The boom times of a rat catcher

Revolutionary Discourse in Mao's Republic - Deng Xiaoping and the Chinese Revolution - Burying Mao - Deng Xiaoping - China after Deng Xiaoping
June 2, 1995

Since the death in 1976 of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping has been the most influential person in China. His re-emergence after the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) attests to both his tenacity and his acumen. Known in the West for his open economic policies and the epigram "It doesn't matter if the cat is white or black, so long as it catches rats", the 91-year-old seems to have led China into a closer relationship with the non-communist world. However, the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989 showed him to be a man who would rather kill thousands of unarmed demonstrators than risk erosion of his party's power. After the tragedy, the Chinese government began a retrenchment of its open policies and engineered the formation of a Deng cult, while in the West a re-assessment of Deng began.

Readers interested in the personal history of Deng should read Deng Xiaoping and the Chinese Revolution among the five books under review. David Goodman has written a political biography of his subject's early life and years of study in France as well as his exploits as ruler of China, with emphasis given to the period after his rise to prominence in the early 1950s. This is followed by Goodman's assessment of Deng as a family man, soldier, politician, and reformer; a bibliography of Deng's writings is also included.

Goodman sees Deng as more successful as an economic moderniser than as a political reformer. His image as a family man was helpful in presenting him as a patriarch to the Chinese people. His participation in the civil war of the late 1940s as commissar of the Second Field Army was also useful in his attempts to restructure the People's Liberation Army during the 1980s. For Goodman, Deng is much more a pragmatic organiser than an intellectual force in the Chinese communist movement.

Richard Baum's Burying Mao is a comprehensive political history of the Deng Xiaoping era. Arranged chronologically, each chapter covers a specific period characterised by the alternating central governmental policies of fang (letting go) and shou (tightening up). Deng is portrayed as a skilful manipulator giving support sometimes to the reformers and sometimes to the "leftist" conservatives. These vacillations were necessary for Deng in order to remain in power and fulfil his policy of opening China to the outside world. However, Baum credits this open economic policy to Deng's contemporary, Chen Yun, who died in April 1995. As older conservatives have died and Deng has continued to manipulate events from behind the scenes, China has moved towards a more market-oriented society. Baum ends by pointing out that crime, prostitution, and drug use are on the rise and the country is "perched precariously on a developmental bubble". His book was finished in December 1993. Now, a year and a half later, China is still floundering and the shadow of Deng's death looms larger and darker every day. Will the bubble burst?

To Ruan Ming, author of Deng Xiaoping: Chronicle of an Empire, the answer to the above question depends on the development of Chinese politics. As a former deputy director of the theoretical research department in the central party school, Ruan has the experience of an insider in the reformers' camp. The translated text of his book is sometimes awkward as it assumes familiarity with China and its political figures. However, the editors of this English edition have made a good job of providing notes that elucidate most of the details and have included a glossary of dramatis personae in contemporary Chinese politics. Like Baum, Ruan traces Deng's policy swings but in his opinion, Deng's dynasty of pro-economic reform and anti-political reform ended with the death of former Communist Party general secretary, Hu Yaobang, and the subsequent Tiananmen Massacre in mid-1989; Tiananmen left the Chinese Communist Party and Deng totally bankrupt in the eyes of the Chinese people. Again like Baum, Ruan sees China as being in a state of political limbo.

Hu Yaobang was a close associate of Ruan, and his book is a tribute to the dismissed liberal party secretary. Hu's replacement as general secretary, Zhao Ziyang, is portrayed as an opportunist who tried to manipulate the reformers and students but failed because Deng became weary of Zhao's political ambition. Ruan believes that the "new authoritarianism" - a theory first proposed by Zhao Ziyang's supporters which holds that China could achieve a stronger base for economic growth by imitating the autocratic, centrally controlled politics of Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea - will not prepare China for the 21st century. Instead there will have to be full democracy and human rights. Any idea that the Chinese are not ready or suited to democracy, as implied by advocates of the "new authoritarianism", is ridiculous to Ruan - but he does not say how democracy can be attained.

