Deng’s legacy brought China out of chaos

Source:Global Times Published: 2013-2-3 18:13:01

Ezra F. Vogel
Ezra F. Vogel

Editor's Note:

Harvard professor emeritus Ezra F. Vogel (Vogel) is a prominent US political scientist and historian of China. His book Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, published in 2011, disentangles the many controversies embodied in the life and legacy of the man who shaped contemporary China, though it drew sharp criticism from some other Western scholars of China. As the Chinese version of the book was published in the Chinese mainland in January, he discussed his book and thoughts on today's China with Global Times (GT) reporter Wang Wenwen.

GT: China is considered a non-democratic country under one-party rule. However, it has fulfilled many tasks that some democratic countries have been unable to do. This can be attributed to China's strong policymaking power, which is reflected in your book. How can such policymaking capacities be implemented in China?

Vogel: Although the Chinese governance had been chaotic from 1966-76, after Deng ascended the stage in 1978 and brought back many experienced officials who shared his vision that China needed a change, he managed the Party and government with sufficient wisdom that the Party at the top was relatively united and committed to meritocratic rule with clear economic goals that fit with Chinese conditions.

GT: Some believe that it is Deng Xiaoping's pivotal role that directs China's reform and opening-up in the 1980s and 1990s. However, while China made remarkable economic achievements, the reforms barely touched upon political rights and social inequalities grew dramatically. Do you think this is tied to strongman politics?

Vogel: I believe Deng's speech in August 1980 and his allowing Zhao Ziyang in 1986 to carry on discussions of political reform shows that he was willing to consider political reform when the situation in the country was sufficiently stable.

All the favorable conditions that China enjoyed in 1978 would have been insufficient to transform the huge, chaotic civilization into a modern nation without a strong and able leader who could hold the country together while providing strategic direction.

GT: Some raised that the issue of human rights is not mentioned in your book, and some Chinese readers believe that you overly praise autocratic rule. What do you think?

Vogel: Although it is correct that I did not discuss Deng's concerns for "human rights," I discussed these issues in the parts on June 4, 1989.

We do need a balanced view of Deng's contributions as well as of his strong position.

Take Thomas Jefferson and George Washington for example. They used to own black slaves. That is a terrible thing.

It's fair to criticize the founding fathers of the US for using slaves from the perspective of our values.

Nonetheless, that does not explain their roles in history.

It is true that Deng didn't bring in as much democracy as he possibly could. Nevertheless, he played the key role in transforming China from a poor and confusing country to a stable society where lives of its billions of people have been largely improved.

GT: Soon after the 18th National Congress of the CPC, Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee, visited Guangdong Province in his first trip, which has been considered a signal of the leadership's firm determination to carry on Deng's reforms. Do you think strongman politics in China have long gone and China has already found a sustainable way to develop democracy? Or does a country like China still needs a single leadership figure at the current stage?

Vogel: I think that no leader since Deng has matched his authority, which came from joining the Party in the early 1920s, having participated in revolutionary activities, having worked closely with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, served 12 years in the military in wartime, and previously served 10 years as general secretary.

However, I believe that if there is a consensus in the Politburo Standing Committee of the CPC Central Committee, they can accomplish a great deal.

The question is, as Plato said, "Who is to guard the guardians?" What happens if the Politburo Standing Committee makes mistakes or if high-level officials seek personal gain as well as national gain?

I do not expect China to move soon to a form of rule that is the same as US-style democracy, but I expect to continue to experiment with an expanded democratic system within the Party-led structure.

GT: One of the diplomatic legacies left by Deng Xiaoping is his thought of "to hide one's capacities and bide one's time (taoguang yanghui)." Now global geopolitics has changed. China's stance over the South China Sea and the Diaoyu Islands is deemed radical and aggressive by many outside commentators. Meanwhile, China is asked to get involved into more world affairs. How can China strike a balance between "hiding its capacities and biding its time" and being a responsible world power?

Vogel: I do not think "to hide one's capacities and bide one's time" is a good translation of taoguang yanghui.

What Deng means is "avoid the limelight, never take the lead, and try to accomplish something."

I believe Deng's policy of seeking cooperation with other countries, especially the major powers, is still appropriate today.

A wise Chinese leadership should carry on Deng's path by promoting open markets and friendly diplomatic ties.

So when China encounters trouble, many countries will be willing to help. If it takes an overly tough diplomatic stance, it will make enemies and bring trouble to itself.

Posted in: Dialogue

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