China has recently held a series of solemn, high-profile ceremonies, barely noticed by the outside world, in honor of the 110th anniversary of former leader Deng Xiaoping’s birth.
But as with most political festivities in China these days, few have bothered to reflect on what is being celebrated — and what Deng’s leadership actually meant. The truth is that, while Deng deserves appreciation for having brought China back from the abyss of Maoism, his approach — “Dengism,” or authoritarian developmentalism — is now impeding China’s prospects.
Distinguishing Deng the reformer from Dengism the governing philosophy is no idle academic exercise. Deng, who risked his authority and that of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to break with Maoist convention and launch China’s economic revolution, died in 1997.
Dengism, which emphasizes the goal of modernization under a powerful one-party state, continues to shape China’s governance system.
Deng, who famously declared, “A cat’s color does not matter as long as it catches mice,” is generally remembered as an unabashed pragmatist.
But even pragmatists have core principles that limit their actions, and Deng was no exception. Two ideas were incontrovertible: The CCP could retain its grip on power only by delivering economic development, and China could modernize only under a strong one-party system.
Thus rejection of democracy in any form was fundamental to Deng’s viewpoint. Though he advocated legal reform as a tool of modernization, Deng was adamant that the rule of law not be allowed to limit the CCP’s power.
To be sure, Deng recognized some of the pathologies of the party-state. With leadership positions allocated — often for life — on the basis of personal connections, rather than merit, he understood that the system suffered from gross inefficiency, risk aversion and a lack of technical expertise.
But Deng was convinced that administrative reforms could resolve these issues. What he did not anticipate was how difficult it would be to overcome resistance from within the CCP to any diminution of its powers.
The slow pace of reform frustrated Deng so much that, in the late 1980s, he asked the reformist premier Zhao Ziyang to lead a secret high-level task force to examine options for more radical changes — this time, directly targeting the political system. But when the group asserted that progress toward modernization would require the incorporation of some democratic principles and the rule of law, Deng immediately quashed the initiative.
His view that modernization required keeping power concentrated in the hands of a single party failed to anticipate the threat that a predatory state would pose to sustained development.
Herein lies the tragedy of Dengism. It gained credibility from the fact that its creator dismantled a cruel and destructive system, and left behind a more prosperous and humane China. But that credibility has been used to justify the maintenance of a system that is now hampering China’s continued progress.
Dengism’s greatest intellectual failure is its inability to account for the potential of unchecked power to nurture greed and corruption among ruling elites. Its greatest political failure is its resistance to the democratic reforms needed to constrain that power.
During Deng’s rule, Dengism’s inherent contradictions and limitations were less apparent. After all, the Chinese people had been repressed for so long that economic reforms alone represented a huge step forward.
Indeed, by creating space for individual creativity and entrepreneurship, they unleashed a historically unprecedented period of rapid growth that lifted millions of Chinese out of poverty.
But the lack of political reform meant that there was nothing to stop the ruling elites from appropriating a disproportionate share of the new wealth.
Recent revelations of systemic corruption at all levels of government demonstrate that the gravest threat to China’s long-term economic success is the unchallenged, unruly party-state.
The good news is that President Xi Jinping seems to recognize this problem. Beyond taking up Deng’s mantle in pursuing market-oriented economic reforms, he has been directing a bold anti-corruption campaign since coming to power.
In July, he launched a formal investigation into one of the Chinese Communist Party’s most senior figures, Zhou Yongkang — a testament to his commitment to rooting out abuse of power.
Xi’s desire to become China’s next great reformer may well be why his government has been investing so much energy in lauding Deng’s achievements. One hopes that he continues to emulate Deng, without allowing his approach to become distorted by Dengism.
Minxin Pei is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a nonresident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. © 2014 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)