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The Contradictions of Deng Xiaoping's Thought and Their Impact on China's Development

Deng Xiaoping is rightly considered one of the greatest statesmen in modern Chinese history. His "four modernisations" paved the way for mainland China's astounding economic boom that continues to this day. Deng's policies have realised at least one of the the dreams of the Chinese people: the creation of a strong, independent, modern state.

However, Deng Xiaoping's legacy is complex and controversial. It is hard for us to fully grasp the mindset of a man born in 1904, in the poor, weak China of the final years of the Qing dynasty, a man who grew up at a time of violent struggles and revolution, in a world dominated by ideologies that fought each other bitterly, a man who in his early youth in France had joined the ranks of the Chinese Communists. Throughout his life Deng never disavowed his faith in Communism and never repudiated Mao Zedong as the undisputed founding father of the People's Republic of China (PRC). This is all the more astounding as Deng had himself suffered bitterly during the Cultural Revolution.

The inconsistencies of Deng's thought wouldn't be a problem in a multiparty system, where the ballot-box can withdraw the popular mandate if a large number of voters lose faith in a party's programme and ideals. But when it comes to a one-party state, the inconsistencies of the rulers lead not only to political mistakes, but also to profound psychological damages that manifest themselves in a collective schizophrenia.

An interesting interview given by Deng Xiaoping to the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci in 1980 sheds light on some of the contradictions of Deng's thought. 

Mao Zedong's Legacy

The Cultural Revolution was caused, among other things, by the struggle within the Communist Party between two factions: the 'moderates' and 'pragmatists' led by Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi on the one hand; and the 'radicals' and 'permanent revolutionaries' led by Mao Zedong, his wife Jiang Qing, and Lin Biao on the other.

At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution Deng was accused of being a 'capitalist roader' who had deviated from Mao's right course. He was deprived of all his functions and powers, and he was placed under house arrest in the government quarter at Zhongnanhai from 1967 to 1969.  His children were not allowed to live with him. His son, Deng Pufang, was tortured by the Red Guards and thrown out of a window. He was severely injured and was paralyzed for life. Deng's other four children were sent to the countryside to be 'reformed'. In 1969, Deng was transferred to Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi Province, where he was assigned a menial job at a tractor plant and lived under the constant supervision of party officials (Michael Dillon: Deng Xiaoping: A Political Biography pp. 176-179).

Nevertheless, Deng did not publicly denounce Mao. He did not, like Nikita Chruschev had done with Stalin, reject Mao's legacy in its entirety. Rather, he acknowledged that Mao had made some mistakes, but he also saved Mao's image and incorporated his legacy into the ideological framework of the PRC. In the 1980 interview, Deng stated:

[Mao] made mistakes in a certain period, but he was after all the principal founder of the Chinese Communist Party and the People's Republic of China. In evaluating his merits and mistakes, we hold that his mistakes were only secondary. What he did for the Chinese people can never be erased. In our hearts we Chinese will always cherish him as a founder of our Party and our state ... We must make a clear distinction between the nature of Chairman Mao's mistakes and the crimes of Lin Biao and the Gang of Four. 

For most of his life, Chairman Mao did very good things. Many times he saved the Party and the state from crises. Without him the Chinese people would have spent much more time groping in the dark. Chairman Mao's greatest contribution was that he applied the principles of Marxism-Leninism to the concrete practice of the Chinese revolution ... [B]efore the sixties or the late fifties many of his ideas brought us victories ... 
Unfortunately, in the evening of his life, particularly during the "Cultural Revolution", he made mistakes - and they were not minor ones - which brought many misfortunes upon our Party, our state and our people ... [V]ictory made him less prudent, so that in his later years some unsound features and unsound ideas, chiefly "Left" ones, began to emerge. In quite a number of instances he went counter his own ideas ... At this time he increasingly lost touch with reality ... Some abnormalities appeared in the political life of our Party and state - patriarchal ways or styles of work developed, and glorification of the individual was rife (Answers to the Italian Journalist Oriana Fallaci. In: Deng Xiaoping: Selected Works 1975-1982. Beijing 1984, pp. 326-334).

Here we see very clearly the problem of Deng Xiaoping's way of thinking. He simply states two opposite ideas and then - through a rhetorical stratagem - establishes a dogma that superficially synthesizes the two opposites without actually solving the contradiction. Mao was good, but he was also bad. He won victories, but also brought disasters upon the people. Deng decrees that Mao's mistakes were secondary. This 'imperial decree', which is entirely Deng's subjective statement, does not represent a solution, but rather has thrust the people of mainland China into a deep schizophrenia ever since. In fact, what is the objective and rational method to measure how bad mistakes are? If even the death and suffering of millions of people aren't enough to make mistakes primary, then what mistake is primary? 

