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The Real Deng

Dilip Mehta/Contact Press Images
Deng Xiaoping, Japan, October 1978

When a scientific experiment uncovers a new phenomenon, a scientist is pleased. When an experiment fails to reveal something that the scientist originally expected, that, too, counts as a result worth analyzing. A sense of the “nonappearance of the expected” was my first impression of Ezra Vogel’s Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China. The term “human rights” does not appear in its index, and it turns out that this omission was not an oversight of the indexer. Systematic nonconsideration of human rights is one of the book’s features.

Mao Zedong died in September 1976. From 1979 until the years just before Deng Xiaoping’s own death in 1997, Deng was, in fact if not always in title, the top leader of the Communist Party of China, of the People’s Liberation Army, and of the Chinese government. He is known outside China, especially in the West, mainly for his decision in 1989 to send field armies with tanks into the heart of Beijing to carry out what came to be known as the “Tiananmen Massacre”: a bloody suppression of unarmed students and other citizens who were demonstrating peacefully in and around Tiananmen Square. Not everyone in the world has looked unfavorably on Deng’s decision. On February 22, 2011, at the height of the “Arab Spring,” Libya’s dictator Muammar Qaddafi had this to say about it:

People in front of tanks were crushed. The unity of China was more important than those people on Tiananmen Square…. When Tiananmen Square happened, tanks were sent in to deal with them. It’s not a joke. I will do whatever it takes to make sure part of the country isn’t taken away.

Deng’s example of the utility of massacre had not been lost on Qaddafi.

Vogel, an emeritus professor of social sciences at Harvard, retells the story of the massacre in a chapter he calls “The Tiananmen Tragedy,” which ends with a meticulous—and, it seems, angst-ridden—review of all the ways one might evaluate the “tragedy.” In the end Vogel comes down to the following:

What we do know is that in the two decades after Tiananmen, China enjoyed relative stability and rapid—even spectacular—economic growth…. Today hundreds of millions of Chinese are living far more comfortable lives than they were living in 1989, and they enjoy far greater access to information and ideas around the world than at any time in Chinese history. Both educational level and longevity have continued to rise rapidly. For these reasons and others, Chinese people take far greater pride in their nation’s achievements than they did in the previous century.

With these words Vogel indicates that he basically accepts an argument that the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department has been making for the past twenty years: that “stability” and economic growth show that the repression at Tiananmen was justified in the long run. When foreign dignitaries or journalists have asked about the massacre, the response of Party leaders has been consistent: if Deng Xiaoping had not taken “resolute” (i.e., murderous) measures, China could not have had the stable society or flourishing economy that it enjoyed in the ensuing years.

Other aspects of government rhetoric, however, suggest that even the sources of such statements do not quite believe them. If it were really true that Deng’s “resolute action” led to economic growth, and that this causal connection is plain for Chinese people to see, one would expect Party propaganda to be highlighting “the suppression at Tiananmen.” But they do the opposite. Over the years, the official description of the massacre events has steadily shrunk from “counterrevolutionary riot” to “turmoil” to “incident” to “flap.” The leaders are well aware that what happened is an extremely ugly mark on their historical record, and they have been eager to have the world forget it as soon as possible.

What about the claim that China has enjoyed “stability”? Did the crackdown really bring stability? Is it true, as Vogel says, that now “Chinese people take far greater pride in their nation’s achievements” than before? If so, why does the government now need to spend huge sums—reportedly as much as the entire military budget—on “stability maintenance” aimed at deterring and quelling protests, demonstrations, and other “mass incidents”?

But just for the sake of argument, let us postulate that the Tiananmen crackdown was indeed a primary cause of later stability and economic growth. We would still need to ask this question: Do stability and economic growth justify lethal force of the kind used at Tiananmen? An elemental principle of human rights is at stake here: you cannot use violent force to take the lives of one group of people (even if it is a minority) in order to serve the material interests of another group (even a majority).

On April 27, 1984, President Ronald Reagan gave a speech in Beijing at the Great Hall of the People, in which he said:

Our passion for freedom led to the American Revolution, the first great uprising for human rights and independence against colonial rule. We knew each of us could not enjoy liberty for ourselves unless we were willing to share it with everyone else. And we knew our freedom could not truly be safe unless all of us were protected by a body of laws that treated us equally.

Only parts of Reagan’s speech were translated in the Chinese media, but still, for many Chinese, they were a first taste of modern notions of human rights. Vogel’s book admits only two possibilities: either the author does not share these ideas of human rights, or he is using a double standard for China and the US.

