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Why China Still Needs Deng Xiaoping

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Why China Still Needs Deng Xiaoping

Particularly in foreign policy, China should be careful not to abandon Deng’s productive approach.

Why China Still Needs Deng Xiaoping

Deng Xiaoping and Jimmy Carter during the Sino-American signing ceremony, January 31, 1979.

Credit: Carter White House Photographs Collection

There’s no doubt that China needs to develop and surpass “Deng Xiaoping Theory.” In truth, when it comes to reform of the political system, thought liberation, and even the economy, in the post-Deng era China has still basically been stuck on the thoughts put forward during Deng’s southern tour and his idea of a market economy. In over 20 years, China hasn’t really had any larger breakthroughs either in theory or in practice (although the recent drive to truly implement the “rule of law” could be considered the start of such a breakthrough). Though China as a whole hesitates on how to push forward with political reforms and thought liberation, when it comes to foreign policy and cross-strait relations there are some scholars in Beijing who have repeatedly tried to “keep up with the times” by “surpassing” Deng Xiaoping. There’s no problem with that. The question is how China will inherit and surpass the legacy of Deng Xiaoping: by moving forward or backward?

In the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping laid the foundation for friendly relations between China and Japan. During his 1978 visit to Japan, Deng advocated developing friendly relations between the two countries, always with an eye to the future. When it came to the Diaoyu Islands, Deng Xiaoping suggested shelving the dispute and leaving it to later generations since discussions over the matter would get nowhere. When China was badly in need of overseas capital and technology, Japan became one of the first few developed countries to invest in the mainland. Japan made a much larger contribution than other western countries to China’s early reform and opening up period. During Deng Xiaoping’s lifetime, the China-Japan relationship was relatively smooth.

What about China-U.S.relations? Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai tried to open the door to Sino-U.S. relations while they were still alive. After they passed away, none of the elder statesmen, let alone nominal leader Hua Guofeng, dared to get to close to the “American imperialists.” But Deng Xiaoping, who had studied in France for two years, decided to establish diplomatic ties with the United States less than two years after he came to power. He visited America as the deputy prime minister for a few days after the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and the United States. Even though China and the U.S. have signed three joint communiques to govern their relationship, we have to remember that America also passed the “Taiwan Relations Act” in 1979. In accepting this situation, there’s no doubt that Beijing made a surprising concession. This sort of concession could only be made by a courageous leader like Deng Xiaoping.

So, why was Deng so eager to establish diplomatic ties with the United States? Li Shenzhi, then the vice president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, traveled with Deng to America. According to the records of the time, while they were both on the plane, Li asked Deng, “Why do we attach such great importance to our relationship with the United States?” Deng Xiaoping said, “Look back at the last several decades. All the countries that foster good relations with the U.S. become rich.” When we look back now, we cannot deny that this is almost a self-evident fact. The countries that take the lead in anti-American sentiments are almost all poor dictatorships. The problem is that people who are suffering or even starving to death will often jump at the chance to become “anti-American heroes.” Using anti-American sentiment to rally popular support is the last-ditch hope for dictators. So in my opinion, Deng’s determination to develop friendly relations with the United States at that time was not just a diplomatic task, but also an important breakthrough in thought liberation.

When Deng Xiaoping was in power, we had a relatively harmonious relationship with the United States, Japan, and Taiwan. Even when serious problems appeared, Deng would restore relationships by making concessions while always holding fast to China’s principles and bottom line. For example, Deng Xiaoping stopped the on-again, off-again 20-year bombardment of Taiwan’s Jinmen soon after he came into power and opened cross-strait talks.

China’s diplomacy faced a new situation after the events of June 1989. The emergence of a variety of serious problems in China’s relations with foreign countries after the mid-90s was, I think, caused by the lack of a leader like Deng Xiaoping: someone modest but confident in foreign exchanges, principled but flexible, neither humble nor overbearing. Among Chinese officials and analysts, you’re more likely to find people who are arrogant on the surface but self-abasing on the inside. It’s no wonder that there have been so many twists and turns in U.S.-China relations and cross-strait relations, including the deployment of two U.S. carrier groups to the Taiwan Strait in 1996. Often China’s officials encourage and plan anti-American movements while secretly sending their children to the United States.

