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Deng’s Last Campaign

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 cage—puts him on the conservative left. Chen’s supporters are engaged in what is overtly a semantic debate—should the market economy be called “socialist” or “capitalist”?—but behind the talk they are fighting a rearguard battle to recapture the Party.

Where “left” and “right” come together is on political values. Deng’s second basic point consists of another numerical formula, the four cardinal principles of Chinese communism: Party leadership, socialism, proletarian dictatorship, and Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought. Adhering to them, he argues, will ensure political stability by maintaining the legitimacy of the CCP and preventing “peaceful evolution” toward bourgeois democracy. Deng and Chen undoubtedly agree, for instance, on putting pressure on Hong Kong to prevent Chris Patten, the new governor appointed by John Major, from nudging the colony toward democracy.

But the crux of the Chinese political argument has been over whether or not there is a “contradiction” between Deng’s two basic points: Will economic change solidify or subvert Party leadership and other Communist political values? Deng believes that radical economic reform and opening up to the outside world are the only way to prevent the CCP from following the Soviet Communist Party into the dustbin of history. But Chen is convinced that it is precisely capitalist economic practices and foreign influences that are undermining Communist rule in China. Chen’s follower, the ideologue Deng Liqun, has proposed that the official formula should be revised to embrace “two centers,” the second being the class struggle against peaceful evolution.

The views of Chen and Deng Liqun and their allies were reflected in a flurry of leftist articles in nationally circulated newspapers a year ago. Deng Xiaoping was probably particularly provoked since they were attacks on articles extolling his views which were published following his visit to Shanghai, China’s main industrial center, in the city’s principal paper. Indeed, Deng went campaigning this year mainly to combat the views of Chen and Deng Liqun.

In mid-January, Deng suddenly turned up in the southern province of Guangdong and revisited the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone (SEZ) on the border with Hong Kong. Set up in 1980 along with three other SEZs, Shenzhen was entrusted with working out a model for China’s absorption of foreign capital, technology, and management practices. When I visited Shenzhen, in the mid-1980s, it still had the look of a frontier town: unfinished streets and houses, much construction, eager young men and women flocking in from all over China. The local motto was “time is money, efficiency is life.” Foreign firms were having their difficulties, but much was happening and hope was in the air.1 But when I flew over Hong Kong earlier this year in a helicopter, Shenzhen looked like just one more distant high-rise suburb of the British colony, which in a very real sense it now is. Hong Kong entrepreneurs employ three million workers in south China in industries ranging from plastics to plate glass, three times as many as in Hong Kong itself.

Shenzhen has gradually been transformed from an experiment into the chief model for economic reform and for opening up China to foreign investments. But for Deng’s conservative colleagues, it has continued to symbolize the dangers of those policies. A century ago, opium came in through the treaty ports; today the Special Economic Zones attract the modern opiates of the masses, materialism, corruption and, once again, drugs. Periodically, attempts have been made to stamp these out, and an 86-kilometer fence was constructed between Shenzhen and the rest of China to localize the infection. Deng went to Shenzhen to give the SEZ system his final blessing:

I came to Guangdong in 1984. At that point, rural reform had been going for a few years, urban reform was just starting, and the special zones were taking their first steps. Eight years have gone by and I would never have believed that on this visit I would find that Shenzhen and Zhuhai special zones had developed so fast [the Zhuhai special zone borders on Macao]. Having seen it, my confidence has increased.2

Clearly he had seen the future and it worked. The revolution had been the first step in liberating the country’s productive forces, Deng said, and reform was the second; with reform, Guangdong could catch up with Asia’s “four little dragons”—South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore—over the next twenty years. Deng admitted that opening up to the outside world had exposed parts of China to drugs, prostitution, and corruption and called for a crackdown on these “repulsive things.” China, he said, had to emulate and surpass Singapore’s strict civic discipline.3

In striking ways, Deng’s rhetoric echoed Mao’s at his most headstrong. Deng warned against moving slowly to make reforms, like women with bound feet, precisely the simile used by Mao when he launched his big collectivization drive in 1955. Deng called for a spirit of “rashness,” using exactly the word over which Mao and Chen Yun had fallen out on the eve of the disastrous Great Leap Forward. Like Mao, Deng emphasized that the human factor was critical to all progress, and he showed a tendency to minimize economic problems very typical of Mao:

