Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China

Recently, in an effort to better understand the Chinese culture and history, I decided to read a well-acclaimed book on Chinese history between the 1960s until early 1990s that centered on the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, arguably one of the most respected leader during the era. In the book, Ezra F. Vogel managed to provide a relevant background for policies chosen by the Chinese government, which many times would puzzled Western readers unaccustomed to the local culture. The quotations below serve as a reminder to me personally on the important policy decision the CCP and Chinese government made, that has translated to the magnificent growth of the country in the 21st Century.

He realized what some free-market economists did not, that one could not solve problems simply by opening markets; one had to build institutions gradually.

In short, Deng faced a tall order, and an unprecedented one: at the time, no other Communist country had succeeded in reforming its economic system and bringing sustained rapid growth, let alone one with one billion people in a state of disorder.

He had disciplined himself not to display raw anger and frustration and not to base his decisions on feelings but on careful analysis of what the party and country needed.

And although he welcomed what he considered constructive suggestions to resolve problems, he bristled when foreigners and political dissidents criticized the party. He vividly remembered the chaos of the civil war and the Cultural Revolution and believed that social order in China was fragile; when he judged that it was at risk, he would respond forcefully.

In 1978, because of the Soviet Union’s aggressive behavior following the American withdrawal from Vietnam, Western countries were receptive to helping China loosen its ties with the Soviet Union. With the global expansion of trade that followed, China had access to new markets and advanced technologies—Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore—and nearby examples for how latecomers to the international scene could modernize quickly.

While Deng was studying in Moscow, the Soviet Union had not yet built its socialist structure. The Soviet Union was still under the National Economic Policy (NEP). Under the NEP, independent farmers, small businesspeople, and even larger businesses were encouraged to prosper while the socialist economy was beginning to develop heavy industry. Foreigners, too, were invited to invest in the Soviet Union. Deng believed, as did others at that time, that such an economic structure—whereby private enterprise was allowed and foreign investment was encouraged, all under Communist Party leadership—promoted faster economic growth than could be achieved in capitalist economies.17 The fundamentals of the NEP, a market economy under Communist leadership, were similar to those of the economic policies that Deng would carry out when he was in charge of China’s Southwest Bureau in 1949–1952 and those that he would reintroduce in the 1980s.

Deng’s speech to the United Nations was received with an unusually long period of applause. Because of its size and potential, China was seen as a rallying force among the developing countries. The delegates of the developing countries were especially pleased with Deng’s statement that China would never become a tyrant and that if it were to ever oppress or exploit others, then the rest of the world, especially the developing countries, should expose China as a “social imperialist” country and, in cooperation with the Chinese people, overthrow the government.

This was vintage Deng. Paint the broad picture, tell why something needed to be done, focus on the task, cover the ideological bases, and seek public support for replacing officials who were not doing their jobs.

If people did not perform their jobs, they were to be fired. They should “shit or get off the pot hole” (buyao zhan maokeng bu lashi).58

Deng went on to explain that it would not do to take what Mao did on one occasion and to make that the explanation for something Mao did in a different place and time. Mao himself admitted he made errors; anyone who does things makes mistakes. If what a person did was 70 percent correct, that is very good. If after my death people say that what I did was 70 percent correct, Deng said, that would be quite good.

Deng thought it was a terrible waste to send young intellectuals off to do physical labor when they should be advancing Chinese science. Although he did not use the term, in fact he believed in a meritocratic elite. He sought to attract the best and the brightest and to provide the conditions that would allow them to achieve the most for China.

Wang Dongxing had exploded just a week earlier when an article entitled “Pay According to the Work Performed” (anlao fenpei) had appeared, demanding to know which Central Committee had authorized that article (only later did he find out that Deng Xiaoping and his staff had supported it).

Marshal Ye believed deeply that the errors of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution had been caused by the excessive concentration of power in the hands of one person. He urged both Hua Guofeng and Deng to work together in leading the party and the country. When Ye met with Deng, Deng agreed that they should strengthen the collective leadership and limit the publicity given to a single person.

People, he said, must be allowed to express their views about the real situation. “Centralism can be correct only when there is a full measure of democracy. At present, we must lay particular stress on democracy, because for quite some time . . . there was too little democracy. . . . The masses should be encouraged to offer criticisms. . . . There is nothing to worry about even if a few malcontents take advantage of democracy to make trouble . . . the thing to be feared most is silence.” Deng did not then or at any other time advocate unlimited free speech. In fact, by November 29, a few days after some people began posting their views on a wall not far from Tiananmen Square, Deng had already stated that some opinions posted on “Democracy Wall” were incorrect.

Deng expressed the prevailing view at high levels that China’s two huge disasters, the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution, were caused by a system that allows one person to dominate without any input from other voices. China therefore needed to develop a legal system so that a single individual, no matter how able, will not dominate. If laws are initially imperfect and incomplete, they can be made fair and just, step by step, over time.

Deng declared that the theory of collective responsibility had meant, in practice, “that no one is responsible.” He advocated assigning responsibilities to individuals and acknowledged that to do so, one must also give individuals power.

On November 26, the day after Hua Guofeng addressed the work conference and publicly backed away from the “two whatevers,” Deng Xiaoping told Sasaki Ryosaku, the head of the Japanese Democratic Socialist Party, “The writing of big-character posters is permitted by our constitution. We have no right to negate or criticize the masses for promoting democracy and putting up big-character posters. The masses should be allowed to vent their grievances.”5 He rhetorically asked, “What is wrong with allowing people to express their views?”6 In addition, Marshal Ye and Hu Yaobang both expressed support for the people posting their opinions.