Of course, the relationship between China and Japan is even stranger. If it is America’s love for “peaceful evolution” that causes the many twists and turns in China-U.S. relations, Japan should be no problem since it never mentions “human rights” and “democracy” in exchanges with China, right? But over the years, China and Japan have been involved in many quarrels. And, of course, these so-called “quarrels” mainly involve Chinese people calling each other “traitors” or young hot-heads smashing Japanese cars and sushi bars owned by their fellow Chinese or even busting the heads of their compatriots. We’ve quarreled so many times, and haven’t gotten a single stone of the Diaoyu Islands back.

Some say these “quarrels” are meant to shift people’s focus (especially for young people who more and more cannot see hope for their futures) by pointing out Japan’s faults. By giving Chinese hearts an enemy, it gives the people a ready-made object for venting all their feelings of dissatisfaction. If that’s really the case, then there’s nothing I can say. But there are a group of scholars and thinkers who argue differently. They believe that Deng Xiaoping is out of date and that it is time to change Deng’s “weak” foreign policies. Their reason is quite simple: this is no longer the past, and China has grown strong.

It’s the perfect image of an upstart! Every time they speak, they arrogantly flaunt their wealth. It is no wonder that their “foreign policy” causes fear and hatred in China’s neighbors. They don’t know what serious reflection means. Some hypocritical scholars have even embraced the Western imperialist idea that a strong country doesn’t need diplomacy. But when a massive empire shouts that it doesn’t need to practice diplomacy, a hundred smaller countries – whose combined strength is greater than ours – will label China as a future villain. How can these scholars not know this?

Some people have an exaggerated opinion of their abilities and attempt to change the path of peaceful development put forward by Deng Xiaoping. They have made enemies everywhere. They take it for granted that China chose the path of peaceful development as a temporary expedient, because the country wasn’t strong enough to do otherwise. Of course, these people will begin to understand reality after they run into enough walls in the international community. What I fear most is that these “upstarts” and their “confidence” will turn against fellow Chinese, including those in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan.

Recently a long-time researcher on Hong Kong who now advises China’s leaders tried to sway me to his side. He argued that when Deng Xiaoping put forward the principle “one country, two systems”, with Hong Kong “remaining unchanged for 50 years,” and when the central government adopted the idea of “Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy,” Hong Kong’s per capita income was nearly 20 times higher than on the mainland. Hong Kong also had a variety of management experience which could not be found in the mainland. But things are different now, he said: China is now much wealthier, the world’s second biggest economy, and also has more experience governing and managing the country. Many Chinese cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Chongqing are now internationalized and are just as good as Hong Kong. We don’t need Hong Kong anymore, he argued. He implied that the people of Hong Kong cannot govern themselves, so they should invite the heroes who successfully created the “China model” to govern Hong Kong before the situation becomes worse.

Seeing him talk on and on, I felt especially uncomfortable because I saw in him the face of an upstart who thinks of himself as number two in the world. I hardly need to mention that Deng Xiaoping did not put forward the “one country, two systems” policy for the reasons he listed. If China really wanted to take Hong Kong back under a policy of “one country, one system,” Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai could have done it themselves without help from Deng Xiaoping. Why would anyone need this scholar’s help? Besides, in the cities he mentioned, from Beijing to Guangzhou, we’ve seen major scandals involving officials like Chen Xitong, Chen Liangyu, Xu Zongheng, Bo Xilai and Wan Qingliang. Is this what you call “good governance”?

Deng Xiaoping’s theories of domestic management and foreign affairs need to be inherited and developed, and even more they need to be surpassed by new theories. But some people simply can’t see global trends and the future of China. If they ignore Comrade Deng’s strategies for creating order from chaos, China will move from radicalism to conservatism. This isn’t moving forward, it’s moving backward. Some people become restless when they see that China has the world’s number two economy and an aircraft carrier. They can’t bear to be patient but want to follow in the footsteps of the Soviet Union in the Cold War and Germany before World War II. That is the path to self-destruction!

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