Chinese Whispers

Black cat or white cat? Reconciling the two Deng Xiaopings

41 min listen

In This Episode

For most people, Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping stand out as the two Communist leaders of the People’s Republic of China. But growing up, it was actually a third man, by the name of Deng Xiaoping, whose legacy I felt the most. Though less than 5 foot tall, his impact on China’s trajectory was arguably more than Mao’s; and possibly will be more than Xi’s. It was Deng’s vision of reform and opening – which we’ve talked about in passing many times on this podcast – that started a process which transformed China from a Maoist backwater to today’s economic backwater – my parents and their contemporaries credited him with their rising standards of living. TIME magazine twice chose him as their Man of the Year. Yet it was also Deng who gave the final go ahead for the military clampdown of the Tiananmen Square protests. So what sort of leader and politician was he, and how do we reconcile the seeming contradictions between Deng the liberal reformer, and Deng the communist autocrat?

I’m joined by James Carter, Professor of History at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, and author of Champions Day: The End of Old Shanghai. We discuss how Deng’s birth at the end of the Qing dynasty likely formed his worldview for the rest of his life – strengthening his loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party, even though it would politically purge him three times and eventually (under Mao) cripple his son. We also chat about Deng’s reforming instincts, on show when he tried to clean up the mess of Mao’s Great Leap Forward through market reforms – ‘[Mao’s] had the keys of the car taken away from him’ – and his pivotal role in the violent clampdown of student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 – ‘That crackdown could not have happened without Deng Xiaoping’s support. So he bears responsibility for what happened’.

It’s a complicated time for China, breeding complicated men. At the end of the day, Deng ushered in economic reforms, presidential term limits and collective leadership (much of which has now been overturned by Xi Jinping); yet he also violently nipped the buds of democracy in China and sacrificed his own protege, the reformer Zhao Ziyang (who spent the rest of his life in house arrest) for the survival of the Chinese Communist Party. Deng famously said that Mao, on balance, was 70 per cent right, and 30 per cent wrong. What would the calculus be for Deng?

Further links:
Chinese Whispers: China’s long history of student protests
Chinese Whispers: How Hong Kong became what it is today
YouTube: Zhao Ziyang’s speech at Tiananmen Square in 1989


Want to join the debate?

Only subscribers can comment. Sign up and – in the run-up to the election – you’ll get the next three months for just £3.

Already a subscriber? Log in