The Enduring Legacy of Deng Xiaoping

By Michael Dillon

On 22 August 2014 China marked the 110th anniversary of the birth of Deng Xiaoping who had set post-Mao China on the road to reform. Deng – the man who made modern China – died on 19 February 1997 in Beijing and eighteen years after his death his political legacy continues to influence the policy of the Chinese government.


Deng Xiaoping led the country out of the Mao era in 1978 by managing a landmark plenary session of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee during which he forced a reluctant party membership to accept a comprehensive programme of economic reforms that was the basis for the subsequent spectacular rise of China. He is remembered by the government and the people as the man who created a system under which, for all its faults, most of the population enjoy far greater economic freedom than at any time since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Deng embodied both the positive and the negative aspects of China’s rise to global prominence. Economic reform and the opening of China to the outside world were his overriding priorities. However he was never convinced of the need for political democracy of the Western multi-party variety and his failure to allow any degree of political democracy divides commentators to this day.


Xi Jinping and Deng Xiaoping

Xi Jinping, the current President of China and General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, came to power in November 2012: since the summer of 2014 he has emerged as a powerful individual political actor and increasingly refers to the legacy of Deng Xiaoping to define his political position. Xi has emphasised that there can be no political future for China other than one in which the dominant position of the CCP is retained; the rule of law will be extended but the CCP will not be constrained by that law. It might be possible to develop internal democracy within the CCP but there will be no political opposition, and no concession to ‘Western-style multi-party democracy’: the more conservative members of the CCP believe that to do so would inevitably lead to the demise of the party and its government. This approach has its roots in Deng’s thinking.

Although Mao’s portrait still overlooks Tian’anmen Square and no official publication will deny the importance of his historical role in creating the People’s Republic of China, it is Deng Xiaoping who is regarded by the current leadership as the model to be emulated. In August 2014, after the annual closed summer session of the Politburo in the seaside resort of Beidaihe, the mainland media celebrated the anniversary of Deng’s birth. At a seminar in Beijing to mark the occasion, Xi Jinping extolled Deng’s political legacy and especially his strategic thinking. On 13 November, People’s Daily the CCP’s official newspaper carried a report of a speech made by Xi Jinping in Shenzhen describing him as the ‘new architect of reform’. Deng was the original architect of the economic reforms so Xi is presenting himself as the direct heir to the Deng legacy in a way that other post-Deng leaders have not.


Special Economic Zones

Shenzhen, which lies just to the north of Hong Kong, is the best known of the five Special Economic Zones in which Deng’s reforms were pioneered. The SEZs were a complete departure from the centralised planned economy that dominated China from the 1950s to the 1970s and they faced serious reservations and some outright opposition within the Communist Party. In 1992, at the age of 88, Deng embarked on what has become known as his Southern Tour. He travelled to meet key provincial leaders to persuade them that there was no alternative to his reforms and by so doing saved the SEZs and the economic reform programme as a whole. Deng later regretted that he had not included the city of Shanghai in the list of SEZs, although it has developed spectacularly without that status: by the 1990s the development and growth that had been pioneered in the SEZs was appearing in many other cities.


Economic democracy but not political democracy

If Deng can be credited with China’s booming economy he must also be held at least partly responsible for the lack of political democracy. In 1981 he had the opportunity to allow greater freedom of expression when demands for political reform appeared on Democracy Wall in Xidan Street in central Beijing, during what became known as the Beijing Spring. The popular movement for greater democracy was tolerated briefly but then suppressed because the more conservative party leaders considered that it threatened their authority. Deng conceded this and concentrated on economic modernisation, partly because he knew there would be less opposition. Beijing’s current policy, that Western multi-party democracy is not suitable for China, stems directly from Deng’s political actions and attitudes in this period.

Deng was the original architect of the economic reforms so Xi is presenting himself as the direct heir to the Deng legacy in a way that other post-Deng leaders have not.

In August 2014 the official Central Committee journal Qiushi (Seeking Truth) published a set of articles on the Deng legacy. Even the name of this journal is a permanent reminder of Deng’s continuing influence as it is a shortened version of one of his celebrated aphorisms. You should ‘seek truth from facts’ (shishi qiushi) was his pragmatic riposte to those in the party who started from an ideological position and tried to mould policies to fit that position.

