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Deng Xiaoping: The Social Reformer

  • Martin King Whyte


Deng Xiaoping's legacy as a social reformer can be considered in the context of his ideas regarding the selection and promotion of human talent, and the implications of those ideas for the political and social order. Deng's ideas are contrasted primarily with those of Mao Zedong, even though at many times and in many of the utterances of both men there is little that can be distinguished.



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1. Describing what is distinctive about Deng's approach is difficult for a variety of familiar reasons. Most of his ideas have not been recorded for scholarly scrutiny, he worked closely for decades with Mao Zedong and others from whom I want to distinguish him here, and even his recorded speeches and writings may be the product of collective authorship and have in many cases been revised for publication in light of subsequent events. For all of these reasons, some degree of oversimplification is involved in trying to describe Deng's distinctive approaches.

2. These terms are discussed by Turner, Ralph in his article, “Sponsored and contest mobility and the school system,” American Sociological Review, No. 25 (1960), pp. 555567. The discussion above concerns selecting talent for high political office. As noted, leadership in other sectors of society is chosen in a variety of ways, and generally with little input from the government. In many of these other sectors the route to leadership is more via contest than sponsored mobility, but there are exceptions, such as in the U.S. armed forces and the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy.

3. At the higher reaches of the system, the CCP's personnel management was exercised through the system of nomenklatura borrowed from the CPSU, under which power to appoint and approve lists of various officials in the state administrative hierarchy was vested in particular levels of the Party. See Burns, John P. (ed.), The Chinese Communist Party's Nomenklatura System (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1989). However, the CCP's power over personnel extended much further than the formal nomenklatura lists to include all positions of any power and influence in the PRC.

4. The major exception to this universalism of the imperial system concerns the fact that leadership positions were only open to males. Minor exceptions concerned specific occupational and ethnic groups that were excluded from the imperial examination process, such as actors, boat people, soldiers, etc.

5. Highly publicized cases to the contrary, most children from former elite families did not have publicly to denounce their parents or cut off all contact with them, but only to promise not to let family loyalty interfere with obedience to the CCP. See the discussion in my chapter, “Urban life in the People's Republic,” in MacFarquhar, Roderick and Fairbank, John K. (eds.), The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 15 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

6. On the worsening prospects for upward mobility after the Great Leap Forward, see my essay, “The politics of life chances in the People's Republic of China,” in Shaw, Yu-ming (ed.), Power and Policy in the PRC (Boulder: Westview, 1985).

7. The best account of the class label system and the debates surrounding it is Kraus, Richard Curt, Class Conflict in Chinese Socialism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981).

8. Shirk, Susan, “The decline of virtuocracy in China,” in Watson, James (ed.), Class and Social Stratification in Post-Revolution China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

9. See Djilas, Milovan, The New Class (New York: Praeger, 1957).

10. See the discussion in Nee, Victor, “Revolution and bureaucracy: Shanghai in the Cultural Revolution,” in Nee, Victor and Peck, James (eds.), China's Uninterrupted Revolution (New York: Pantheon, 1975).

11. Chinese dissidents have, however, put forth more systematic ideas that have much in common with new class analysis. See, for example, Binyan, Liu, People or Monsters? (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983); Erjin, Chen, China: Crossroads Socialism (London: Verso, 1984); Jingsheng, Wei, “The fifth modernization,” in Seymour, James D. (ed.), The Fifth Modernization (Stanfordville, NY: Human Rights Publishing Group, 1980); Unger, Jonathan, “Whither China? Yang Xiguang, Red Capitalists, and the social turmoil of the Cultural Revolution,” Modern China, No. 17 (1991), pp. 337. For further observations on Mao's, ultimate unwillingness to modify the political structure his regime had built, see my essay, “Who hates bureaucracy? A Chinese puzzle,” in Nee, Victor and Stark, David (eds.), Remaking the Economic Institutions of Socialism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989). There I point out that the impression that either Mao or the Cultural Revolution was anti-bureaucratic is mistaken, since the initiatives Mao took in his later years enhanced, rather than reduced, structural bureaucratization.

12. Of course, no society can operate without some rewards and promotions, and in China of the Cultural Revolution decade people received not only moral incentives but also privileges and promotion into positions of power. On the internal contradictions of this effort to create virtuocracy, see Shirk, , “The decline of virtuocracy in China,” and her book, Competitive Comrades (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982). During these years there was the bizarre phenomenon I have termed “competitive selflessness” – individuals who wanted to get ahead had to appear to be less concerned about getting ahead than everyone else. For example, the best hope an urban youth had to avoid being sent to the countryside was to be the earliest and most fervent in “volunteering” to go.

13. These are points stressed in the work of Shirk, Susan cited earlier and in Walder, Andrew, Communist Neo-Traditionalism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).

14. According to one of Deng Xiaoping's biographers, Franz, Uli, Deng, was one of two representatives of the CCP (the other being Zhu De) who attended the CPSU's 20th Party Congress and heard the secret speech, barely eight months before China's Eighth Party Congress was convened. See his book, Deng Xiaoping (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988), p. 142.

15. See, for example, Lane, David, The Socialist Industrial State (London: Allen & Unwin, 1976); Hough, Jerry, How the Soviet Union is Governed (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979); Kassof, Allen, “The Administered Society,” World Politics, No. 16 (1964), pp. 558575.

16. Xiaoping, Deng, “Report on the revision of the constitution of the Communist Party of China,” 16 09 1956, in Deng Xiaoping, Speeches and Writings (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1984), pp. 2930.

