02 February 1997
China After Deng Xiaoping
On the day of Deng Xiaoping's official funeral Sheila Parker examines
what was really behind the recent moves towards the market in China.
Western discussions and preoccupations with the personality, history
and accession of Deng, she argues, obscures the forces which constitute
real problems for the future of China
The death of Deng certainly represents the 'end of an era'. Deng
represented a figure with historical ties that enabled him to span the
contradictions of contemporary Chinese society - the tension between
China's failed 'socialist' experiment and its contemporary embracing of
the market. In fact it was Deng who introduced these tensions into
China in the first place. However, while everyone credits Deng with the
reforming of China and opening it to market forces, the key impetus for
these reforms had little to do with his personality.
The opening up of China in the seventies was the result of the
interplay between the failure of China's Stalinist-controlled command
economy and the interests of the United States of America in the
region. By the late 1960s America was facing new challenges to its
post-war domination. The rise of Japan as an economic competitor forced
the US to alter its previous hostility to Mao's China. The USA was
anxious not only to counter Japan's increasing influence in the region,
but also to maintain a balance of power which would hold the Soviet
Union in check. Courting Peking was seen as an effective way of
maintaining, indeed of intensifying the Sino-Soviet split.
The first overtures between America and China began in 1971 with
Kissinger's visit to China followed by President Nixon in 1972. By 1978
diplomatic relations were restored and trade began to flourish:
increasing from $3.9bn in 1969 to $14bn in 1975. It was these changes
in America's relationship with China that provided the context and
impetus for Deng to introduce much-needed changes. The proverbial black
or white cat Deng famously remarked upon ('as long at it catches mice')
as his historic claim to fame had more in common with Mickey Mouse than
most commentators concede.
While it is true that Deng played a particularly important role
throughout this period, it was not his personality that was important,
but his credentials as a cadre of the Long March. This connection with
China's revolutionary past gave Deng a unique credibility: market
reforms could be and were presented as a continuation of Mao's legacy.
The inherent social tensions this entailed could be reconciled
precisely because Deng retained credibility within both camps - the
winners and losers of China's marketisation. For the past 19 years, the
Chinese state bureaucracy have been struggling to prevent these from
breaking out - and not always successfully as was the case in June 1989
with the Tiananmen Square massacre. Today the problems of Tibet and
Xinjiang express this clearly.
And it is precisely the future of the market in China that Western
commentators are preoccupied with. But the future of China has little
to do with the personality of the new leadership. What will happen to
China in the 21st Century will depend upon the interplay of events
inside China and internationally. On the one hand, China is currently
more dependent on the world economy than any other recently developed
nation at the same point in its development. On the other, internal
problems are awesome: the future of the transformation of the state and
bureaucracy; the social and economic fragmentation of society as the
market creates both winners and losers; the impact of competing foreign
interests within China, are but a few of the questions which will
determine what happens in China in the 21st Century.
The West's preoccupation with the personalities of China's leaders both
past and present obscures the complex economic and political process
underway in China. Underlying these commentaries is a recognition that
whatever happens in China today will have an impact upon the world.
Deng 'opened' China, but he has also ensured that China's internal
affairs are now the world's affairs. And this is what informs the
unstated content of the West's preoccupation with the passing of Deng's
China: both a fear of China's rise and an even greater fear of it
faltering. The love of Deng the reformer and the reluctant but
necessary appeasement of Deng the 'Emperor of Tiananmen Square' broadly
mirrors the West's fear and envy.
Join a discussion on this commentary