During his visit, Deng not only saw things that previously he had only read about; he wanted to study how Japanese organized workers to maximize their dedication and efficiency, which he summed up as “management.” From his trip he concluded, “We must firmly grasp management. Just making things isn’t enough. We need to raise the quality.”36 A century earlier, Chinese patriots had insisted on retaining the “Chinese spirit” while adopting Western technology. By using the neutral term “management” to refer to studying Western ways, and by keeping his unwavering commitment to socialism and the Communist Party, Deng allowed the introduction of far more than technology while reducing the resistance of Chinese conservatives. Indeed, Deng argued that socialism could also use modern management, and the Communist Party could champion it.

Deng asserted that the United States and Japan could make a contribution to world peace if they urged Taiwan to negotiate with Beijing and if the United States reduced arms sales to Taiwan. He told Carter that Beijing would go to war over Taiwan only if, over a long period of time, Taiwan refused to talk with Beijing, or if the Soviets became involved in Taiwan.77

Mao had talked of how a single spark could set off a prairie fire of revolution, but China after 1979 underwent a revolution far greater and longer lasting than the one Mao began. This massive revolution ignited from many sources, but no single spark spread more rapidly than the one resulting from Deng’s visit to the United States.

When Fallaci asked about the mistakes of the Great Leap Forward, Deng replied that they were not Mao’s alone; rather, they were mistakes for which all those who had worked with Mao must share the blame.45 When she inquired about Mao’s selection of Lin Biao, Deng said that it was feudalistic for a leader to choose his own successor. Deng’s implication was unmistakable: it was also wrong for Mao to have chosen Hua Guofeng as successor. And when asked how experiences like the Cultural Revolution could be avoided in the future, Deng explained that party leaders were looking into restructuring China’s institutions in order to achieve socialist democracy and uphold socialist law.

Deng took no notes when he read. Documents were to be delivered to his office before 10 a.m., and he returned them the same day. He left no papers around his office, which was always clean and neat.

Deng did reserve the right to make final decisions, but he was ordinarily not a micromanager; rather he set the agenda and let Hu and Zhao carry out his directives as they thought best. In making the final decisions, Deng did consider the overall political atmosphere and the views of other key leaders. He was authoritarian and bold but in fact he was constrained by the overall atmosphere among Politburo members.

Deng embraced the notion of “inner-party democracy,” by which he meant that leaders would listen to “constructive opinions” to reduce the danger of making serious errors. But once a decision was made, party members, following “democratic centralism,” had to implement it.

The “cat theory”—“it doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white as long as it catches the mouse”—was a creative way of winning further support for diminishing the importance of Mao’s ideology; it suggested that doing what worked was more important than following a particular ideology. If Deng had simply said “ideology is unimportant,” he would have provoked enormous controversy, but his “cat theory” made people smile (in fact, some entrepreneurs even made and sold decorations with the cat theme). Another saying, “some people can get rich first,” helped lower the expectations of many who hoped to get rich quickly after the reforms, and helped disarm those who might feel envious of those who prospered before the benefits of reform had reached everyone.

For Deng, being a successful leader meant not just determining the correct strategic direction for the long run, but also knowing how to shape the atmosphere and how to time his bold steps so that they occurred when other officials and the public were ready to jump on board.

As Guangdong officials put it, “Beijing has its policies and we have our counter-policies” (shang you zhengce, xia you duice).

Guangdong’s progress cannot be explained simply by “opening markets,” for many countries with open markets did not achieve the progress that Guangdong made. Instead, in Guangdong, a Communist organization that less than a decade earlier had engaged in class warfare became an effective vehicle to promote modernization. The party provided overall discipline and encouraged study and competition, and Hong Kong and Japanese enterprises were quick to offer assistance. The special policy for Guangdong and Fujian and the unique leeway given to the SEZs made these areas into incubators for developing people who would be able to function well in modern factories, stores, and offices in cosmopolitan settings. Many of the lessons learned from these enterprises spread quickly from Guangdong to other places.

By the fall of 1978, officials in Anhui, cheered by the successful midyear harvests produced by the smaller work groups, reported their successes, setting off arguments with those who supported large-scale cooperatives. At a meeting of the National Agricultural Economic Association held in Suzhou in the fall of 1978, an official from the Anhui Agricultural Policy Research Office had the courage to say that one should not blindly follow the Dazhai model and that the government should not launch so many political movements that interfered with local economic initiatives.55 But on the other side, Chen Yonggui, still vice premier in charge of agricultural affairs, accused Wan Li of secretly promoting individual household farming. Newspaper articles, too, denounced Wan Li for opposing Dazhai and for restoring capitalism. But Wan Li had gained confidence from the successful harvests in the areas that had tried decentralized work assignments and he was rapidly winning support within the party. In November 1978, when criticized by Chen Yonggui, Wan Li, living up to his reputation for bravery, replied: “You say you are speaking from the Dazhai experience; I say Dazhai is an ultra-leftist model. . . . You go your way and I’ll go mine. . . . Don’t impose your views on me and I won’t impose mine on you. As for who is right and who is wrong, let’s see which way works best.”

After household farming was introduced, grain production continued to rise rapidly. Indeed, as early as 1984 grain production surpassed 400 million tons, compared to 300 million tons in 1977. After 1981, the growth in the grain supply led the government to encourage farmers to diversify into vegetables, fruits, and industrial crops. Official estimates of per capita grain consumption rose from 1977 to 1984 from 195 kilograms to 250 kilograms, and consumption of pork, beef, poultry, and eggs increased even more sharply.72   The government had been completely unprepared for the huge grain harvest of 1984. As a result, there was not enough warehouse space to store the grain, and some local governments, lacking sufficient funds to purchase all the grain that had been produced, had to give the farmers paper IOUs. Before then, the government, fearing urban unrest, since 1978 had not passed on to the urban consumer the increase in prices paid to the farmers for rice. This subsidy was a strain on the government budget, and after 1984 the costs were passed on to the urban consumer. On January 1, 1985, the government announced that it was no longer obligated to buy grain produced by the farmers. Because farmers planting their fields in 1985 worried that they might not get full payment for rice, they planted smaller rice crops and grain production consequently dropped 28 million tons, or about 7 percent (which was still 60 million tons more than that produced in 1980, when household farming first began to take hold). It took several years after the 1985 adjustments for grain production to recover to the 1984 levels and to put rural production on an even keel, but by 1989 grain output had surpassed the 1984 peak, and it continued at high levels thereafter.73 By then, there was sufficient rice production so that the government abolished grain rationing and consumers could buy all the rice they needed.

