The best way to honour Deng Xiaoping

Hu Shuli calls on today's leaders to complete what the architect of China's reforms started, by building a society based on the rule of law

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 August, 2014, 11:38am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 August, 2014, 2:02am

Tomorrow, China will celebrate the 110th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping's birth, and many activities will be held to honour the chief architect of China's reform and opening up.

It has been 17 years since the death of this legendary leader, but many of his ideas - on China's governance, policies and strategic directions - live on. In a broad sense, we're still living in the Deng era. Now's a good time to ask: as China faces the severe challenge of instituting fundamental reforms to transform its economy, society and political system, no less, what can we do to honour and even surpass Deng's legacy?

He left behind a legacy of riches, to be sure. In proposing a set of socialist ideals adapted to China's circumstances, he captured the zeitgeist of the times and answered the needs of a people. The gem of his thought - the distinguishing feature of his world view - was his call to "liberate thinking and seek truth from facts".

Thus guided, he resolutely ended the class struggle of the previous years, and shifted the focus of the party and nation to China's economic development. He said China was in the initial stage of the socialist path, and would remain so for many years, and further proposed a three-step development strategy.

The best illustration of his insistence on "truth from facts" could be seen in his consistent and clear attitude towards the party's ultra-left. From the turbulent days of the late 1970s to his famous tour of the south in the 1990s, he remained fully aware of the danger posed by the ultra-leftists.

In one of his speeches during the southern tour, he said China must be alert to the dangers posed by the right, but also, and primarily, of the threat of the left. These were wise and brave words that greatly shaped the party's thinking and policies.

Socialism had just taken a beating in those years, following the break-up of the Soviet bloc. Reforms in China were stagnant and the economy was in the doldrums. Deng pointed out that although China should guard against rightist influence, it should be even more wary of the menace of the left, given that it was more deeply rooted.

The fiercest attacks came from leftist theorists and politicians, he said. The left was marked - and marred - by revolutionary fervour, he said, noting the terrible part it had played in the party's history.

With these words, Deng shattered thinking that was once inviolable. As a key member of the first generation of Chinese leadership and the core leader of its second, he succeeded in turning the page of history. This was the highlight of his final act on the political stage.

We should take the lesson of his warning to heart.

Twenty years later, the Chinese economy has grown by leaps and bounds, and its reforms have entered a critical phase, with interest groups and social contradictions now threatening to derail reforms.

At this time, some believe the left-right divide is no longer relevant to today's China, and that it's time to move beyond this categorisation. Such views are valid - to a point.

In reality, the labels still hold power and Deng's admonishment to beware of being wrong-footed by the left still applies.

Certainly, diehard ideologues are a dying breed. Even among those who oppose reforms, few would openly advocate a return to the days of central planning or call for a second Cultural Revolution.

But the habits of leftist thought continue to hobble public debate; they can be seen in the guidelines and slogans that seek to kill the enthusiasm for reform. This is especially evident in the discussion to revamp the strategic uses of state capital, democratise local government institutions, reform the judiciary and promote public scrutiny of the exercise of power.

Moreover, the cases of Zhou Yongkang and Bo Xilai show a disturbing link between leftist thinking and corruption.

Like all great men, Deng faced the constraints of his time. In a 1980 report on reforming the leadership structure of party and state, Deng in fact already touched on the problem of an overconcentration of power, and proposed introducing limits.

At the end of that year, he further emphasised: "[We] must continue to develop a socialist democracy and build a socialist legal system. This has been the party's basic direction since the third plenum, and that must not change, now or in the future." Sadly, these goals still have not been met.

Chinese leaders today should finish what was started. Leaders of the 18th Central Committee have rolled out a slate of reforms and begun a corruption crackdown unprecedented in its toughness. Next, they must build a framework for the rule of law.

China must continue on the path to liberate thinking and seek truth from facts. For the good of its people, it must break through fossilised thinking that blocks the development of democratic systems and the rule of law. Only then can the country continue to reach new heights through reform and opening up. That's the best way to commemorate Deng.

This article is provided by Caixin Media, and the Chinese version of it was first published in Century Weekly magazine.