A possible scenario is given in China after Deng Xiaoping.

This looks at Deng Xiaoping and the rest of the leadership of China from 1989 on. Willy Lam spends a great deal of effort predicting the future course of the country into the late 1990s and the early part of next century. Like Baum and Ruan, Lam sees Deng as the master pragmatist. But contrary to Baum, Chen Yun gets no credit from Lam for his reforms, and contrary to Ruan, Lam draws no distinction between Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. Based on a thorough review of Chinese news releases in Hong Kong and interviews, Lam's disorganised text takes a clear anti-Deng and anti-communist stance although he shows some sympathy for reformers within the Communist Party such as Hu and Zhao. The Hong Kong values of the author emerge clearly, with much praise for the virtues of the stock market, contact with foreigners, and a reduced role for government in economic affairs, though he also implies that some authoritarianism will always be tolerated in China.

Lam predicts that the anointed successors to Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and his allies, will remain in power for a short period after Deng's death, perhaps 18 months. After that, while Chinese nationalism is likely to prevail over any regional break-up, regional authorities in places such as Guangdong, Fujian, and Hainan are likely to assert themselves. In addition, the rise of entrepreneurs and improved telecommunications will undoubtedly lead to further decay of the communist position of control and hence to increased pluralism.

The final book does not approach the future of Chinese politics by examining Deng's rule. The authors of Revolutionary Discourse in Mao's Republic combine the talents of a political theorist, David Apter, with a China expert, Tony Saich, to probe the significance of the Yan'an period (1936-45) for Chinese politics. Yan'an is the remote town in Shaanxi province, northwest China, which is famous as having been the temporary headquarters of the Chinese communists before they took power. In Chinese propaganda Yan'an was the centre of the heroic resistance to the invading Japanese.

Apter and Saich show us a Yan'an which in some ways differs from this image. In Yan'an, Mao was able to propagandise about the evils that had befallen China since the opium wars in the mid-19th century, the struggles between the Communist and Nationalist Parties, and struggles within the communist leadership to bond the people to himself. The ruthlessness with which this "bonding" was often carried out, especially during the so-called rescue campaign of 1943 when many party members were coaxed to confess wrongdoings only to lose their lives or be purged from power, foreshadowed the Cultural Revolution. In the final chapter the authors attempt to relate the lessons of the Yan'an period to the Tiananmen Massacre, suggesting that Tiananmen has become the new symbol for Chinese society in place of Yan'an - a point also made by Lam. Thus the older generation still in power, for which Yan'an is sacred, are out of step with the masses; according to the authors, we can expect significant policy change to occur once all these "Yan'anites" have died.

With the exception of Goodman's, all these books attempt to comment on the future of China's political system. Apter and Saich seem to hint most strongly that Tiananmen will be the place for another revolution largely led by dissidents from overseas but are hesitant about whether the new system will be democratic socialism or democratic capitalism. Ruan does not raise the question of socialism versus capitalism but implies that for China socialism is bankrupt. Baum is more cautious than either Ruan or Apter and Saich about the future. He notes that the social fabric of the country is strained and seems to support the argument that capitalism is back to stay in China. Lam presents us with a series of scenarios for the future and is non-committal about which will actually occur, though he sees change as inevitable.

Predicting apart, all the authors appear to share the common view that the revolutionary Yan'an spirit is dead. None sees a future for a revival of a Stalinist-style planned society; rather, considerable further changes are in sight. All the books note that though Deng still lives, China is already in a transitional limbo. Major changes may or may not come with Deng's death but power in China will pass to a new generation which will not be able to control the country as Mao and Deng did. Most of the authors feel change is likely to be more evolutionary than chaotic. For the sake of the Chinese people, let us hope that they are right.

Richard Edmonds is a senior lecturer, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Revolutionary Discourse in Mao's Republic

Author - David E. Apter and Tony Saich
ISBN - 0 674 76779 9 and 76780 2
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £35.95 and £19.25
Pages - 403

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments