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The Real Deng

Education. One of the earliest reforms in the Deng Xiaoping era was the reopening of China’s universities, which had been closed during Mao’s Cultural Revolution; the World Bank’s first loan to Deng’s China, as Vogel explains, was to support various aspects of higher education. For these reasons some people came to see Deng as “pro-education” generally, but this was a misconception. Deng saw education as a tool bag for his kind of modernization, not a broad social good. He knew that he needed economic and technical expertise to go together with China’s supply of cheap labor. But basic education for children was quite another story.

Beginning in the 1980s, tens of millions of migrant workers from the countryside crowded Chinese cities to sell their labor in construction, sanitation, and other menial tasks. They were the bedrock that made Deng’s “economic miracle” possible. But under the government’s “household registry” system, they technically remained rural residents and were denied the rights of urban residents. Their children—even children born in the cities—also lacked urban registry and thus were not allowed to go to school.

This registry system, by the way, was not a Chinese invention. It was brought to China during World War II by the invading Japanese, who wanted to halt migration in order to prevent the spread of popular resistance. (The Chinese word for “registry police” comes from Japanese.) Yet Deng Xiaoping, the alleged “education reformer,” enforced this household registry system, and its consequences for education, to his dying day. His successors, too, have enforced it. Vogel refers to the system once, explaining that farmers who moved to cities “were trying to live surreptitiously there with relatives or friends” and caused leaders to fear “that a torrent of rural migrants could overwhelm…urban services such as housing, employment, and schooling for children.”

Expansion of personal freedoms. The Deng years were vastly different from the late Mao era in many ways. People who had been terribly persecuted under Mao got relief after he died, and personal space in daily life expanded considerably. In science, where I worked, ideological rigidities relaxed and scientists no longer had to teach from Karl Marx’s Notes on Mathematics, a little book published in the USSR and out of date even by nineteenth-century standards. Blue-for-everyone clothing began to disappear and some variety of colors and styles in dress began to appear. Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe and Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don were no longer banned books. It was even occasionally possible (such as at the Democracy Wall in 1979) to criticize the government in public.

But why did Deng steer away from Mao’s form of dictatorship? From human sympathy for the suffering Chinese people? Or in a practical effort to keep his Party on top of a society that was waking up and demanding ever more change? I had an interesting vantage point from which to judge this question, because many of the new freedoms first appeared on university campuses like the one where I was working. Every advance that I could see was something that students and teachers fought for, not something that authorities decided to grant from above. Deng Xiaoping’s role, when he played one, was to curb the spread of freedoms. His crackdown on the Democracy Wall in 1979 clarified his political bottom line: You may not, even slightly, infringe on my authority. His 1983 campaign to “eliminate spiritual pollution” reached even to strictures on the ways female students dressed.

The economy. This is the area where Deng’s policies have had their most conspicuous achievements, and Vogel has much to say about it. China’s GDP has reached number two in the world, China holds $1.17 trillion in US debt, and so on. In the shadow of the recent financial crises in the West, many Western observers have overstated China’s achievements. On a per capita basis, China’s GDP is still only a quarter of Taiwan’s, a fifth of South Korea’s, and a tenth of Japan’s. Moreover the engine of China’s growth remains, for the most part, low-end products produced by cheap labor, where China has a competitive advantage. In history China has had this kind of “superiority” before. In 1820, under the Qing dynasty, the GDP of China’s largely agricultural economy was six times that of industrialized England. But England had gunboats, and when the Opium Wars came, it had its way with China.

The Chinese government likes to claim that it has lifted millions from poverty as part of the greatest program to improve the condition of the poor the world has ever seen. Westerners sometimes echo such claims. Vogel tells us that “today hundreds of millions of Chinese are living far more comfortable lives than they were living in 1989” thanks to “the most basic changes since the Chinese empire took shape during the Han dynasty over two millennia ago.” In such claims, terms like “poverty” and “famine” are never defined with enough rigor to allow much quantitative measurement through history, and people unfamiliar with Chinese history can be led to suppose that China for two thousand years resembled something like Somalia today.

But this is hardly the case. Chinese history does contain many records of poverty and famine, but, insofar as these events can be quantified, it is hard to say that their extent, on average, exceeds what occurred in other parts of the world. The suggestion that two thousand years of Chinese history were mired in chronic poverty is inconsistent with what we know about the rise and fall in the size of the population. Wars and invasions often caused the population to decline, but in times of peace the consistent pattern was that population grew rapidly. The huge Mao-made famine of 1959–1962 (which killed thirty or forty million people) showed us that, in times of famine, pregnancy rates fall drastically and population growth slows, even to zero. Peacetime population growth, the standard pattern in China’s long history, is a clear sign of absence of poverty. To say that Deng is responsible for the largest program to eliminate poverty and famine in world history is political hype.

Moreover, the claim that Deng “lifted” millions from poverty confuses the doer and the receiver of action. To the extent that economic “lifting” has happened in post-Mao times, it has been the menial labor of hundreds of millions of people—working without labor unions, or a free press, or a neutral judiciary, or protections like OSHA rules—that has done the heavy lifting. This workforce has improved not just the lives of the millions themselves but, even more, of the Communist elite, who in many cases have soared to stratospheric heights of opulence. World Bank figures show that in China the Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality in populations, has skyrocketed from 0.16 before Deng’s reforms to a current 0.47, near the high end of the scale. This dramatic change has much less to say about “hundreds of millions” than it does about one of the maxims that Deng delivered at the outset of reform: “Let a part of the population get rich first.”

Deng never specified which “part” he had in mind. He left this for Chinese people themselves to figure out. For me personally, the realization arrived most clearly with a surprising series of events that happened to me in the late 1980s.

In January 1987—when I held the post of vice-president of the University of Science and Technology at Hefei—Deng’s regime determined that I had been a leading proponent of “bourgeois liberalism,” expelled me from the Communist Party, and put me under tight surveillance wherever I went, including to scholarly meetings abroad. From August 8 to 29, 1988, I traveled to Perth, Australia, for the Fifth Marcel Grossmann Meeting on General Relativity, after which I visited university campuses in Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, and elsewhere. I spoke on physics, but when Chinese students learned that I was coming, they also invited me to talk about events back home in China. In Canberra they asked me what I had seen on the “little posters” (xiaozibao) that students on campuses use to express their questions and criticisms. I did my best to tell what I had seen. I remembered a poster that said, “Some of the central leaders, or their offspring, keep savings in foreign bank accounts.”

Even before I left Australia, friends in Beijing started calling me with the startling news that Deng Xiaoping had let it be known through Party channels that Fang Lizhi had libeled him in a statement about “foreign bank accounts.” Deng was preparing to sue me, they said. My first reaction was skepticism. Nearly every Chinese scholar and student studying overseas had a bank account that contained money. What fact could be more pedestrian? How could the words “keep foreign bank accounts” possibly constitute libel? What’s more, if Deng really wanted to get me, he certainly did not need the law. Everyone knows that, in China, Party authority trumps legal authority, and Deng was at the pinnacle of Party power, so why would he need the law? There were all kinds of easier ways for him to bring me down, if that was his aim.

When I returned to Beijing in September, friends with connections in the government insisted that Deng was moving ahead with the lawsuit. They told me that internal Party circulars were saying that Fang Lizhi’s libel would be “resolved through legal means.” But I continued to have trouble believing this until an article appeared in Reference News, a national bulletin with a circulation even larger than that of the People’s Daily. The article named me and went into detail about why my words fell into the category of libel.

With that, things got pretty tense. Rumors began to fly that the Beijing Intermediate Court was about to issue me a summons. Lawyer friends began volunteering to put together legal defense teams for me. Readers of Reference News sent me letters of advice on how to argue in court. Some of them volunteered to begin collecting information on foreign bank accounts of high-ranking officials and their children so that truth could be my defense. Foreign journalists heard about the story and got very excited: Deng Xiaoping and Fang Lizhi squaring off in court? There was a headline!

But a summons from a court never arrived. In early November, a senior official in the Central Department of Propaganda came to visit me at home, on instructions, to inform me that there would be no lawsuit. The reason, he said, was that a lawyer with the Chinese delegation to the United Nations had explained to Deng Xiaoping that because Fang Lizhi had named no person, a libel case could not go forward.

As I reflected on what had happened, I came to understand that Deng had probably not failed. He had probably achieved just what he set out to do. His unnamed “part” of the population that would get rich first was, in fact, those very “central leaders and their offspring” that the student poster in Beijing had mentioned, and he was hypersensitive to any public expression of the idea. The Chinese people should not entertain such a thought, and if they do, they must understand the necessity of shutting up about it.

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