Opinion

China at the crossroads: Part 2 | Rich Elfers

“Reform is China’s second revolution,” and “To get rich is glorious.”  These are words from China’s communist leader, Deng Xiao Ping, who led China from 1978 to 1992. He set out to undo all the damage Mao Zedong had done to China with his Great Leap Forward (1958-61) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) as I discussed in last week’s column.

As a 15-year-old in 1919, Deng set off to France for a work-study program. Just before he departed, his father asked him what he planned to learn in France. Deng’s answer was a prophecy of what he actually did as leader of China: “To learn knowledge and truth from the West to save China.”

While Mao’s philosophy of applying communist ideology to China had disastrous effects, Deng’s approach was pure pragmatism: “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice,” was Deng’s famous quote. That pragmatism transformed China, giving the nation growth rates averaging 9.5 percent a year for 30 years.

In 1977 Deng launched the “Beijing Spring” that encouraged open criticism of the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. This weakened his political opponents and allowed him to rise to the top of power and influence in the Communist Party by 1978.

Deng’s policies closely followed his pragmatic approach. He began to open up China to the West, following his youthful goal.

Deng reversed many of Mao’s programs with his “Four Modernizations”: agricultural growth, economic development, increased development in science and technology and national defense.

He de-collectivized the farms in a program called the Responsibility System, allowing individual Chinese families to grow what they wanted on their own pieces of land and to keep the profits from their work. The program was highly successful and Chinese food production skyrocketed.

Deng also set up the “One-Child Policy” to cut China’s growth rate, a pragmatic, if draconian, way for the government to increase the prosperity of the Chinese by decreasing the number of mouths they had to feed through artificial birth control and forced abortions.

Calling his return to capitalism, “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” Deng encouraged cities and provinces to set up industries directed toward exporting goods overseas, thus taking advantage of the millions of China’s low-wage workers. Deng also set up “special economic zones” which encouraged Western companies to invest in the economic development of China.

Deng Xiao Ping was the leader who ordered the People’s Liberation Army to crush the pro-democracy demonstrators who were using western nonviolent demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989. He did so while he was on his sickbed. This, too, was a pragmatic, Machiavellian method for the Communist Party to maintain power. Because of this bloodbath where thousands of Chinese died, the Chinese Communist Party made a tacit deal with its people: “We’ll give you economic freedom as long as you let us remain in power.”

That bargain was kept as more and more factories were privatized and people were encouraged by Deng’s phrase, “To get rich is glorious.”

Deng continued to influence government policies behind the scenes after he stepped down from power in 1992, thus setting a new precedent of limited leadership without a lifetime dictatorship. It also signaled that working after retirement should be a goal of all Chinese. At Deng’s death in 1997, he was referred to merely as “Comrade Deng,” refusing to take high-sounding titles as Mao Zedong had done.

His successors have followed Deng’s policies. They have been very successful and have transformed China’s economy and the nation with new roads, rebuilt cities, enormous water projects and more economic freedom.

China has transformed itself into the No. 1 economic power in the world in 2013, according to Gross Domestic Product. Deng’s economic low-wage program brought more prosperity to China and was used to reform and rebuild the nation. But that phase has ended. Chinese wages have risen 10 percent in recent years.  That means the end of cheap labor, China’s comparative advantage with the rest of the world.

Under the new leadership of Xi Jinping, installed in power in 2013 for 10 years, China finds itself at another crossroads.  How can China continue its economic growth and also take its place among the great military powers of the earth, challenging U.S. hegemony in the Pacific?  That question will be answered in coming years.

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