One of the articles was under the name of Hu Chunhua, currently the Party Secretary of Guangdong Province and a member of the Politburo who is tipped to be a key figure in the next generation of the leadership – even a possible successor to Xi Jinping. The message could not be spelled out more clearly: for the foreseeable future the CCP intends to continue with ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ – the principles established by Deng that China must reform its economy but will not be distracted by pressure for democracy or political reform, in spite of pressure from the democratic and liberal tendency within the Communist Party.


The Ten Gallon Hat

Deng might be best known for the economic reform programme but his diplomatic strategy for opening up China, including rapprochement with two former enemies, the USA and Japan, was an equally important component of China’s rise.

Photographs of Deng wearing a ten gallon hat during a visit to the USA went around the world and were a signal of China’s new relations with the rest of the world. This was a dramatic contrast to the image of Mao Zedong who could not be imagined doing such a thing and who in any case had never ventured out of China since his disastrous political visits to Moscow in the 1950s when he failed to negotiate with Stalin. Deng also visited Japan and he and his wife were photographed with Emperor Hirohito, who had been on the throne during the occupation of China, and the Empress.

Critics of China’s current foreign policy point to the limitations of Deng’s insistence on keeping a low international profile to concentrate on domestic reform; they argue that with China’s economic stature comes the responsibility to be more actively involved in global security.


Hong Kong and one country two systems

Hong Kong, which had been under British rule since 1842, was returned to China in 1997 after long drawn-out and difficult negotiations, culminating in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 19 December 1984. On 1 July 1997 Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, to be ruled under the novel concept of ‘one country two systems’. Deng died in February of that year so did not achieve his lifelong ambition to see the handover.

The concept of ‘one country two systems’ emerged in the 1980s. This unprecedented formula is attributed to Deng and his imprimatur was necessary for its implementation. It made possible the peaceful and relatively smooth transition of Hong Kong’s sovereignty when British colonial rule ended in 1997 and Hong Kong acquired its new and untried status as a Special Administrative Region. Hong Kong became part of China while largely retaining the independence of its political and legal institutions, although this independence has not gone unchallenged.

Deng’s political inheritance in China – economic reform without democratisation – was a background cause of the recent conflict in the former colony. Beijing has accepted that the next Chief Executive of Hong Kong will be elected but has insisted that only candidates approved by Beijing can be on the ballot. The Occupy Central protesters and their supporters have argued that this infringes the principles of the Hong Kong Basic Law that was drafted in the light of the Joint Declaration and demand the right to have open nominations for the post.

Deng Xiaoping statue in Shenzhen


Deng Xiaoping’s ambiguous legacy

In many ways, Deng’s life and career as a communist soldier and politician exemplify the contradictory nature of the contemporary political system in the PRC. In 1992, at the age of 88, he embarked on a gruelling tour of southern China, during which he effectively neutralised the remaining opposition to the economic reforms that he had forced through the Communist Party’s leading bodies against considerable resistance in 1978. It is for this that he is best remembered in most of China, but in the West, and particularly in Hong Kong, he has never been forgiven for the military suppression of the Democracy Movement in Beijing’s Tian’anmen Square on 4 June 1989.

This was one of the most controversial events of his political career but his role was not as clear-cut as is sometimes suggested. He is often described as the ‘paramount leader’ but this was never a formal government or party appointment and did not accurately reflect his authority at that time. The General Secretary of the CCP was the relatively liberal Zhao Ziyang; the more conservative Li Peng was Premier; and the President was Yang Shangkun who had been given the rank of general and the responsibility of reforming and streamlining the PLA.

Deng was retired, or at least semi-retired, and held no party or government position; he had however retained the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission, of which Yang was Vice-Chairman and Secretary-General. Deng cannot be absolved of responsibility for the deaths that followed the military attack on the square and could possibly have prevented it, but in Deng Xiaoping: the Man who Made Modern China I have argued that the responsibility for the military intervention and the deaths lies more with the others. After the military crackdown, those who supported it wish to emphasise Deng’s association with it to give them political cover; those who opposed it, notably the ousted Premier Zhao Ziyang and his followers, have tried to distance Deng from responsibility for the deaths. Only the passage of time and the availability of documentary sources of unquestionable authority will establish Deng’s precise role.

About the Author:

Michael Dillon was founding Director of the Centre for Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Durham, where he taught Modern Chinese History. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Royal Asiatic Society and was Visiting Professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing in 2009.


He is the author of China: A Modern History, and Deng Xiaoping: the Man who Made Modern China, both published by I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd.


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of All China Review.