Chapter 35: The Rise of Deng Xiaoping
The Rise of Deng Xiaoping
The Deng that Jiang Qing so disparagingly referred to in her suicide note was Deng Xiaoping. Deng had been persecuted by Mao and Jiang Qing’s reviled Gang of Four. The arrest of the Gang was followed by widespread celebration and calls to restore Deng to power. Ironically, part of his popularity was just the fact that Jiang hated him so much.
In 1977, the year after the Gang’s arrest, Hua Guofeng relented to popular demand. He pardoned Deng and restored him to some of his former leadership posts.
Hua had been struggling as the leader of China, and he hoped pardoning Deng would help improve his popularity. But nothing could save Hua from himself, because he was stodgy, uncharismatic, and unimaginative. In another desperate attempt to improve his standing with the people, he aligned himself with Mao’s memory.
He instructed that his picture be placed side-by-side with Mao’s, in public buildings. And he adopted a policy published in the People’s Daily on February 7, 1977, stating, “We will resolutely uphold whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made, and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave.”
But Hua had miscalculated. It so happened that the people were sick and tired of Mao’s old ways and were hoping for change. They were put off by this policy, and derisively referred to it as the Two Whatevers. The out-of-touch Hua lost a lot of popular support over this.
This presented an opportunity for Deng, and in “gratitude” for being pardoned, Deng plotted against Hua to take control of China. In 1978, Hua favored a plain-old, milk-and-water, Soviet-style economic system, whereas Deng pushed for a more exciting market-based economic system. Party leaders supported Deng over Hua, and this further weakened Hua’s power.
By 1980, Deng’s political maneuvering had gradually ousted Hua from all his top leadership positions, and Deng became the undisputed leader of China. But he allowed Hua to quietly retire, thus establishing a new precedent in his country, where an ousted leader could lose a political struggle without suffering physical harm.
Deng would maintain leadership of China until the crackdown of the Tiananmen Square protesters, in 1989. And during his time of leadership, China was transformed into a nation that barely resembled anything Mao had created. Deng believed China was in need of deep reform, and the reforms he enacted quickly and dramatically changed Chinese society and the economy.
For this, Deng Xiaoping has been referred to as the “Architect of Modern China.”
And as for continuous revolution, Deng put a stop to that. He encouraged open criticism of the Cultural Revolution. He avoided any effort to completely destroy Mao’s reputation, but he did knock him off his god-like pedestal, by pointing out his mistakes. He famously described the late Chairman as fallible, being “seven parts good, three parts bad.”
His economic reforms were probably the most notable. He dismantled the commune system and allowed peasants to manage their own land the way they wanted, and to sell their goods in a free market. Thus, he allowed for the return of capitalism to China. The country quickly modernized, and the economy began to thrive.
On January 1, 1979, the United States officially recognized the People’s Republic of China, and foreign trade between China and the West began to grow. Deng even visited the United States in 1979, meeting with President Carter and other dignitaries.
Deng improved relations with Japan, and set Japan’s economic system up as an example for China to follow. He also restored relations with the Soviet Union. And he negotiated with Great Britain and Portugal for the return of the colonies of Hong Kong and Macau to China, by promising a policy of “one country, two systems.”
In short, Deng Xiaoping was the fulfillment of Mao Zedong’s worst fears. Mao had justified his various persecution campaigns on the grounds that the Communist Party was full of capitalist-roaders, revisionists, and other counterrevolutionaries. Deng was guilty of all these things, because he certainly put China on a road to capitalism, he revised interpretations of Marxism, and he reversed the Cultural Revolution.
Deng proved Mao right, in a sense, but he also showed just how mistaken Mao was. Mao was a purist, always pushing for a Communist system free of capitalist notions. Mao took things to the extreme, and expected everyone to live that extreme, without moderation.
But the only way Mao was able to accomplish his extreme dream was to persecute and kill millions of his own people. That’s the problem with extremism that allows for no dissent or compromise. It can only survive behind the point of a gun. And when it eventually and inevitably collapses, it’s overwhelmed by a flood of pent-up resentment that quickly carries society in the opposite direction.
Ultimately, extremism is counterproductive, and thus both revolutionary and counterrevolutionary at the same time.
Come on back in a few days for the final installment, entitled Chapter 36: Final Thoughts.