Tuesday, September 16, 2014
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Down with Dengism

CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – China has recently held a series of solemn, high-profile ceremonies, barely noticed by the outside world, in honor of the 110th anniversary of former leader Deng Xiaoping’s birth. But, as with most political festivities in China these days, few have bothered to reflect on what is being celebrated – and what Deng’s leadership actually meant. The truth is that, while Deng deserves appreciation for having brought China back from the abyss of Maoism, his approach – “Dengism,” or authoritarian developmentalism – is now impeding China’s prospects.

Distinguishing Deng the reformer from Dengism the governing philosophy is no idle academic exercise. Deng, who risked his authority and that of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to break with Maoist convention and launch China’s economic revolution, died in 1997. Dengism, which emphasizes the goal of modernization under a powerful one-party state, continues to shape China’s governance system.

Deng, who famously declared, “A cat’s color does not matter as long as it catches mice,” is generally remembered as an unabashed pragmatist. But even pragmatists have core principles that limit their actions, and Deng was no exception. Two ideas were incontrovertible: the CCP could retain its grip on power only by delivering economic development, and China could modernize only under a strong one-party system.

Thus, rejection of democracy in any form was fundamental to Deng’s viewpoint. Though he advocated legal reform as a tool of modernization, Deng was adamant that the rule of law not be allowed to limit the CCP’s power.

To be sure, Deng recognized some of the pathologies of the party-state. With leadership positions allocated – often for life – on the basis of personal connections, rather than merit, he understood that the system suffered from gross inefficiency, risk aversion, and a lack of technical expertise.

But Deng was convinced that administrative reforms could resolve these issues. What he did not anticipate was how difficult it would be to overcome resistance from within the CCP to any diminution of its powers.

The slow pace of reform frustrated Deng so much that, in the late 1980s, he asked the reformist premier Zhao Ziyang to lead a secret high-level task force to examine options for more radical changes – this time, directly targeting the political system. But when the group asserted that progress toward modernization would require the incorporation of some democratic principles and the rule of law, Deng immediately quashed the initiative. His view that modernization required keeping power concentrated in the hands of a single party failed to anticipate the threat that a predatory state would pose to sustained development.

Herein lies the tragedy of Dengism. It gained credibility from the fact that its creator dismantled a cruel and destructive system, and left behind a more prosperous and humane China. But that credibility has been used to justify the maintenance of a system that is now hampering China’s continued progress.

Dengism’s greatest intellectual failure is its inability to account for the potential of unchecked power to nurture greed and corruption among ruling elites. Its greatest political failure is its resistance to the democratic reforms needed to constrain that power.

During Deng’s rule, Dengism’s inherent contradictions and limitations were less apparent. After all, the Chinese people had been repressed for so long that economic reforms alone represented a huge step forward. Indeed, by creating space for individual creativity and entrepreneurship, they unleashed a historically unprecedented period of rapid growth that lifted millions of Chinese out of poverty.

But the lack of political reform meant that there was nothing to stop the ruling elites from appropriating a disproportionate share of the new wealth. Recent revelations of systemic corruption at all levels of government demonstrate that the gravest threat to China’s long-term economic success is the unchallenged, unruly party-state.

The good news is that President Xi Jinping seems to recognize this problem. Beyond taking up Deng’s mantle in pursuing market-oriented economic reforms, he has been directing a bold anti-corruption campaign since coming to power. In July, he launched a formal investigation into one of the Chinese Communist Party’s most senior figures, Zhou Yongkang – a testament to his commitment to rooting out abuse of power.

Xi’s desire to become China’s next great reformer may well be why his government has been investing so much energy in lauding Deng’s achievements. One hopes that he continues to emulate Deng, without allowing his approach to become distorted by Dengism.

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  1. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Mr. Minxin Pei's cry: "Down with Dengism" reminds much of "Down with Maoism", an ideological conflict between two important men of China's modern history - Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong, who were leaders of China's Communist movment. They later fell out with each other. Deng's emphasis on self-interest didn't sit well with Mao’s egalitarian views, even though Mao indulged in personality cults.
    During the Cultural Revolution Deng was stripped of his ranks and sent to a rural area for re-education. In 1973 he was reinstated by Zhou En-lai, who helped Deng stage his political comeback. Deng never became head of state or even head of the government, but he was the most important and influential Chinese leader since Mao.
    In 1977 after Mao's death, Deng soon became the architect of major economic reforms that laid the foundations for what China is to date - the world's second largest economy. In 1978 the diminutive man opened up the country's economy, turning it into the world's biggest factory and lifting more than half a billion people out of poverty.
    The leadership in Beijing today is still dedicated to Deng's achievements and has "recently held a series of solemn, high-profile ceremonies, barely noticed by the outside world, in honor of the 110th anniversary of former leader Deng Xiaoping’s birth".
    Mr. Pei believes “Dengism,” or authoritarian developmentalism – is now impeding China’s prospects", saying it's time for the country to move on! Deng's mixture of Communism and Capitalism may have liberalised the economy, but the Communist Party still maintains political control. His endeavour hadn't extended to political reforms , which are urgently needed to change the one-party system.
    "Xi’s desire to become China’s next great reformer may well be why his government has been investing so much energy in lauding Deng’s achievements. One hopes that he continues to emulate Deng". The leadership today doesn't seem to possess any vision and courage to carry out reforms. It lacks Deng's credentials for authority. Although he was authoritarian, he was pragmatic and urged people to take fresh steps and accept new experiences. It explains why the leadership holds on to Deng's legacy as a source of legitimacy.

  2. CommentedNathan Weatherdon

    What was notable about Deng Xiaoping was not the specifics, which continued to have a major (understatement) role of the state, but rather, the relative opening up. It is the opening up that was significant.

    There was greater scope for families to run family farms as they saw fit, to sell surpluses, etc., and for village and even municipal councils to freely plan and implement strategy for commercial success. This local operational freedom was a strong contrast to the heavy handed and centralized directives of yesteryear.

    The cases of abuse of these local powers is well known (especially selling farmers land to developers with no or poor compensation, effectively ruining a great number of lives and families who had next to nothing to start with), but their accomplishments, via village-level specialization and incredible global commercial success of a great number of winners, can hardly be overstated.

    But if this is a subtle poke for political opening up, then I whole heartedly agree. Deng's success was in opening up the scope of activity for private activity, not the specifics of whatever things he actually specifically did or that the state did while he was at the helm.

    The greatest challenge in anti-corruption will be to direct it away from witch-huntism where it is used to neutrailize (or worse) political opponents rather at great cost to the potential to significantly modernize the bureaucratic apparatus of the state along the broadly meritocratic lines which could so easily be supported by even minor modifications of existing structures.

  3. CommentedMarc Laventurier

    "The ways of Heaven are not invariable: -- on the good-doer it sends down all blessings, and on the evil-doer it sends down all miseries. Do you but be virtuous, be it in small things or in large, and the myriad regions will have cause for rejoicing. If you not be virtuous, be it in large things or in small, it will bring the ruin of your ancestral temple."
    Selections from the Shu Jing (The Classic of History) (6th Cent. BCE)

    "This is an oversimplification, but for the eighty percent or whatever they are, the main thing is to divert them. To get them to watch National Football League. And to worry about "Mother With Child With Six Heads," or whatever you pick up on the supermarket stands and so on. Or look at astrology. Or get involved in fundamentalist stuff or something or other. Just get them away. Get them away from things that matter. And for that it's important to reduce their capacity to think."
    Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, 1992

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