The Myth of Deng Xiaoping

The myth of Deng Xiaoping, the bungler nobody trusted: Before Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening, China’s Gini coefficient was the lowest in history and, despite a global embargo that excluded it even from the United Nations, its economy was growing twice as fast as America’s.

By 1989, over three decades after China ventured down the path of capitalist marketization, the bleak reality of growing socioeconomic disparity, environmental degradation, massive layoffs of workers in state-owned enterprises, evisceration of social protections, rampant official corruption, illicit appropriation of public property, and exploitation of rural migrant labor has led to the unraveling of the broad but fragile consensus regarding the direction and rationality of post-Mao reforms that dominated Chinese intellectual discussions of the 1980s”. Elizabeth Perry.

Of the myth of Deng Xiaoping, Yale historian Jerome Meisner says, “The economic gains were spectacular, the social results calamitous,” and the first calamity was falling life expectancy after decades rising under Mao.

Says Mobo Gao,

Soon after Mao died, his vision of educating workers, peasants, and soldiers to be new leaders of the socialist society was denounced. The new ‘reformers’ charged that workers, peasants, and soldier-students were not suited for college education and lacked the cultural background to become educated and charged that China had wasted ten precious years by not educating its brightest. In 1977, the college entrance examination was reinstated, and the Education Reform instituted during the Cultural Revolution was repudiated and abandoned. By 1980, the worker, peasant, and soldier university study program disappeared. Like all other newborn things in the Cultural Revolution, they vanished from China’s red earth like falling stars. However, even though the education revolution was defeated, its glory continues to shine–just like the Paris Commune. The education revolution was a successful attempt by workers, peasants, and soldiers to occupy the sphere of ideology. It was an unprecedented milestone in human development on the long road to human emancipation”.

Deng, scion of an elite family, dissolved the communes, clinics, and schools and, despite fierce resistance, forced peasants back to small producer status, “Reform and opening rammed Chinese society into reverse gear, stampeding the country into a form of unregulated capitalism that made the US and Europe seem almost socialist by comparison,” says Orville Schell. Speaking about the myth of Deng Xiaoping, Donping Han – who lived through the Reform and Opening – describes the aftermath:

A new generation of illiterate peasants, particularly women, emerged. Life expectancy fell as poverty, prostitution, drug trafficking and addiction, the sale of women and children, petty crime, organized crime, official corruption, pollution, racketeering, and profiteering returned. By 1983, peasants unable to afford their children’s tuition or medical care, teenagers who were forced out of school, and farmers who could not afford privately manufactured fertilizer created a severe crime wave. Deng executed thousands and crushed all signs of dissent and, seven years later, in a hugely popular film, The Herdsman, a poor herder talks with an intellectual who had been a herder in Mao’s time and later became a teacher, “You were one of us once; now us folk are all done for”.

Deng’s criminal family 

Deng’s children joined other princelings to form their own red guard units in 1966-1967 and tried to divert the attacks towards important scientists and former landlords but their conspiracy became evident, leading to their dismissal. The same families corruptly exploited their parents’ fame and power until Xi Jinping began jailing them in 2013.

Unlike Mao, after he returned to power Deng was vindictive towards his rivals, cancelling their party membership, jailing them for a decade, and removing the deceased from Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery. And, though Mao has been accused of being dictatorial, we find nothing in his record remotely like Deng’s Tiananmen crackdown, his war to “teach the Vietnamese a lesson,” as he boasted to Lee Kuan Yew, and his dismissal of two general secretaries over an argument over birth control.

Deng’s Tiananmen

Demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in May, 1989 (long after Mao’s death), denounced Deng’s reforms with signs reading, “It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white, so long as the cat resigns”. One middle-aged, mid-ranked Beijing cadre remarked to a friend, “Mao would have sent someone out to talk to them”. By then, most Chinese considered Deng’s Reform and Opening a disaster, says Suzanne Pepper, “With the multiple economic and political crises of 1988 and 1989, the consequences of Deng’s decade of reform for higher education were often tragic. Deng’s decade had begun with great fanfare, high hopes, and the total reversal of Cultural Revolution priorities.”

Though Western propagandists amplify Deng’s self-serving criticisms of Mao, ninety-eight percent of Chinese admire him for reasons Harvard’s John King Fairbank explains:

The simple facts of Mao’s career seem incredible: in a vast land of 400 million people, at age 28, with a dozen others, to found a party and in the next fifty years to win power, organize, and remold the people and reshape the land–history records no greater achievement. Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, all the kings of Europe, Napoleon, Bismarck, Lenin–no predecessor can equal Mao’s scope of accomplishment, for no other country was ever so ancient and so big as China. Indeed Mao’s achievement is almost beyond our comprehension. The United States and China.

Today, ten million people visit Mao’s birthplace each year – more than all the visitors to all the world’s shrines combined. Seven thousand visit Deng’s.

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