Deng had scored another victory by using his basic approach to reform: Don’t argue; try it. If it works, let it spread.

The conference conclusions supported a dual-price system—that is, one set of prices for items on the state plan and another set of prices that would be more responsive to market changes. State-owned enterprises that met their quotas would be allowed to sell whatever other products they could make at market prices. As a result, many enterprises would likely orient their practices to the market, while still relying on set prices to provide some stability during the transition to increased use of markets. Some World Bank officials criticized the dual-price system because it created opportunities for officials at state companies to purchase goods at state prices and then to make a quick profit by selling them in the market at higher prices. Higher-level Chinese officials, however, felt confident that they could keep the corruption under control with administrative punishments.

The cumulative effect of the new machinery and the new systems introduced by firms based in Japan, Europe, Hong Kong, and (beginning in the late 1980s) Taiwan had at least as much of an influence on economic growth as the system reforms introduced by Beijing officials. The new opening had, in effect, brought about an imported industrial revolution, information revolution, and consumer revolution.

Deng advanced step by step, rather than with a “big bang.” After 1991, Russia had followed the advice of economists who recommended opening markets suddenly, with a “big bang.” In contrast, Deng, with the advice of experts brought in by the World Bank, accepted the view that a sudden opening of markets would lead to chaos. He understood what many Western economists who took institutions for granted did not: that it was vitally important to take the time to build national institutions with structures, rules, laws, and trained personnel adapted to the local culture and local conditions. China did not have the experience, rules, knowledgeable entrepreneurs, or private capital needed to convert suddenly to a market economy.

Deng knew China would face huge adjustment problems from changes wrought by outsiders and from returning students, but he firmly believed that nations grow best when they remain open. Unlike some of his colleagues who feared that China would be overwhelmed by foreigners and foreign practices, Deng was confident that the Communist Party was strong enough to control them. He strongly supported sending officials and students abroad, translating foreign books and articles, and welcoming foreign advisers and businessmen to China. He was prepared to face criticism from those who feared that Chinese lifestyles and interests would be adversely affected by foreign competition. He believed competition from foreign companies would not destroy the Chinese economy but rather stimulate Chinese businesses to become stronger. He also did not worry if a substantial percentage of those who went abroad did not return, for he believed that they too would continue to help their motherland.

In reports to Beijing, all these organizations exaggerated the support for communism in Hong Kong, thus causing Deng and other officials to underestimate the extent to which ethnic Chinese residents in Hong Kong were in fact content with British rule. In fact, most residents feared what China, having just undergone the Cultural Revolution, might do to Hong Kong.

In talks with British officials, Deng vowed that political power after 1997 would be in the hands of the people of Hong Kong. Always focused on training successors, Deng requested that during the remaining fifteen years, Hong Kong leaders in business, education, and culture suggest the names of promising “patriotic” Hong Kong young people who could begin immediately preparing for responsible positions in various fields after 1997, thereby ensuring a smooth handover and continued stability and prosperity.

In a BBC interview before leaving China, she said, “If one party to a treaty or a contract says, ‘I cannot agree to it, I am going to break it,’ you cannot really have a great deal of confidence that any new treaty they make will be honored.” China specialists in the British Foreign Office cringed when she repeated these comments at a press conference in Hong Kong, for they knew that these words would dampen the goodwill with China that they had been working to build. As they expected, China complained, strongly. In the week after the Thatcher visit, the Hong Kong stock market fell 25 percent, and by the end of October, the Hang Seng Stock Index, which had registered 1,300 in June, had fallen to 772.66

The local Communists in Hong Kong, long accustomed to passing on what Beijing wanted to hear, had been repeating the mantra that the residents of Hong Kong were opposed to the imperialists and were eagerly awaiting liberation by the mainland. Even Hong Kong businesspeople, who were always eager to win Beijing’s favor, would report how enthusiastic the people of Hong Kong were about the prospect of Communist leadership. Xu, however, bravely relayed the unpleasant truth: he reported that the people of Hong Kong had a deep mistrust of the Communist Party and sometimes felt doomed.74 He also described the dominant view of Chinese businesspeople in Hong Kong, which was that they respected British administration and the rule of law and doubted that Beijing would be able to provide good leadership. Moreover, many businesspeople in Hong Kong who had fled the mainland soon after 1949 felt they could never again trust the Communists. They had seen how the Communists in the 1950s had betrayed their promises to work with businesspeople who had cooperated with them, by attacking them and appropriating their businesses.75 Disturbed by Xu’s reports, Li Xiannian responded by saying that Beijing’s top priority should be to win over the Hong Kong public.

At the meeting, when Sze-yuen Chung, head of the Hong Kong Executive Council, expressed doubts about the capacity of lower-level Communist officials to manage the complex problems of Hong Kong, Deng snapped back that this view amounted to saying that only foreigners can govern Hong Kong. Such an attitude reflects, he said, the influence of colonial mentality. Deng continued by telling the group that they should seek a better understanding of the Chinese people and of the People’s Republic of China. He assured them that Hong Kong’s capitalist system would be in place for fifty years, and he added that a patriot is one who respects the Chinese nation, supports China’s resumption of sovereignty, and does not want to hurt prosperity and stability in Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong, the basic political and administrative policies would not change for fifty years. He added that Hong Kong had been operating under a system different from that of Britain and the United States, so it would not be appropriate to adopt a fully Western system with three separate branches of government. He then articulated the kind of personal freedoms the public should expect: After 1997, China would still allow people in Hong Kong to criticize the Communist Party but if they should turn their words into action, opposing the mainland under the pretext of democracy, then Beijing would have to intervene. Troops, however, would be used only if there were serious disturbances.92 Deng’s speech provided the kind of straight talk that the people of Hong Kong were hoping for. It eased their concerns, even as it effectively ended all discussion of establishing three separate branches of government.

