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.