17. Ibid. p. 34.

18. Xiaoping, Deng, “Speech at the opening ceremony of the National Conference on Science,” 18 03 1978, in Deng, , Speeches and Writings, p. 43. It was noted at the time I that the speech by Hua Guofeng at the same conference was much more “virtuocratic” and less “meritocratic” than this speech of Deng's.

19. Ibid. pp. 47–48. Of course, it could be debated whether Deng meant these ideas to apply to intellectuals generally, or only to “hard” scientists and technicians. Nevertheless, the comments were interpreted by Chinese as calling for a general reduction of the burden of political study activity for all intellectuals.

20. Xiaoping, Deng, “On the reform of the system of Party and state leadership,” 18 08 1980, in Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1984), pp. 306307.

21. See the discussion of the 60 points in Parish, William L. and Whyte, Martin King, Village and Family in Contemporary China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 34.

22. The extent of this change should not be exaggerated, however. Rural cadres still held considerable power, and they could often affect peasant livelihood in ways that were both positive (e.g. granting contracts and concessions for use of village resources) and negative (e.g. demanding payoffs, imposing new “taxes”).

23. In his perceptive work, Exit, Voice and Loyalty (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), Hirschman, Albeit discusses exit (i.e. leaving the organization) as well as voice (internal dissent) and loyalty (currying favour) as mechanisms subordinates within organizations use to gain some autonomy and influence vis-à-vis their superiors. The virtual impossibility of exercising either exit or voice in most contemporary Chinese organizations leaves loyalty as the only real possibility. Reliance on that option leads to the sort of subordinate dependency and superior arbitrariness detailed by Andrew Walder in his book, Communist Neo-Traditionalism.

24. Xiaoping, Deng, “On the reform of the system of Party and State Leadership,” pp. 313–16. At about the same time, some of Deng's advisers were making even more pointed critiques of their Leninist legacy. See Gailong, Liao, “Historical experiences and our road to development,” translated in Issues and Studies, No. 17 (1981), especially pp. 8990.

25. Xiaoping, Deng, “Reform the political structure and strengthen the people's sense of legality,” 28 06 1986, in Xiaoping, Deng, Fundamental Issues in Present-Day China (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1987), pp. 147–48.

26. See the rich discussion in Honig, Emily and Hershatter, Gail, Personal Voices (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988).

27. Henderson, Gail, “Increased inequality in health care in China,” in Davis, D. and Vogel, E. (eds.), Chinese Society on the Eve of Tiananmen (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990).

28. See the discussion in Solinger, Dorothy, China's Transients and the State: A Form of Civil Society? (Hong Kong: Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1991).

29. Of course, how rehabilitated rightists, victims of the Cultural Revolution and others reacted to their new opportunities varied. Some, such as the writer Ding Ling, seemed so grateful that they became ardent defenders of Deng Xiaoping's rule. However, many others, in an almost Rip Van Winkle fashion, resumed critical commentary broken off more than two decades earlier. The prototypical case is Liu Binyan, but there are many similar examples.

30. See the discussion in Tsou, Tang, “Back from the brink of revolutionary-‘feudal’ totalitarianism,” in Mozingo, David and Nee, Victor (eds.), State and Society in Contemporary China (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983).

31. Accounts of former rightists are filled with descriptions of the self-doubt that gripped them as a result of the attacks they received in 1957–58. See, for example, Daiyun, Yue and Wakeman, Carolyn, To the Storm (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

32. See the discussion in my article, “Urban China: a civil society in the making?” in Rosenbaum, Arthur (ed.), State and Society in China (Boulder: Westview, 1992); Ostergaard, Clemen S., “Citizens, groups and a nascent civil society in China: towards an understanding of the 1989 student demonstrations,” China Information, No. 4 (1989), pp. 3236; Solinger, China's Transients and the State. These developments were most visible in China's urban areas. Similar changes took place in rural areas, but there the new personal and intellectual autonomy often took other forms besides direct criticism of the system – for example, revivals of traditional religious practices and enthusiasms for new religions and charismatic cult figures. It should be noted that some of this new autonomy to think and share critical opinions began even during the Mao era, fostered by the disorder and suffering of the Cultural Revolution. That earlier trend helps to explain the 1976 Tiananmen demonstrations. See comments in my article “Urban China.”

33. A generation ago Soviet specialists debated whether the increasing reliance on experts and managers in the post-Stalin USSR would undermine the Party's control and lead to “convergence” toward the democratic West. At the time the dominant view was that hope for such convergence was misguided, and that the Party would be able to dominate the technocrats and prevent pluralistic trends from emerging. See, for example, Azrael, Jeremy, Managerial Power and Soviet Politics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966). In retrospect this conclusion was premature. The system of Party control was being under-mined in the USSR from the 1950s onward, although it took longer for the process to be completed than some champions of “convergence” hoped. Given the demise of the system in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the task of preventing the undermining of Leninism in China becomes even more difficult. For further thoughts on this issue, see my article, Prospects for democratization in China,” Problems of Communism, Vol. 41, No. 3 (1992), pp. 5870.

34. As noted earlier, these observations on the popular mood primarily apply to China's urban areas, and particularly her large cities. Conditions of life in the countryside produce their own discontents, but these are not as likely to accumulate into a “pressure cooker” of demands for change as is the case in urban areas.

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Deng Xiaoping: The Social Reformer

  • Martin King Whyte


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