After the Basic Law was announced, it was received warmly in both China and Hong Kong.   Only four months after the signing, however, the optimism in Hong Kong was destroyed by the news of the tragedy in Tiananmen Square. To Hong Kong people, the specter that they would soon be ruled by a regime that could shoot its own people on the streets was terrifying. On June 4, 1989, out of sympathy for the students protesting for freedom in Beijing and out of concern for their own future, an estimated one million of Hong Kong’s five million people took to the streets. The demonstrations were far larger than any in the history of Hong Kong. After June 4, thousands of Hong Kong people who could afford it purchased foreign property, sent their children abroad to study, and took out foreign citizenship. Sino-British relations, which had been proceeding smoothly prior to June 4, deteriorated rapidly.

China’s problems with Tibetans erupted after 1955 when provincial leaders throughout China were told to accelerate the collectivization of agriculture. Mao said that “democratic reforms,” including collectivization, would be implemented among minority peoples if conditions seemed right, but they were not yet to be implemented in Tibet itself. The two million Tibetans outside Tibet proper were largely living in Sichuan, Yunnan, Qinghai, and Gansu. The leaders of Sichuan put together a plan not only to collectivize agriculture rapidly, but also to start “democratic reforms” in Sichuan’s Tibetan and other minority areas. Collectivization that was launched in the Tibetan areas in Sichuan at the beginning of 1956, including the taking over of some monasteries, quickly precipitated a serious and bloody uprising in Sichuan’s Tibetan areas, especially among the Khampa Tibetans, who constituted a large portion of Tibetans in Sichuan. The uprising was bloody because virtually every family in the Khampa Tibetan areas in Sichuan, where blood vengeance and raiding were endemic, had modern firearms and knew how to use them. After initial successes, the Khampas were overwhelmed by the much stronger PLA; in 1957–1958, they fled to Tibet proper with their guns. In 1957 at the height of the Cold War, the CIA began to train a small number of Khampas in Colorado and then dropped them back into Tibet to collect intelligence.106 Beijing directed the Dalai Lama to send the Khampas back to Sichuan, but the Dalai Lama refused. India had earlier invited the Dalai Lama to settle in India, and in March 1959 he led many of the most militant Tibetans across the mountains into India. Other Tibetans followed over the next two to three years.

Chinese leaders, frustrated by the growing resistance of Tibetan monks as a result of the Dalai Lama’s success abroad, have used whatever leverage they have with foreign groups to isolate the Dalai Lama. Some foreigners have yielded to Chinese pressures, but overall, Chinese efforts have increased foreign attention to the Dalai Lama and strengthened foreign criticism of China. In Tibet, the growing resistance of monks caused Chinese officials to fortify their security forces and to exercise stricter control over monasteries.

By the middle of the 1980s a tragic cycle had emerged that continues to this day: The Dalai Lama’s popularity abroad emboldens local Tibetans to resist, leading to a crackdown by Beijing. When foreigners learn of the crackdown, they complain, emboldening Tibetans to resist, and the cycle continues. But the Tibetans and Han Chinese both recognize there is a long-term change that began with the opening of Tibet to outside markets in the mid1980s and the input of economic aid to Tibet: an improvement in the standard of living and a decline of economic autonomy. In the 1950s outsiders settling in Tibet were mostly Han party officials and troops sent in by Beijing. After the mid-1980s settlers from the outside were overwhelmingly merchants who went to take advantage of economic opportunities generated by inputs of Chinese economic assistance to Tibet; many were members of Hui or other minorities from nearby poor provinces. Almost no outsiders settled in Tibetan villages but by the late 1990s, outsiders were already threatening to outnumber Tibetans in Lhasa.116 With more Tibetan youth learning Mandarin and receiving a Chinese education to further their careers, both Tibetans and Chinese see that the long-term trend is toward Tibetans absorbing many aspects of Chinese culture, and becoming integrated into the outside economy, while not giving up their Tibetan identity and loyalty.

Cambodian leader Pol Pot, who by the summer of 1978 had begun to realize the seriousness of the Vietnamese threat, asked Deng to send Chinese “volunteers” to Cambodia to resist the invasion of the Vietnamese, as Mao had done in Korea to resist the invasion of the South Koreans and the Americans. Deng was ready to cooperate with Pol Pot despite the atrocities he had committed against his own people and the vehement opposition these acts had caused in the West because Deng judged him to be the only Cambodian leader capable of offering significant resistance to Vietnam.

Meanwhile, China used these continuing border skirmishes—and occasional larger conflicts involving entire Chinese divisions—to train its troops. By the 1980s units from most of the infantry armies in China had been rotated to the Vietnam border to take part in the border skirmishes. As military analysts noted, assigning Chinese troops to fight against some of the most experienced ground troops in the world provided excellent combat training. The presence of large numbers of Chinese troops also made the Soviets cautious about sending additional aid to the Vietnamese.

In addition to negotiating with the Soviet Union, Deng also sought to reduce the risk of Soviet and Vietnamese advances by involving the United States. Deng knew that the United States was then in no mood to engage in a land war in Asia; what better way to ensure that the Soviets would not dominate the seas near Vietnam than to have a large American oil company conduct oil explorations there?

Deng’s reactions to the 1980 Polish strikes resembled Mao’s reactions to the Hungarian and Polish uprisings in 1956. First, allow more open criticism to help correct some of the worst features of the bureaucracy and to win over those critics who felt some changes were needed. But if hostility to the party threatened party control, clamp down. Having noted how Mao’s virulent anti-rightist campaign in 1957 had destroyed the support of intellectuals, Deng in 1980 tried to walk a fine line between curbing expressions of freedom and retaining intellectuals’ active support for modernization.

