Are Deng Xiaoping cats still catching mice in China?

Paramount leader Deng Xiaoping would be 110 today.


1. On Deng Xiaoping’s birthday anniversary would say that his thoughts still influence China?

2. I know it is quite hard to judge one person influence, but would China be probably different now without Deng Xiaoping, and how different?


Yiyi Lu, Senior Research Fellow, ChangCe Think Tank

1. Definitely. The Party officially elevates “Deng Xiaoping Theory” to the same level as “Mao’s Thoughts,” but I haven’t studied how the Party officially defines “Deng Xiaoping theory”. I think the official definition evolves as time passes. At any given time, the Party/current leader interprets it in a way that best suits their current needs.

In my opinion, Deng represents the liberalization of thoughts and minds after the extreme leftism of the Mao era. In the Mao era, there were too many red lines that could not be touched, e.g., socialist countries cannot have market economy. The market is a capitalist phenomenon; e.g., you cannot open the door to foreign investment, as it is like bringing capitalist exploitation back to socialist China; e.g., you cannot change policies set by Mao, etc., etc.. I think Deng’s most important influence is to show that nothing is taboo. There is no orthodox that cannot be questioned and changed. This kind of mentality/attitude is crucial if China were to continue to carry out necessary reforms.

2. This is pure guesswork. I think China today probably would have been quite different without Deng Xiaoping. It is widely believed that Deng Xiaoping had enough authority to push through reforms. While others may have wanted to do the same things that he did, without the kind of authority that Deng enjoyed, it would have been much harder if not impossible. I think Deng had great judgment, strategic vision and superb political skills. Not every political leader has all those qualities. If China was led by somebody else without the same level of competence, the outcome could have been quite different.

Colin Mackerras, Emeritus Professor, International Business and Asian Studies, Griffith University

1. It is Deng’s 110th birthday. I think his thoughts still influence China very greatly. That’s because he is still regarded as the main leader who brought in the reform policies that are still essentially in place, though of course there have been changes and adjustments along the way. Moreover, he is given the place as the main reform leader, whereas subsequent leaders like Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao are well below. Xi Jinping seems to be trying to create more of a cult around himself, and it’s my impression that people trust him at present. But he still sees himself in the reformist mould that goes back to Deng Xiaoping.

I’ve often discussed with Chinese how they rank Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. They mostly say that both satisfied the historic conditions under which they lived. Still, most people say they put Mao higher. But in terms of thinking, it seems to me that Mao’s ideas are not really very much in vogue, and I doubt they will come back. Because he was the main leader founding the People’s Republic of China, it’s more as a nationalist figure that Mao is revered. Of course it depends on what happens in the meantime. However, I suspect that when the historian of the end of the twenty-first century looks back on China in the second half of the twentieth century, they will rate Deng’s ideas as far more influential than Mao’s.

2. What Deng did was to introduce reform policies in the wake of Mao’s period of leadership. This was a tremendous achievement, the results of which are still with us. His leadership changed China to an enormous extent, because without it China would not have gone on the road to modernity as he conceived it and as the world tends to conceive it. I doubt that it would have been nearly as prosperous as it is now, and possibly not as divided between rich and poor.

Of course, the trouble is one never knows how different things would have been if not for a particular leader. It brings us to the enormous question of how important leaders are in history, and that’s too big a question to tackle here. Would somebody else have done the job he did? Was it just the internal dynamics that Deng seized but were there anyway? Would China have continued on the Cultural Revolution way if the gang of four had not been smashed? Personally, I doubt it very much. I think it’s more likely China would have gone on with weak leadership trying to find a substitute for Mao, with perhaps even military intervention and national splitting. We’ll never know, but my evaluation is that Deng had a very powerful personal influence on Chinese history, and that it would have been very different — and much worse — without him. Without him, I doubt very much that China would be rising to the extent that it is doing, or have become as prosperous as it has in fact done.

If I give him credit for the rise and the prosperity, does he also deserve blame for the corruption, social division and environmental degradation? Perhaps they go together.

However, if China’s rise continues and it does not break up, the historian of the future is likely to regard Deng’s historic role as very important indeed, and in my opinion more important than Mao’s or Xi Jinping’s.

Harold TannerProfessor of Chinese History, Department of History, University of North Texas

1. Yes, I would say that Deng’s thoughts do still influence China. In the late 1970s Deng laid out a policy line that combined opening to the west and liberalization of the economy with continued upholding of the Leninist principles of centralized rule by the Communist Party. China’s leaders today still follow that formula. Where Xi Jinping is departing from Deng Xiaoping’s thought is in the matter of foreign policy. Deng’s approach was for China to keep a low profile, building its economic power first, its military power later, and not to be overly assertive in the international arena. Xi Jinping has been taking a more self-confident, aggressive approach to foreign affairs.

2. There is really no good answer to this sort of question. After all, we can’t set up an alternative China and run an experiment! One could argue that Hua Guofeng was in fact on the way to initiating reform programs similar to those that Deng implemented, and that any Chinese leader in the late 1970s-early 1980s would have felt compelled to take steps similar to those that Deng took. But, in fact, there were factions within the Party that were opposed to Deng’s reforms, and there were also factions who, although generally supportive of the idea of reform, would have proceeded much more slowly, carefully and incrementally. So I think that it is fair to say that Deng Xiaoping, as an individual leader, did make a difference and did have a real influence on the way that China is today. If not for Deng, China would not have reformed its economy so quickly or so thoroughly. Thus economic growth would have been slower. Economic reform did slow in the aftermath of the democracy movement of 1989, but then Deng took the initiative to spark another round of reform by making his famous “Southern Tour” of 1992. Deng’s conduct of that southern tour was instrumental in making Shanghai a center of the next round of economic reform. Suppose some other leader had decided not to focus on Shanghai, but to make Tianjin or Xiamen or Dalian the next base for bold economic reform measures and substantial investment? Then Shanghai would look quite different than it does today.

Merle Goldman, Professor Emerita of Boston University and Associate of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard

Deng Xiaoping’s pragmatic views and actions still greatly influence China’s domestic and foreign policies today. He moved China away from the ideological campaigns, chaotic revolutionary policies and international isolation of the Mao Zedong era. His pragmatic approach to economic development and engagement with the international community led to China’s unprecedented economic growth of nine to ten percent a year in the latter years of the twentieth and early years of the twenty first centuries. Although he and the party still did not tolerate direct challenges to their authority, under Deng’s leadership the party relaxed ideological controls, allowed a degree of intellectual diversity and encouraged openness to the outside world.

Kerry BrownExecutive Director, China Studies Centre, University of Sydney

Deng was the ultimate pragmatist, and tough minded enough to push the leadership of China to economic reform at a time when it was at a cross roads and could have simply stagnated. For that reason, he fuffilled a major historic role. But he did not have a bigger vision for his country, and was a product of the very brutal political background of the Party as it came to power and then was victimised under Mao, so beyond simply wanting China to be srong and rich, he did not have a vision for China’s political future. That remains the challenge for his successors.

Chongyi Feng, Associate Professor in China Studies at University of Technology, Sydney

Yes, Deng’s thoughts are still influential, especially among the ruling elite. The CCP leadership still closely follows His signatured formula to combine communist dictatorship with capitalist development (economic “reform and opening”) . It is also true that China would be different without Deng. Particularly, without Deng Xiaoping in 1989 the CCP would not be able to suppress and purge democratic and liberal force in China and within the CCP.



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