China under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership

Author: Ezra F Vogel, Harvard University

When Deng Xiaoping became pre-eminent leader of China in December 1978, China was still in the chaos from the Cultural Revolution. Per capita annual income was less than US$100.

By the time he stepped down in 1992, several hundred million Chinese citizens had been lifted out of poverty, and China was rapidly becoming stronger, richer and more modern.

Deng Xiaoping did not originate reform and opening — that began under the leadership of Hua Guofeng after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. But Deng provided the steady hand, the clear direction and the political skill for China to succeed. He enjoyed the support of senior cadres who realised that Mao’s continuing revolutions brought disaster, but he had the judgment to pace the reforms and keep the support of those who feared the opening of markets, as well as those who feared that the opening would be too slow.

Few people were better prepared for leadership of any country than Deng was when he became the preeminent leader at 74. He had been in charge of local government in Jiangxi Province’s Ruijin County in the early 1930s, for the area in the Taihang mountains of Shanshi in the late 1930s and early 1940s and, after World War II, for the border areas of Hebei, Henan, Shandong and Shanshi. From 1949–1952 he was in charge of the entire southwest, with over 100 million people. He had been a wartime military commander (political commissar) for twelve years. In the Huai Hai campaign, where half a million Communist troops fought an even larger number of Nationalist troops, he ended as the front party secretary in charge of all the Communist troops. He had been general secretary of the party from 1956–1966 overseeing all major party affairs. He had been the acting chief of foreign policy, carrying on discussions with high-level foreign visitors during 1974 and 1975. He was finance minister from 1953–1954. He had been hardened by being purged three times. In 1975 he prepared for later modernisation programs by overseeing the improvement of relations with Chinese scientists, and in 1977 he had reopened universities and revived competitive entrance examinations after a ten-year absence. Perhaps more important than any of these responsibilities in preparing him was his experience working closely with Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong for some five decades as they thought about overall strategy for the revolution, domestic political and economic development, and relations with other countries.

To prepare for modernisation Deng developed closer relations with the leading modern countries. He paved the way for closer relations with Europe in his visit to France in 1975. He made the political decisions that paved the way for the Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Japan in 1978, and then went to Japan in October that year in a triumphal visit that won the support of Japanese political and business leaders. He led the introduction of Japanese movies, literature and television series into China, helping Chinese overcome their negative feelings to Japan and learn from Japanese scientists, technicians and industrial leaders. He supervised the negotiations on the normalisation of relations with the United States until the final stages in which he personally carried out negotiations. This was followed by his tour of the United States in January 1979 in which he established good relations with President Carter, with congressional leaders and business leaders.

When Deng came to power in 1978, he feared the increasingly aggressive Soviet Union and Vietnam would take advantage of US withdrawal. He decided he had to attack Vietnam to show the seriousness of Chinese determination to resist and make clear the costs to the two countries if they were to continue to attempt advancement into Asia. But once Deng made his point and the Soviet Union stopped its advances through Southeast Asia, he attempted to pacify the relationship with the Soviet Union so that he could keep military expenses low and concentrate on peaceful economic development.

Deng gradually opened markets in the countryside and then in the cities. He continued government planning and state enterprises but opened more markets as he felt the political situation permitted. But immediately after becoming the preeminent leader he threw open wide the doors to foreign study.

Deng believed that the chaos in the century before the Communists took power in 1949 and the chaos of the decade of the Cultural Revolution had stymied economic growth, and he was determined to keep the country stable even if it required the use of force to put down protests. He believed that how much a country moved toward democracy depended on how stable the political situation was. He made some moves to grant more freedoms than Mao had, but when public demonstrations interfered with the movement of people in the centre of Beijing he sent in unarmed troops. When this failed to bring order he told his troops to do what was necessary to maintain peace. Several hundred people were killed on 4 June 1989 in his effort to maintain stability. Deng then stepped down from formal positions; but in 1992 when he believed his successors were too cautious in promoting growth and market-opening, he took a trip to the south, successfully lighting fires to ensure that China continued to grow rapidly and that the role of markets continued to expand.

Ezra F Vogel is Henry Ford II Emeritus Professor of Social Sciences at Harvard University. He is author of Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China (Harvard University Press, 2011).