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China’s Three Leaders: the Revolutionary, the Reformer, and the Innovator

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China’s Three Leaders: the Revolutionary, the Reformer, and the Innovator

As China enters a new historical phase, Xi Jinping and company must become a new type of leader.

China’s Three Leaders: the Revolutionary, the Reformer, and the Innovator
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The first generation of Chinese leaders, represented by Mao Zedong, used a revolution to destroy old China and found the People’s Republic of China. Their main achievements were in destruction, not creation — in the first three decades of the PRC’s existence, China copied the Soviet model in everything from ideology and the political system to the establishment of Party and government organizations and grassroots leadership structures. Even China’s political movements, from the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution, were basically following in the footsteps of the USSR.

China’s second generation of leaders, represented by Deng Xiaoping, took “reform” as their cause, mending the political legacy left over from Mao’s generation. Their “reform and opening up” policy put special emphasis on “opening up,” which in practice meant opening to Western countries. As for the “reform,” although there were no changes to the core ideology or the political system, the economic system and the social sphere began (with great fanfare) to absorb Western advances and experiences. Most importantly, China adopted the market economy that was so effective for the Western world. In the process of “opening up,” China gradually began to create a diverse society, greatly increasing personal freedoms (especially in the economic sphere).

Deng Xiaoping’s selective style of reform achieved great success. The reform not only made China more prosperous than ever before, but also saved the Communist Party of China (CPC). Originally, there were over 50 communist regimes in the world. As these governments began to lose power, the CPC remains one of the last ones standing — thanks to the “reform and opening” policies and ideas introduced by Deng and his colleagues, and continued by subsequent leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.

In his reforms, Deng made some immediate changes (such as economic reforms) while leaving other reforms (changes to the political systems) for the future. Deng’s partial reforms had their advantages, especially at the beginning of the reform period. At that time, with the Cultural Revolution only recently ended, the Chinese people were both afraid of and over-enthusiastic about the idea of “revolution.” Deng’s reforms made use of some of the strengths of the existing political system (such as having elite officials lead the way in investment and construction and being able to concentrate all of China’s energy on developing the economy and carrying out major projects). At the same time, Deng instituted (and reaped the benefits of) a market economy. This strategy achieved great results in a short time: China has already become the world’s number two economy.

However, this sort of piecemeal reform, which lacks true innovation, has its own insurmountable problems – after a certain amount of time, advantages have been used up and become disadvantages. Reform has not solved the problems created by an ossified political system: corruption, centralized power, a lack of democracy. The current system cannot completely absorb the market economy, which originated in capitalist Western countries — reform cannot resolve the mismatch between China’s political and economic systems. The result has been an abnormal system, something akin to crony capitalism. All of this means that during the past 30 years, at the same time that China was achieving dazzling successes economically, its problems were multiplying and becoming more and more serious. Has there ever been another country on earth that needed an ever-larger police force to maintain stability even while its economy was growing so rapidly and its people’s standards of living were rising so quickly? Has there been another country so powerful but so hamstrung and discredited by the corruption of the ruling party — to the extent that a minority of people are even calling for another “revolution” to fight corrupt officials?

Strictly speaking, the first six decades of CPC rule can be evenly divided into the “first 30 years” and the “second 30 years.” The same way, China’s leaders in this period can be seen as two distinct generations: the “revolution” generation and the “reform” generation. Deng Xiaoping himself can be considered part of both. President Xi Jinping’s evaluation of these two periods has it merits. Still, there’s one premise we should pay attention to: we cannot appropriately evaluate the PRC’s first 30 years under Mao’s rule without our judgment being affected by the great economic successes of Deng and the other reformist leaders over the past 30 years. There are some who like to exaggerate Mao’s accomplishments and intentionally downplay the contributions of the past 30 years of reform and opening. To these people, I pose this question: what if the CPC regime had only lasted until 1976, or even 1989, and then suddenly collapsed, just like the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe? Would Mao’s seizure of power really be thought of as different from any other short-lived dynasty in China’s history? Would history judge Mao differently than other historical leaders who seized power through a revolution or a peasant uprising?

