What We Talk About When We Talk About Deng Xiaoping

What We Talk About When We Talk About Deng Xiaoping

By Eli Kravinsky '24; Image by Getty 

In 1976 Mao Zedong, the towering founding figure of the People’s Republic of China, died and Communist China entered one of the most significant stages of its short history. As if to underscore how figuratively earth-shattering this event was, Mao’s death came just months after a massive earthquake killed hundreds of thousands in Tangshan, a small city outside Beijing. Political transition after the death of a founding leader is always a difficult question, even more so in the PRC, where Mao was the object of near-religious veneration and the wielder of unquestioned power for decades. An oft-repeated narrative is that Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, recognized the errors of Mao’s ways that had lead to the immense disasters of the Mao era: most notably, the Great Chinese Famine that killed tens of millions, and the Cultural Revolution, which virtually paralyzed China for a decade of internecine class struggle. Accordingly, Deng shifted Chinese Communist politics away from the Chairman’s domineering, rule-by-personality style and towards a more formalized, institutionalized, and predictable style of governance. China’s enormous economic success is often attributed to this political change ushered in under Deng. However, this narrative is fundamentally flawed, and overlooks the strong continuities between the Mao and post-Mao eras in favor of emphasizing discontinuity.

The experience of the Mao era brought up two major questions about the continued life of China’s one-party system. Given the disasters engendered by Mao running China as a one-man show, how would the Party prevent the rise of another domineering leader in the future? Likewise, knowing the difficulties of choosing Mao’s successor (the Chairman chose several, none of whom met a happy end), how could the Party ensure the stable and orderly transition of power in the future? An oft-repeated answer is that Deng answered the first question by enacting a system of collective leadership in the upper echelons of the Party and the second by creating clear rules of succession, respectively. On closer examination, however, Deng’s record falls short on both counts.

Deng dominated the upper leadership of the party, even as he claimed to be moving in the opposite direction. While he never reached Mao’s level of authority over the Party, he was unquestionably the main power behind the scenes. Relying on Chinese-language and archival sources, American University professor Joseph Torigian goes so far as to dismiss the common narrative of Deng as a reformer as a “myth.” Deng’s record is even more problematic when one considers succession. Deng ignored party rules to purge not one but two handpicked party secretaries (Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang) when they proved too liberal for more conservative figures within the party. Interestingly Zhao Ziyang himself protested his purging on the grounds that it contravened Party rules in his covertly published memoirs, written while under house arrest. After the Party’s near-death experience amidst the Tiananmen Square protests, Deng hand-picked not only his eventual successor (Jiang Zemin), as well as his successor’s successor (Hu Jintao). This created a precedent by which General Secretaries would serve two five year “terms”, and then transfer power in an orderly fashion to a preselected successor. Such a well ordered transition system is a rarity in the world of authoritarian politics, which is why it inspired so much commentary when current General Secretary Xi Jinping scrapped the 10-year “term limit” rule in 2017. The fact that the first leader not to be picked by Deng began rolling back the rules Deng instituted shows not that those rules aren’t as durable as commonly thought. In fact, it shows, paradoxically, that the root of the Party’s apparent “institutionalization” arose from Deng’s own personalist leadership.

What wider implications can be drawn from the reality of Deng’s leadership style? For one, students of Chinese politics should be cautious about exaggerating the CCP’s ability to transform and reinvent itself. Deng, who was purged once for supporting Mao, and then purged twice by Mao, wasn’t able to shake the enormous shadow Mao cast over the Party. As such, we would do well to move away from the model of elite politics as a conflict between hardliners and reformers, or between personalism and institutionalism. The CCP’s heritage as a highly personalized political system means future leaders tend to reproduce personalist patterns of leadership, and find it difficult to move towards truly institutionalized politics. In this light, Xi Jinping’s increasing personalism can be seen less as an aberration from, but more as the normal state of CCP elite politics.

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