In March 1985, during this atmosphere of greater freedom, leading investigative journalist Liu Binyan, who three decades earlier had been labeled a rightist, published The Second Kind of Loyalty, in which he contrasted party members who automatically accept orders from higher party officials with party members with a conscience who serve the ideals of the party. Liu Binyan’s book hit a deep nerve among those who had agonized about whether to carry out party policy during the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution. It also had a tremendous influence on idealistic Chinese youth who sought independence from the party. Deng, who always believed in the importance of party discipline, regarded Liu’s message as a challenge to party leadership, and as a result in 1987 Liu was expelled from the party.

In dealing with protests, Deng, like other Chinese Communist leaders, tried to maintain tight control while alleviating the cause of the complaints. As news of demonstrations spread abroad, Deng continued to explain to the Chinese public that the socialist system of public ownership was superior to bourgeois democracy; he pointed to the capitalists’ exploitation of workers and to the difficulties of making timely decisions in countries where there was a separation of powers among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. But Deng also was determined to stay ahead of the popular movements by introducing timely political reform. He therefore directed that China undertake serious study of political systems to determine which systems endure for the long term, which systems collapse, and why.

The 1986 demonstrations were the first large student demonstrations in China since April 1976, when students had taken to the streets to honor Zhou Enlai and support Deng Xiaoping. On May 29, 1987, some weeks after these Chinese student demonstrations subsided, Zhao Ziyang explained to Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong that when China opened up, its students, who had had no previous contact with the outside world, could not judge what was good or bad. When they saw that the United States and Japan were more advanced, some came to the wrong conclusion, advocating total Westernization for China, without understanding that this was not possible in China where conditions were so different. Zhao admitted that it was not surprising some students had come to this conclusion, because the socialist system before 1978 did have its failures. But Zhao blamed the loosening of party controls for the demonstrations.74 He did not mention the name of the official who was considered responsible for this loosening: Hu Yaobang.

When launching his four modernizations, Deng had warned that some would get rich first, but in the view of most students, the people getting rich first were the least deserving—greedy individual entrepreneurs and corrupt officials—not the morally upright government employees working in the national interest after years of hard study. Students often lived in poor conditions, crowded eight to a small room. Able students who had sacrificed for years to be among the very small percentage to pass the examinations to enter good schools were outraged that the children of high officials received better opportunities and lived in a grander style because of their connections.75 Furthermore, university graduates were then not yet free to choose jobs; they were assigned jobs by the state based in part on reports compiled by the political guides who lived with the students. Many students felt they had no choice but to ingratiate themselves to these political guides, who often appeared to them to be arbitrary, arrogant, and poorly educated.76

On December 30, 1986, Deng summoned Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, Wan Li, Hu Qili, Li Peng, and others and announced to them that it was necessary to end the permissiveness toward the student movement. He told them, “When a disturbance breaks out in a place, it is because the leaders there didn’t take a firm clear-cut stand. . . . It is essential to adhere firmly to the Four Cardinal Principles; otherwise bourgeois liberalization will spread unchecked.” Hu Yaobang, aware that he was being held responsible for this lack of a “clear-cut stand,” knew that it was time to submit his resignation.

Deng also aimed to counter the broader appeal of Western ideals such as humanism, freedom, and democracy that in his view were being used to challenge the ultimate authority of the party.

The student movements that senior leaders had taken part in before 1949 were well organized, with thought-through plans and agenda, and by 1949, the student leaders had worked together for many years. Students in the late 1960s had experience as Red Guards. But the tight controls in the decade before 1989 had prevented the growth of an independent organized student movement. In 1989 the students who came together did not have any experience in organizing. Articulate orators emerged as leaders, but, lacking organization, an agenda, and procedures for ensuring compliance, they had no basis for negotiating with political leaders on behalf of other students.   Urban residents did not join in restraining the demonstrators, for they sympathized with their complaints. Even some older intellectuals who tried to keep the students from taking radical actions in fact admired the students for boldly expressing views that they themselves, beaten down by years of political pressures, were afraid to express. What began as an unplanned peaceful outpouring of mourning for Hu Yaobang was transformed into parades, political forums, campouts, angry protests, hunger strikes, and clashes that spiraled out of control.   Student demonstrators wanted improvements in their living conditions and they were upset that they were receiving fewer economic rewards for their ability and hard work than were uneducated entrepreneurs.

Chinese leaders, for their part, could see that foreign attention and support encouraged the protestors. They found it difficult to believe that Chinese citizens could be that angry at the leadership and found it easy to believe that the protests were being controlled behind the scenes by domestic and foreign “black hands.” Stories and rumors of such “black hands” circulated widely among high officials and were used by the conservatives to push Deng to take stronger action.

As students invoked the memory of Hu Yaobang to advance the cause of freedom and democracy, the parallels between the April 5, 1976, demonstrations (to mourn Zhou Enlai) and the April 1989 demonstrations (to mourn Hu Yaobang) were striking enough to inspire the demonstrators and to worry the Chinese leaders. The demonstrations in 1989 were taking place in the very same place as the April 1976 “Tiananmen Incident.” Like Zhou Enlai, Hu Yaobang had fought to protect the people and had died a tragic death. In both 1976 and 1989, the public was outraged that a man whom they revered had not been treated with more respect. In 1976 the demonstrators had taken advantage of the occasion to attack the Gang of Four. Now, was it not possible to use the occasion to criticize Deng Xiaoping and Premier Li Peng? By the fall of 1978, too, those arrested in the spring of 1976 had been rehabilitated and called patriotic. In the same way, was it not possible that the demonstrators in 1989 would later be called patriotic as well? Among those Chinese who hoped for a more humane government, Hu Yaobang had replaced Zhou as the great hero of the time.

