'Two Faces' of Deng Xiaoping

Deng Xiaoping saw himself as a man set apart from the common herd, and his only aim was to save the Chinese Communist Party, according to a former top official.

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Deng Troops 305 Deng Xiaoping, Chairman of the Central Military Commission, reviews Chinese troops during a military parade in Beijing, Oct. 7, 1981.

In the third part of a series commemorating 30 years of economic reforms in China, Bao Tong, former aide to ousted late premier Zhao Ziyang, attacks the image of Deng Xiaoping as the architect of China's economic reform era, saying he had no interest in a market economy, nor in the Chinese people:

In October 1984, a group of university students spontaneously unfurled a banner that read "Hello Xiaoping" and marched in an ebullient mood towards Tiananmen Square. This was an expression of the public mood. Five years later, countless students coralled in their dormitory buildings smashed "little bottles" (xiaoping) in an expression of their indescribable anger and grief. This, too, was an expression of the public mood. Both expressions gave voice to the two-faced nature of Deng Xiaoping.

Deng's two-sidedness was like a pendulum. One minute he wanted reforms, the next he was resolutely upholding the four basic principles of socialism. One minute he wanted to escape from a political dead end, the next he had returned to it.

Deng was like that. You could criticize him for logical inconsistency, but you couldn't say he said one thing and did another. Both his words and his deeds were in earnest. He was a genuine supporter of reforms, and yet also a staunch protector of the very things we were supposed to be reforming.

Ouster of Hua Guofeng

Deng's consistency lay in his two-sidedness. When Hua Guofeng was being attacked for the "Two Whatevers" [promising to follow whatever policies Mao Zedong had laid out and whatever instructions he gave], he joined in. A few months later, to fill the vacuum, he came up with his very own "Four Whatevers," in the form of his reiterated support for the four basic principles [of socialism].

He criticized Hua Guofeng for allowing "too much concentration of power," but soon after he had designated himself as the "core" of the Party leadership. He admitted that the Cultural Revolution was a disaster without parallel in history, but at the same time advocated "holding high the banner of Mao Zedong Thought, today and in the future." He styled himself a "son of the people," but at the same time he sent the army to effect a bloody suppression of students and citizens [in 1989].

If he had been in primary school, his teacher would have suggested he spend a little time studying logic. If he had been an ordinary person, he would have been the subject of ridicule or of patient explanations. But because he was a leader of the Communist Party who commanded dignity and respect, he was above the worldly concerns of the common herd, able to dismiss the general public: He was above both debate and the demands of logic.

Bound up with Party

People are often bemused by his lack of consistency. But Deng's own sense of himself was in good shape. He thought he was doing fine, because he was set apart from other people. After Mao died, China was in great danger, and people were calling for someone to save the country. Actually, people were saying all sorts of different thingssome were calling for someone to save the people, others for someone to save the Party.

At the time when Deng made that brief utterance "Not introducing reforms will take us down a blind alley," he wasn't trying to convince the people. That was hardly necessary. No, Deng was aiming to educate some of those within the Party who resisted reforms and who didn't really have a grasp of what was going on, saying: "If you don't reform, the people will dump the Party, and we will be finished as a political force."

So you could say that the essential thing about Deng was that he believed strongly in saving the Party. He was the embodiment of the Party; he carried its spirit. Louis XIV said "L'etat, c'est moi." Well, Deng was the Party. His identity, his fate, his personal fortunes, his vision, his sense of mission, and his emotional life were to be found not with the far-off and rather blurry Chinese people, but in the highest organs of Party leadership.

As for the people, it didn't matter whether it was political struggle or productivity that was the order of the day: As far as they knew, the Party ruled everything.

Cat and mouse

Once you grasp the logic of saving the Party, it is possible to get a basic understanding of Deng Xiaoping's logic. Everything he did was done to save the Party. Saving the Party required boosting productivity. So to catch the "mouse" of saving the Party, we needed the "cat" of the market economy.

It was for this reason that Deng Xiaoping supported economic reforms with all his might. He deserves to be credited as a supporter of economic reforms, even though he didn't care much for economics and didn't understand the market; and he was their most powerful supporter. However, his goal was still to save the Party, and for that reason he was a fierce protector of Party power and status. Just 18 months after the inception of economic reforms, he was quick to stamp out any small green shoots of "liberalism" in a thorough attack, lest they take root and flourish in a change in climate and strike at the heart of the Party.

He knew very well that the only system that would prevent a recurrence of the Cultural Revolution was a democratic one; but he resolutely opposed the separation of powers in order to preserve the Party's monopoly on power. He would occasionally speak some high-flown talk of democracy, but that was just to keep up his image as a man of the people, to win the affection of the people on behalf of the Party. But the charade was never to become a reality. Behind his apparent double-sidedness was a single-mindedness that was pure Party spirit, a clear guiding principle that ran through the apparent confusion.

Anti-liberalism campaign

But what about the rest of us?

We, you, me, the students, even Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, are all ordinary people. To fit in with Deng's doublethink, Zhao Ziyang came up with "two basic points" to reiterate the Deng Xiaoping line. Initially, Deng seemed to agree, saying it was a good summary. Zhao told me later he thought summarizing it to two points was better than one, because it avoided one-sidedness.

As I recall, Zhao never once used the four principles to restrict reform and opening up. On the contrary, he often used reform and opening up to dilute, weaken, and restrict the four principles. No sooner would Deng use one "basic principle" to stamp out signs of liberalism, than Zhao would remind everyone in the Party without delay that Deng also had another basic principle, that of "reform and opening up," which had "building a modern China" at its core!

At times, before 1988, this proved to have a vigorous effect, especially in the dangerous times that followed Deng's toppling of Hu Yaobang from power, when the Anti-Bourgeois Liberalism campaign spearheaded by Deng Liqun and that crowd looked set to overwhelm the country. Not only did it enable that political campaign to die of natural causes, it also sped up the progress of reforms and opening up at every level of command, and gave rise to a document called "Tentative Plans for Reforms to the Political System," which had gained a consensus at the 13th Party Congress, and whose real aim was the dilution of Party leadership in all things.

Political reforms never an option

While the new slogan, "One core, two basic principles," won Deng's support and solved the contradiction inherent in the "two basic principles," it didn't change the basic nature of Deng: Deng, who had lived and worked in France, but who never absorbed the principles of human rights and who had a terror of democratic politics.

His rising career led him to fixate upon one particular relationship out of all human relationships, that between the bureaucracy and the military. Looking back today, I think his "two basic principles" can be summarized like this: 1. We absolutely must carry out economic reforms. 2. We absolutely must not carry out political reforms. His "one core" should be expressed as: Always uphold the Party's right to rule. His whole aim in supporting economic reforms was to breathe new life into a dying Party, not to weaken it.

A lot of observers seem to think that free economic competition will naturally bring democratic politics in its train, that economic reforms will not just call for but will inevitably push forward political reform. But Deng Xiaoping made his calculations on a different abacus. He planned to strengthen the Party's political power through developing the economy.

The price of economic reforms was the sacrifice of any hope for future political reform. I believe that this was Deng's bottom line, and to cross it was to walk the path of liberalism and the road to chaos; it was no less than treason. This made it inevitable that he would fall out with Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang eventually, and this should therefore come as no surprise.

Original essay in Chinese by Bao Tong, aired in six parts on RFA's Mandarin service. Director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and produced for the Web by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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