China had its own form of grueling political campaign this year, which ended when the Fourteenth Congress of the Communist Party (CCP) took place in October. There, too, the issue was “change” and the main concern the economy. But in China the economy has been in good shape: it was the aged incumbent who wanted ever more change to keep it that way, and he won.
Of course, Deng Xiaoping is a very peculiar sort of “incumbent.” The “patriarch,” as some Hong Kong papers like to call him, no longer has any formal post. At eighty-eight, he reportedly spends much of his time amusing his grandchildren and playing bridge with his cronies, leaving the daily conduct of affairs to the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Jiang Zemin, the premier, Li Peng, and their colleagues in the Politburo standing committee (PSC). It is only on major matters of national policy, such as voting in the UN on the use of force against Saddam Hussein, that the PSC consults Deng and does what he “advises.”
But this year has been different. Deng campaigned outside the capital (as Mao sometimes did), advocating a controversial policy: drastic change to promote economic growth, the key issue for Deng during the past fourteen years in which he has been China’s paramount leader. Since the Cultural Revolution, when the CCP almost committed hara kiri, Deng has consistently seen rapid economic development as the only way for it to recover its authority. Using one of those numerical formulas particularly beloved by Chinese and relentlessly used by the Communists to help their officials to keep policies straight, Deng’s motto has been the “one center and the two basic points.” The central task is economic development; one of the two basic points is persevering in Deng’s policy of economic reform and opening up to the outside world (I will deal presently with the second, more ideological point). Translated into Chinese terms, this means maintaining the system of privatized agriculture that replaced collective farms, closing or eventually privatizing much unprofitable state industry, dismantling central planning generally in favor of private entrepreneurship and the market, and fully integrating China into the global economy.
The old guard that re-emerged with Deng after the Cultural Revolution agreed with him on the need to elevate economics above the class struggle, which Mao had made the nation’s “key link” or central guiding principle. But they wanted a return to the ideas that their economic guru, Chen Yun, had circulated before the Cultural Revolution, when Chen himself seemed like a radical right-winger to Mao for disdaining the voodoo economics of his Great Leap Forward. Chen never abandoned his views, preferring silence to selling out, obscurity to holding office.
Now, after the shift of China’s political spectrum to the “right” under Deng, i.e., toward privatization and a market economy, Chen’s advocacy of a “birdcage economy”—allowing the market freedom only within the central plan, like a bird in a …