms that propelled China, a desperately poor country with an average national income of roughly $300 when he succeeded Mao, into the ranks of leading nations, the world’s second largest economy and the center of the global production network.
China’s economic performance has also transformed perceptions of China as well, burnishing its model of economic development and financing its international largesse. China’s wealth allows it to generously finance aid and assistance programs around the world. In addition, Chinese companies now reach across the globe, doing business, making friends and extending China’s influence. Growing national wealth has also financed more than a decade of double-digit defense budget increases, yet another means by which China is transforming perceptions of its place and status in the world.
Wealth has been accompanied by a new confidence among Chinese, an attitude that is sometimes seen as arrogant or aggressive. This would seem to violate Deng’s important third principle, one that guides foreign policy: Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.
Most attention has been devoted to the second half, which urges leaders to lay low and avoid confrontation. That logic appeared to guide Chinese thinking until 2010, when the Beijing leadership suddenly seemed more ready and willing to confront nations with which it had a dispute or difference of opinion. Some attribute this new approach to a misreading of the global balance of power and a belief that the United States had been fatally wounded by the 2008 global financial crisis, both economically and in terms of its ability to project leadership. China, which had weathered the downturn with considerably less economic damage, seemed ready to fill the leadership vacuum — or at least seemed less concerned about the negative effects of its increasing assertiveness. Deng would not likely approve of policies that have triggered a steadily growing chorus of concern among Chinese neighbors.
Those who would conclude from these first three principles that Deng is a moderate should remember his fourth guiding principle, however: the Chinese Communist Party is the only true leader of China. Pragmatism, economic development and keeping a low profile were all means to the larger end of asserting Chinese interests in the world and only the CCP could properly assert them. Wealth and power were tools to legitimate CCP role. This is the man who ordered tanks into the streets in 1989 to crush dissent in Tiananmen Square, risking civil war to preserve Communist Party authority. A decade earlier he launched an invasion of Vietnam to teach Hanoi a lesson.
Seventeen years after his death, Deng’s grip on China remains as tight as ever.