Most Chinese students in the late 1980s were less concerned about political freedoms than about their personal freedoms, such as the ability to choose their own jobs and to escape from their “political guides.” After already having proved their talent and dedication by preparing for the difficult university entrance examinations, they felt entitled to pursue whatever jobs they wanted. But in 1989, with a shortage of trained graduates in key industries and government offices, government policy still mandated that graduates be assigned their jobs. Since one’s job assignment was based in part on what the political guides who lived with the students wrote in the “little reports” in each student’s secret records, the political guides became the symbol of government surveillance. The political guides were rarely as well educated as the students on whom they were reporting; some were suspected of favoritism and flaunted their authority to influence a student’s future. Many cosmopolitan, independent-minded students detested the constant worry about pleasing them. “Freedom,” to them, meant eliminating these political guides and being able to choose their jobs and careers on their own.

Party and government workers, state enterprise employees, and others with fixed salaries were furious to see rich private businesspeople flaunting their material wealth and driving market prices higher, threatening the ability of salaried workers to pay for their basic food and clothing needs. The problem was exacerbated by corruption: township and village enterprise workers were enriching themselves by siphoning off needed materials and funds from state and public enterprises; independent entrepreneurs were making fortunes, in part due to government loopholes; and “profiteering officials” were finding ways to use society’s goods to line their own pockets as the incomes of law-abiding officials stagnated.

Protesting students, furious at “profiteering” officials, demanded that these officials’ incomes and expenses be revealed, along with the number of villas they owned and the sources of their children’s money.7 In 1966 many children of high officials had joined the Red Guards against those who had “taken the capitalist road,” but in 1989 few children of high officials joined the protestors. Instead they were under attack, along with their parents, for the privileges they enjoyed as a result of turning their powerful positions into sources of profit in the new market economy.

Sympathy for the students was so widespread that Li Peng had difficulty retaining support of lower-level officials for the crackdown. Hu Qili, the Politburo Standing Committee member who supervised propaganda work, explained to his fellow officials that many newspaper reporters were upset because their articles about what was actually happening in the square were not being published. University officials who were told to quiet down the demonstrations dutifully passed along the message to the students, but for many their hearts were not in it.23 Li Peng could not even count on the official media to support him. For several days no newspapers of any kind appeared. On one national television station, reporters describing what was taking place in the square were interrupted, and for a brief time the picture went dark and the voiceover simply stopped. One day, an announcer said, “There is no news today.”24 After June 4, the head of the Propaganda Department and the editor of People’s Daily, who were considered too sympathetic to the students, were both removed from their positions.

The world press, assembled in Beijing to cover the reconciliation between China and the Soviet Union, found the student movement spellbinding; indeed, the dramatic events on the square quickly eclipsed the Gorbachev visit as the center of media attention. For foreign reporters, it was impossible not to get caught up in the idealism and enthusiasm of the students, who were far more open than Chinese had previously dared to be. With a vast international audience watching, the students grew even more confident that the PLA would not attack. Some, recognizing an opportunity to present their case to the world, assigned English-speaking demonstrators to the outside columns of the marchers, so they could tell the world about their desire for freedom and democracy and the need to end high-level corruption. A few persistent foreign reporters, trying to maintain balance, reported that most students in fact knew little about democracy and freedom and had little idea about how to achieve such goals.

Outside the Politburo, a group of retired liberal officials on the Central Advisory Commission—including Li Chang, Li Rui, Yu Guangyuan, and Du Runsheng—gathered to make final arrangements for releasing a declaration that the student movement should be declared patriotic. And early the next morning, with his back to the wall, Zhao called Deng’s office, hoping that if he could meet privately with Deng, he might be able to persuade him not to bring in the troops.

In Hungary, for example, national leaders had made concessions that had only led to further demands. If Chinese leaders were to yield again, China would be finished. In Shanghai, Deng added, Jiang Zemin had successfully restored order in 1986 by taking a tough, top-down approach, closing down the World Economic Herald for failing to follow directions (which had helped calm student demonstrations there). Deng believed that a similar steely resolve was needed now. But at present, Deng concluded, the police in Beijing were insufficient to restore order: troops were needed. These troops would have to be moved in quickly and decisively, and for the time being, plans for their deployment needed to remain secret.4 When some in the room expressed worries that foreigners would react negatively to any use of force, Deng replied that swift action was required and the “Westerners would forget.”5   Li Peng and Yao Yilin immediately supported Deng’s views, and although Hu Qili raised some concerns, only Zhao Ziyang clearly disagreed. When Zhao spoke up, he was reminded that the minority must follow the lead of the majority. Zhao replied that as a party member he accepted this, but he still had some personal reservations.6 As general secretary, Zhao realized that he would be expected to announce the imposition of martial law and then to oversee its implementation. He feared that the decision to bring in the military, even if unarmed, would only inflame the conflict.   Immediately after the meeting with Deng, Zhao asked his assistant, Bao Tong, to prepare his letter of resignation. Zhao knew that he could not bring himself to implement martial law and that this decision would mean the end of his career, but he also was confident that his decision would place him on the right side of history.

Neither the students in the square nor the high officials anticipated what happened next: the people of Beijing overwhelmed and completely stalled the 50,000 troops coming in from the north, east, south, and west, on six major and several minor routes. In his May 20 diary entry Li Peng simply noted: “We had not expected great resistance” and he then went on to record that troops everywhere had been stopped. Some troops had tried to enter Tiananmen Square by subway, but the subway entrances were blocked. Some had attempted to come in by suburban trains, but people lay on the tracks. In one instance, two thousand troops coming from some distance managed to arrive at the train station, but as soon as they got off the train, they were surrounded and unable to move.15 Cell phones were not yet available, but people used regular phones to call acquaintances, and those with walkie-talkies set themselves up at key crossings to warn of the arrival of troops so that people could swarm to attempt to stop them. People organized motorcycle corps to speed ahead and carry news of the troops’ movements as they entered Beijing. Some officials blame Zhao Ziyang’s assistant Bao Tong for leaking to the student protesters the plans for how and where the troops would arrive, but even if Bao Tong were a brilliant organizer, he could not have been able to alert or organize the vast throngs that took to the streets.