In ‘89 we began to implement adjustment [of the economy]. I supported it, and what’s more it was necessary. The economy was “overheating” and that really caused a few problems. For instance, there was a bit too much currency in circulation, prices had risen a bit, and duplication of construction was quite serious and had caused some waste. But how should one appraise the speed of development of those five years overall? The speed of development during those five years could be termed a flying leap. But of course it was different from the “Great Leap Forward”; it didn’t harm the economic framework or mechanism.4

Indeed, it is possible that Deng actually went even further than this, but that his remarks were laundered in the propaganda department. According to a Hong Kong Chinese paper, Deng actually stated that reform and the need to open up China demanded a “great leap forward.”5

Deng’s remarks reflected an argument going on behind the scenes: Had it really been necessary for the economic ministries to damp down growth during the past three years in order to counter inflation and over-investment? Deng’s ambivalent position in Shenzhen confirmed that on this question he was a doubter who considered that the official target growth rate of 6 percent was too slow. Chen Yun could be forgiven if he had a familiar frisson on hearing this. Had China survived Mao only to fall under the spell of the sorcerer’s apprentice?

As he traveled through Shenzhen and Zhuhai, and later Shanghai (which is undergoing major expansion), Deng reserved his strongest attacks for leftists like Chen Yun. He made it clear that his old opponents, who criticized the reforms as promoting capitalism, were even more likely to ruin socialism than people on the “right,” whose liberalism had made possible upheavals like the one in Tiananmen Square. Deng’s message was that throughout its history the CCP had suffered quite enough from leftism.6 His problem was how to get it across.

Even Mao in his heyday sometimes had trouble getting controversial views published nationally. “Shit, or get off the pot,” he once told a foot-dragging chief editor of the main CCP organ, the People’s Daily, and later sacked him. Deng had the same problem this year with the conservatives who took control of the propaganda apparatus after the Tiananmen crackdown. His praise of the Special Economic Zones was carried by the local press, including Communist-run papers in Hong Kong. But it was a month before his remarks were incorporated into a document that was to be distributed internally throughout the central government—and even that was held up—and a second month passed before the People’s Daily and the national television station publicized his words and deeds.

The reaction to Deng’s remarks fully justified the worries of the conservatives. A wave of euphoria seems to have swept through the reformist think tanks of Beijing when rumors of Deng’s southern expedition first began to circulate in the early spring. Everyone knew that Deng was battling to ensure that the CCP’s Fourteenth Congress would be held amid a renewed upsurge of fervor for reform, so that the group of leaders he wanted to succeed him would emerge dominant, ready to lead China into the twenty-first century. Party leaders were quick to support him. The central committee and State Council issued directives for speeding up reform and growth. Premier Li Peng’s report to the annual National People’s Congress in March was criticized there as insufficiently enthusiastic about economic reform and had to be revised in line with Deng’s Shenzhen pronouncements. The respected Party historian Liao Gailong, a long-time supporter of Deng and reform, warned against leftist attempts to rehabilitate the extremist views of Mao’s later years. Tian Jiyun, a vice-premier and follower of Deng, ridiculed the leftists in a speech given at the Central Party School, which became a best-selling videotape. Reportedly Tian was heartily applauded by his supposedly conservative audience when he sarcastically suggested the leftists should be given their own territory in which to practice command-economy socialism:

  1. 1

    For a description of the rise of Shenzhen and south China generally, see Ezra Vogel, One Step Ahead in China (Harvard University Press, 1989).

  2. 2

    The main points of Comrade Deng Xiaoping’s talks in Wuchang, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shanghai,” Central Document No. 2, 1992, p. 3.

  3. 3

    Ironically, Singapore’s former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew seems now to believe that this civic discipline is antipathetic to entrepreneurship, and said so in China; “Perils of Comfort,” The Economist, October 24–30, 1992.

  4. 4

    Central Document No. 2, 1992, pp. 5, 11–12, 16.

  5. 5

    Jingji Ribao (Hong Kong), March 12, 1992. According to another Hong Kong paper, Ming Bao (March 7, 1992), there were at least five differently sanitized, semi-official Beijing versions of Deng’s remarks emanating from various political organs in the capital. Deng’s ebullience was rebuked by a voice from the grave during the Fourteenth Congress. On October 15, the Beijing English-language China Daily published a three-year-old speech by the antireform ideologue Hu Qiaomu, who had died a few weeks earlier; Hu asserted that the overheated economy of the late 1980s proved that “the thought that China could achieve a super-high speed in economic development under the socialist system…could not be easily wiped out of the minds of some top leaders.”

  6. 6

    Central Document No. 2, 1992, p. 9.

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