After months of political turmoil, China’s leadership is gathering this week for its once-in-a-decade conclave to transfer power to the next generation. In charting a course for China’s future, the new leaders would do well to master the lessons from Deng Xiaoping, the bold reformer who set China on its path to success after the tumult of the Mao years.
Deng took power in 1978, when China was in dire poverty. By the time he stepped down 14 years later, over 200 million people had been lifted out of poverty, and the policies he introduced set China on the path to become an economic powerhouse.
But in recent years China has lost its way. The public has become fed up with rampant corruption, the extravagant lifestyle of party leaders, the lack of full freedom and the inadequate procedures for correcting leadership abuses. Economic growth is slowing down while over a 100 million people still remain below the poverty line.
China badly needs political and social reform. To Deng, reform was a continuing process, and he would have moved boldly forward. Among the lessons from Deng:
In introducing bold reforms, experiment first. Deng thought it wise to try new ideas in areas where leaders supported reforms and conditions were favorable. When new programs worked, Deng brought in leaders to observe the successes and sent those who led the experiments around the country to explain how they succeeded. In Guangdong Province — including Shenzhen and other “special economic zones” — businessmen from Hong Kong flowed in to establish new enterprises and set new standards for efficient management. When they worked, lessons were extended elsewhere.
Support meritocracy. Deng believed only the best students should be asked to join the Communist Party. To reach the higher levels of the party, cadres had to prove themselves at the lower levels. Leaders were retired at a certain age.
Avoid polarization. In 1978, many officials opposed ending rural communes, even though the system had proven inadequate at feeding the population. Instead of confronting the opponents of change head on by abolishing communes, Deng told local leaders that if peasants were starving farmers should be allowed to adapt. Some villages then permitted farmers to provide for their own families after meeting production targets. Farms flourished. Surplus food was sold on the market. Deng invited journalists to report on the successes and within a year most of the country had chosen to end communes.
Establish good relations with all major countries. Deng had pleasant discussions with foreign leaders but was honest about differences. He believed the Soviet Union made a grave mistake by making enemies. He was the first leader in Chinese history to go to Japan, where he met the Japanese emperor. He negotiated and signed a treaty of peace and friendship with Japan, promoted people-to-people exchanges, and expanded imports of Japanese movies, TV programs and novels. He completed the normalization of relations with the United States. He made a triumphant visit to America, where he donned a cowboy hat, demonstrating that it was all right for the Chinese to imbibe American culture. In 1989, he welcomed Mikhail Gorbachev to Beijing to show the world that Sino-Soviet relations, broken since 1963, were back on track.
Deng presided over a far different China than the one the new leaders are inheriting, and it is not likely they will ever match his prestige and authority. He was part of the original generation of Communist revolutionary leaders who fought together, and a close comrade of Mao and Zhou Enlai. In many ways, today’s Communist Party is still working out the complex consequences of the prosperity and power that Deng brought to the country.
Where the next generations of leaders can draw a lesson is in Deng’s openness to risk and change, in his rejection of xenophobia, in his pragmatic view of the world, and in his support for meritocracy over privilege.
Ezra F. Vogelis the Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences Emeritus at Harvard and the author of Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China.