Deng Xiaoping admitted in this interview the mistakes made not only by Mao but by the whole Communist leadership. He said that the Great Leap Forward was a grave mistake of which Mao was the chief responsible, but many other people in the party share his responsibility. However, he noted, it "didn't take [Chairman Mao] long - just a few months - to recognize his mistake, and he did so before the rest of us and proposed corrections." Also the fact that Mao appointed his own successor was, in Deng's words, a "feudal practice" and "an illustration of the imperfections in our institutions". 

Here Deng is addressing a serious problem but is doing away with it all too easily. If the party and its leaders make so many mistakes, then what gives them the right to govern 1.3 billion people (at the time of the interview, around 1.1. billion)? Is the party allowed to make as many mistakes as it wants? These issues are still unsolved and are a leftover of Deng's contradictory viewpoints.

Economic Development

In the early 1980s the PRC had just begun its "four modernisations" and "opening up" policy. At that time, it was hard to imagine to what extent the country would develop its market economy and become entangled with the rest of the world. Obviously, the contradiction between what was supposed to be a Communist state and allowing foreign capital into the PRC did not remain unnoticed. In 1980, however, Deng insisted that Mao's theories still guided the state's development. 

No matter to what degree we open up to the outside world and admit foreign capital, its relative magnitude will be small and it can't affect our system of socialist public ownership of the means of production. Absorbing foreign capital and technology and even allowing foreigners to construct plants in China can only play a complementary role to our effort to develop the socialist productive forces. Of course, this will bring some decadent capitalist influences into China. 

It is hard to understand whether Deng was saying these things to placate internal dissent on the part of the "leftists" or if he really believed it. Be as it may, the contradiction is still unresolved. Is 'decadent' capitalism a bad thing? What is capitalism? What is Communism? And what are the objective criteria to define these terms? Because Deng provided no viable answer to these questions, they remain open to manipulation and distortions that can be used by the CCP leadership to confuse the people and mould the truth as it pleases. 

Deng's explanation of what socialism and Communism mean is hardly helpful. 

According to Marx, socialism is the first stage of communism and it covers a very long historical period in which we must practise the principle "to each according to his work" and combine the interests of the state, the collective and the individual ... At the higher stage of communism, when the productive forces will be greatly developed and the principle "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" will be practised, personal interests will be acknowledged still more and more personal needs will be satisfied.

The sentence "to each according to his needs" had been first used by Louis Blanc in 1851 and was later popularised by Karl Marx in the Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875). Marx wrote:

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life's prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly -- only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!

The first problem arises with Marxism itself. How can a human being envision and describe the future in such detail and with such absolute certainty? Men can only make small decisions and see practical results, but no one can claim to have knowledge of a future where things will be different from anything that has ever been seen in the past. Marx' theories were, in fact, utopian and have proven to be wrong, although some aspects of his work remain valid to this day.

However, even if we adopt a Marxist viewpoint, it is hard to understand what the Communist state is doing in order to implement Communism. What is their programme? How will they proceed? 

In a June 1984 speech entitled "Build Socialism with Chinese Characteristics" Deng explained that China would develop its productive forces by maintaining social equality, and that this was the essence of socialism as opposed to capitalism. 

The superiority of the socialist system lies above all in its ability to increasingly develop the productive forces and to improve the people's material and cultural life ... The capitalist road can only enrich less than 10 per cent of the Chinese population; it can never enrich the 90 per cent. That is why we must adhere to socialism. The socialist principle of distribution to each according to his work will not create an excessive gap in wealth. Consequently, no polarization will occur as our productive forces become developed over the next 20 to 30 years (Deng Xiaoping: Fundamental Issues in Present-Day China. Oxford / New York / Beijing et. al. 1988, p. 55). 

As to 2014, however, the PRC is the world's second largest economy, but its income inequality has surpassed that of the 'capitalist' US. Now, 1% of the PRC households own one-third of the whole country's wealth. Countries like Denmark, Sweden, or Switzerland have way better income equality. But they are all liberal democracies. Did the Communist Party then make another of its mistakes and deviate from the correct road? Was there any need for a revolution, a one-party state, a Great Leap Forward and a Cultural Revolution to arrive at this dismal result?

Let us for a moment assume that the PRC is in the primary state of socialism and things will get better. But what is the party supposed to do? Let some get rich first and then seize their property? The biggest tragedy in the history of the PRC is that its so far greatest statesman had a vague, inconsistent vision for the future coupled with a firm belief in the party's leadership. This has led to the PRC's worst problem: a schizophrenic struggle to find a coherent, true meaning behind the official version of the truth.    


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