In his diary entry of May 22, Li Peng acknowledged that the troops were unable to move for fifty hours. He also reports that Deng was worried that the “soldiers’ hearts may not be steady” (junxin buwen). For Deng, this became the crucial issue. Would the soldiers maintain order when so many young people opposed them? Might the soldiers be influenced by the students and lose their determination to impose discipline? Some soldiers appeared weary and hungry.18

Melanie Manion, a perceptive Western scholar who was there at the time, explained Deng’s rationale. In her view, it was “highly probable that even had riot control measures cleared the streets on June 3, they would not have ended the protest movement. . . . The protestors would have retreated only temporarily, to rally in even greater force at a later date . . . the force used on June 4 promised to end the movement immediately, certainly, and once and for all.”34 Deng’s family reported that despite all the criticism he received, he never once doubted that he had made the right decision.35 Many observers who saw the dwindling numbers in Tiananmen Square toward the end of May believe it may have been possible to clear it without violence. But Deng was concerned not only about the students in the square but also about the general loosening of authority throughout the country, and he concluded that strong action was necessary to restore the government’s authority.

In explaining his rationale for sending in the troops, Deng acknowledged that political reform was needed, but he was firm about maintaining the four cardinal principles: upholding the socialist path, supporting the people’s democratic dictatorship, maintaining the leadership of the Communist Party, and upholding Marxist–Leninist–Mao Zedong Thought.

The leaders had expected some resistance from demonstrators on June 2, but they had underestimated the strength of the opposition: Chen Xitong reported that people “surrounded and beat soldiers. . . . Some of the rioters even seized munitions and military provisions. Offices of the Central Government and other major organs came under siege.” Li Peng was so distraught at the scale and determination of the resistance that for the first time he used the term “counterrevolutionary riot,” indicating that those resisting would be treated like enemies.

Students of this generation, as well as the following generations, took away from their tragic experience the lesson that direct confrontation with the leadership would likely cause a reaction so forceful that it was not worth the costs.

The tragedy in Tiananmen Square evoked a massive outcry in the West, far greater than previous tragedies in Asia of comparable scale elicited.59 For instance, on February 28, 1947, as the Guomindang took over Taiwan, the Guomindang general Chen Yi killed off thousands of the most prominent local leaders so as to eliminate any local leader who might have resisted the Guomindang. In Taiwan the incident embittered relations between “locals” and “outsiders” for decades, but it received little attention abroad. In 1980, too, Korean president Chun Doo Hwan led a bloody crackdown during which he slaughtered far more people than were killed in Beijing in 1989 in order to eliminate local resistance in Kwangju. Yet the Kwangju events were not covered by Western television, and global condemnation of the South Korean leaders did not compare with the condemnation of the Chinese leaders after the Tiananmen tragedy.

In the aftermath of the Tiananmen incident, businesspeople, scholars, and U.S. government officials who believed that U.S. national interests required working with the Chinese government were vulnerable to criticism for cooperating with the “evil dictators” in Beijing. As the Cold War was coming to a close, many outspoken U.S. liberals were arguing that our policies should reflect our values, that we should not coddle dictators but instead should stand on the side of democracy and human rights. And what better way to display Western commitments to these ideals than to condemn those responsible for the Tiananmen crackdown? After June 4, then, Deng Xiaoping was confronted not only by disaffected youth and urban residents in China, but also by Western officials who espoused the same values as the Chinese demonstrators.

For the Westerners, the killing of innocent students protesting for freedom and democracy in Beijing was a far worse crime than the decisions of their countries that had brought about the deaths of many more civilians in Vietnam, Cambodia, and elsewhere. Western human rights groups began lecturing Chinese about freedom and regard for human life. High-level Western officials stopped visiting China, and restrictions were placed on the export of technology, especially military technology. Foreign trade and tourism suffered.

Deng began by expressing his sorrow over the deaths of the soldiers and police who had died while heroically defending the interests of the party and the people during the struggle. He said that given the global atmosphere and the environment in China, such conflict was inevitable. It was fortunate, Deng said, that the conflict had occurred when many experienced senior military leaders—men who had the strength and courage to resolve the issue—were still around. He acknowledged that some comrades did not understand the need for their action, but he expressed confidence that eventually they would come to support the effort. Difficulties arose, Deng claimed, because some bad people who had mixed with students and onlookers had the ultimate goal of overthrowing the Communist Party, demolishing the socialist system, and establishing a bourgeois republic that would be the vassal of the West.

Deng began the meeting by reminding them that, as he had often declared in the past, one of his final responsibilities would be to establish a mandatory retirement system, so that aged officials would automatically pass on their responsibilities to younger leaders. Deng expressed the view to his assembled colleagues that the lack of a mandatory retirement age had been a critical weakness in the system, not only in Mao’s later years but in imperial days as well.

Particularly devastating to the Chinese and to Deng personally was the growing mass movement in Romania against China’s friend Nicolai Ceauescu and his wife that culminated on December 25, 1989, with their execution. Ceauescu was the only Eastern European leader to order troops to fire on civilians, and no Chinese leader could avoid seeing the parallels with the recent military action in Beijing just seven months earlier. Indeed, the sudden turn of events in Romania that led to his execution caused Chinese leaders to wonder if they were immune to the fate of Ceauescu, who had earlier expressed approval of Beijing’s June 4 crackdown.

Like Deng in 1957, Jiang affirmed that democracy is a worthy target and that the amount of democracy achieved will depend on the political steadiness of the situation in China.