Vogel sees Deng’s “mission” as one of making China “rich and strong,” but has little to say about the internal structure of the rich and strong country that Deng may have had in mind. Was it something that resembles the US? England? Japan? Singapore? Was it a whole new Chinese model? Vogel writes that “In 1978, Deng did not have a clear blueprint about how to bring wealth to the people and power to the country.” This sentence should be taken in halves. The first part is quite right. As late as the mid-1980s, it was hard to see that Deng was working from any blueprint. But the crucial question lurking here is exactly the one to which the second half of Vogel’s sentence assumes an answer: that Deng’s ultimate concerns were wealth for “the people” and power for “the country.” Many Chinese at the time—like Vogel now—naturally wanted to believe this, or at least to assume it. But the facts have turned out to be something else.

Deng’s “wealth and power blueprint” began to emerge at the 13th Communist Party Congress in 1987. Vogel devotes four pages to this meeting but misses its crucial decision, which was the arcanely named policy of “one center and two basic points.” The “center” was economic growth and the “two points” were “reform and opening” and the “Four Basic Principles.”

The policies on economic growth and on “reform and opening,” which reversed the Mao-era policies of “class struggle,” were seen as progressive and were welcomed by people both inside and outside China. The rub was in Deng’s insistence on the “Four Basic Principles,” namely (1) the socialist road, (2) the dictatorship of the proletariat, (3) the leadership of the Communist Party, and (4) Marxism-Leninism-Mao-Zedong-Thought. Of these, only the third really mattered; Deng’s “transformation” (Vogel’s term) had already left the others obsolete.* Basic Principle Three was the key to understanding what kind of “rich and powerful China” Deng had in mind. It also put limits on what could be meant by “reform” and “opening.”

On “opening,” Vogel tells us that Chinese “enjoy far greater access to information and ideas around the world than at any time in Chinese history.” Any time? I wonder. I think of China’s Tang era (618–907 CE), when Buddhism came to China from India and spread until it became China’s dominant religion. And what do we have today? In the US State Department’s most recent “Report on International Religious Freedom,” China is listed among the eight countries in the world with the worst records for religious freedom.

Vogel notes, correctly, that one of the stylish catchwords within the “opening” policy has been jiegui, literally “connecting tracks” with the outside world. But this track-connecting has been overwhelmingly in commerce and exports. Very few tracks have been connected with newspapers and television from the West, Taiwan, or Hong Kong. Such tracks are still blocked in ways that are not much different, in truth, from the ways they were blocked during the Mao era. The Internet is the one area in which important new sources of information have appeared, but these have come despite, not because of, government policy. The earliest government efforts to constrict China’s Internet were put in place while Deng Xiaoping was still in charge.

The regime’s curbs on the Internet today range from filtering out large numbers of “sensitive” terms to simply unplugging the Web in an entire region for weeks on end. When Beijing hosted the twenty-ninth Olympic Games in the summer of 2008, the authorities, with their international face at stake, loosened Internet controls temporarily, but as soon as the games were over they returned controls to normal. It could not be more clear that Deng’s notion of jiegui never included freedom of information of the kind that most of the international community regards as a human right.

What about “reform,” that other key word in Deng’s policy? Many observers have noted that “no reform of the political system” has been an unbending principle from the Deng era to the present. (Vogel chooses not to state this point explicitly, but he acknowledges it indirectly in his concluding chapter called “China Transformed,” where he offers a long list of changes under Deng, not one of which involves democratization of the political system.) The persistence of Party dictatorship, in turn, colors all the other aspects of what Deng called “reform.” For example:

The military. Vogel has a chapter called “The Military: Preparing for Modernization,” but “modernization” here refers only to matters of arms and efficiency, not to such matters as civilian control of what the military does. It is not widely appreciated outside China that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is not a national army; it is a Party army. The taxes that support it are paid by all of the Chinese people, but the PLA takes orders only from the Central Military Commission (CMC), which is a Party organ. When push comes to shove, as it did at Tiananmen in 1989, the PLA defends Party interests, not national interests. Deng Xiaoping was never president of China, but was chair of the CMC throughout the crucial decade of the 1980s (1981–1989). He well knew that the top military post was the most powerful in China.

  1. *

    The “dictatorship of the proletariat” now welcomed capitalists into the Communist Party; “socialism” had been reduced to details such as keeping free labor unions out of foreign-owned factories; and the hallowed categories of seminal thought now had “Deng Xiaoping Theory” tacked onto them. 

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