The 30 years of reform and opening sparked by Deng were what ultimately saved Mao from being listed alongside Stalin and Kim Il-sung. In the same way, if the past 30 year period of reform and opening is to stand up to historical scrutiny, then the next generation of leaders (Mao and Deng’s successors) will have to both respect the past and forge a new future. Using the historical foundation, they should be bold and decisive, and open up an entirely new path. This is my main point: after revolution comes reform, and after reform we need innovation and new ideas — political reform! Only in this way can China reach a new level, and break out of the vicious cycles seen in history.

Many politicians and scholars both in China and abroad have examined the world’s non-democratic countries over the past 100 years. The summary: of modern-day totalitarian or despotic political systems (what the West defines as non-democratic nations), few have escaped the “70 year limit.” For whatever reason, no matter how many wonderful achievements the government had during its time in power, almost every non-democratic government will collapse and vanish after about 70 years. This has become a historical rule with no exceptions, and (according to Western political and scholars), China happens to fall into that same category of non-democratic countries. The Chinese people may choose not to believe this, but can we really break an historical rule? That is to say, can the Chinese people and their leaders create a new chapter in history?

This heavy historical burden now falls on the shoulders of Xi Jinping and his fellow leaders. As we remember, review, and reflect on the previous two 30 year periods of PRC history, the curtain has risen on the next 30 years. Can China break out of the historical pattern, the 70-year cycle? Can China embrace another three decades of prosperity, harmony, and stability? This is exactly the difficult question that the current Chinese leaders must face, consider, and solve

For current leaders, it’s obvious that the solution is not radical revolution or superficial reform, but a completely new path. This path began to emerge when Xi Jinping first assumed office. On the one hand, Xi ignored interference from both the far right and the far left. Even while containing both sides, Xi took the initiative to push for reform and safeguard CPC authority. On the other hand, Xi is resolutely and thoroughly cleansing the Party of corrupt elements, trying to re-win the trust and support of a majority of the Chinese people.

In choosing which road to follow, this generation of leaders has been quite decisive, even though both the right and the left, and those within and outside the current system, have found it hard to believe. And Xi’s choice?  Insisting upon CPC leadership, without following the example of a Western multi-party democracy, but at the same time forging a new path for China. Under CPC leadership, China will carry out a new round of economic and political reform while fostering and implementing the “socialist core values” proposed at the 18th Party Congress, especially prosperity, freedom, rule of law, and democracy. Deng’s reform involved implementing an effective market economy with the prerequisite that China’s political system would not change. These reforms were successful on both counts. So why can’t Xi, even while protecting Party leadership, use his “deepening reforms” to initiate political reforms, ensure the rule of law, safeguard public freedom and human rights, and create a “one party democracy”?

Of course, whether we’re talking about a “one party democracy” or what Western scholars have called “party-led constitutionalism,” whether looking at the Singaporean or the Japanese model, it is unprecedented for a communist party to be the one leading the implementation of democracy, freedom and the rule of law. But if China’s doesn’t put in place the rule of law, democracy, and freedom — if China simply wanders down its previous path, making small adjustments here and there — not only will China have no way to break out of the historical cycle, but worse, there will be disasters on the horizon. Therefore, history hasn’t left many choices for Xi Jinping and this generation of leaders. Once they have chosen a path, their only choice is to continue down it, without regard for the personal danger or their own reputations.

This piece originally appeared in Chinese on Yang Hengjun’s blog. The original post can be found here.

Yang Hengjun is a Chinese independent scholar, novelist, and blogger. He once worked in the Chinese Foreign Ministry and as a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. Yang received his Ph.D. from the University of Technology, Sydney in Australia. His Chinese language blog is featured on major Chinese current affairs and international relations portals and his pieces receive millions of hits. Yang’s blog can be accessed at