In February 1990, as the Soviet party plenum discussed giving up the party’s monopoly over political power, the People’s Daily printed nothing. Instead, on the day the plenum ended, without mentioning the Soviet Union, the People’s Daily announced, “In China, without the strong leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, new turmoil and wars would surely arise, the nation would be split, and the people, not to mention state construction, would suffer.” The following day the paper carried the news that the Moscow plenum had agreed to give up the party’s monopoly of power.54 As the Soviet Union was falling apart, some Chinese intellectuals were as joyful as many Westerners. Some even repeated to trusted friends one of the great Chinese slogans of the 1950s when China was introducing Soviet-style industrialization, now used with a very different connotation: “The Soviet Union’s today is our tomorrow.”

The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the USSR had revealed that youth in the Communist world had lost faith in Marxism-Leninism, the socialist economy, and Communist orthodoxy. Deng and his fellow party elders realized that political training in Marxism-Leninism or even Maoism could no longer be expected to appeal to the sensibilities of Chinese youth. Nor, even if Deng had personally supported it, would class struggle against the landlord and bourgeois classes resonate with the youth as it had at the height of the Mao era.   What should replace Marxism-Leninism and Maoist ideology to win the hearts and minds of China’s youth? The answer seemed obvious: patriotism.67 Patriotic education that emphasized the history of the century of humiliation by foreign imperialists had been the main theme of propaganda in the 1940s, and it had never disappeared. It had, however, played only a secondary role as China had built up socialism beginning in the 1950s, and it had languished in the 1980s as Deng tried to build closer relations with the West. Yet after 1989, when Western countries were imposing sanctions, there was a widespread patriotic reaction against foreign sanctions. To many Westerners, sanctions on China were a way of attacking Chinese leaders who used force on June 4, but to Chinese people the sanctions hurt all Chinese. Patriotic “education” linked nationalism to the Communist Party, as the Communists in World War II appealed to patriotism and nationalism to rally support against the Japanese. Conversely, criticism of the Communist Party was ipso facto unpatriotic.

The sanctions imposed by foreign countries and the criticism of foreigners that followed June 4 provided Deng and his colleagues with a useful vehicle for enhancing this patriotism. Within weeks after the Tiananmen tragedy, Deng began emphasizing his patriotic message. The Propaganda Department skillfully publicized anti-Chinese statements by foreigners that caused many Chinese, even students who advocated democracy, to feel outraged. The efforts by foreign countries to keep China out of the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which in 1994 was replaced by the World Trade Organization) were publicized so as to focus Chinese anger on the prejudices of foreigners toward China. The refusal by foreign countries to supply modern technology was framed as an effort to unfairly prevent the Chinese from sharing in the fruits of modernization. Foreign criticism of China for its treatment of Tibetans, Uighurs, and other minority groups was presented to the Chinese public as part of an organized effort by foreign powers to weaken China. The West’s support for Taiwan and resistance to China’s claims to the islands in the South China Sea and the East China Sea were also offered up to the public as examples of efforts to keep China down. These stories and others had their intended effect. In the years after 1989, students who had shouted slogans against the government for corruption and for not granting more democracy and freedom began supporting the government and the party by shouting slogans against foreigners, who they felt were unfairly criticizing China.

He cautioned: “China should maintain vigilance against the right but primarily against the left.”29 In frank talks with local officials, Deng countered his critics who said that the SEZs were capitalistic and controlled by foreigners by saying that only a quarter of the investment came from foreigners. Moreover, Deng said, China had political control over all foreign-owned firms, so it could be certain that they served Chinese interests. Instead of worrying about the current level of foreign involvement, Deng advised, China should increase foreign investment and form more joint ventures: foreign firms pay Chinese taxes and provide local workers with jobs and wages.

He praised local leaders’ success in using markets to further the cause of socialism, and credited socialism in turn for aiding in that success: he said that capitalism could not match the socialist system in terms of focusing on talent to make things happen quickly.

On the issue of governance and freedom, Deng said that the concept of “democratic centralism” was still the “most rational system” and should remain the country’s basic governing principle. Leaders should find ways to encourage people to express their opinions, but once a decision is made, people should follow the collective decision.

Deng’s successors are under pressure for not being more successful in stopping China’s widespread corruption and for not doing more to resolve the problems of inequality. And it may be even harder in the future to combat these problems: given global economic fluctuations, China faces the potential of an economic slowdown before a substantial portion of the population has had the chance to enjoy the benefits of the earlier rapid growth period. To prepare for this possibility, Chinese leaders will have to look beyond fast economic growth for legitimacy and accelerate progress on some of the issues that the public is most concerned about: reducing corruption and inequality, providing a reasonable level of universal medical care and welfare, and finding a way to show that public opinion is being respected in the selection of officials.

Deng, as the first Chinese leader to address the UN General Assembly in 1974, said that China would never become a tyrant and that if it ever oppressed and exploited other nations, the world, and especially the developing countries, should expose China as a “social imperialist” country and, in cooperation with the Chinese people, overthrow the Chinese government. In August 1991, upon receiving the news that Soviet leader Gennady Yanayev had staged a coup against Gorbachev, Wang Zhen sent a telegram to the party center proposing that they lend support for Yanayev’s coup. Deng replied “taoguang yanghui, juebu dangtou, yousuo zuowei.”14 (Incorrectly translated by some Westerners as “avoid the limelight, don’t take the lead, bide your time.” What it means is “avoid the limelight, never take the lead, and try to accomplish something.”) In Deng’s view, China should not get involved in other countries’ domestic affairs.


About Journeyman

A global macro analyst with over four years experience in the financial market, the author began his career as an equity analyst before transitioning to macro research focusing on Emerging Markets at a well-known independent research firm. He read voraciously, spending most of his free time following The Economist magazine and reading topics on finance and self-improvement. When off duty, he works part-time for Getty Images, taking pictures from all over the globe. To date, he has over 1200 pictures over 35 countries being sold through the company.
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