Deng Xiaoping’s Capitalist Counter-Revolution In China


Deng Xiaoping, the man who eventually became Mao Zedong’s successor was once described by Mao as “a needle wrapped in a ball of cotton.”  His succession was far from automatic.  The authors of Wealth And Power write that his ascension occurred “against great odds” and only because of Deng Xiaoping’s remarkable skill in the game of political maneuvering.  Our authors say that for the next two years after Mao Zedong’s death, he “carefully lined up his supporters among party elders, People’s Liberation Army generals, and provincial leaders, and younger technocrats.”  

As a young man, Deng Xiaoping spent time some time in the West studying its culture and methods, becoming a communist agitator in France for a time.  He then went to school in Moscow, where one of his classmates was Chiang Ching-Kuo, future leader of Taiwan and son of Chiang Kai-Shek, the Nationalist leader of China who fled with his government and supporters to the island of Taiwan after being routed by Mao Zedong’s peasant-powered forces.  Even back in China, Deng spent a year in the British-dominated city of Shanghai— practically a tiny, alien country within a country.  Thus, unlike Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping had much contact in his youth with the world outside of China.

Soon after joining domestic Communist forces in the 1920s, Deng Xiaoping was sent by Party leaders to Guangxi, a hilly southern province of China near Vietnam.  His job?  Foment rebellion.

Several years later, in 1934, he was a participant in the famous Long March of the Communists to the extreme Southwest of the country where they were somewhat safer from the Nationalists of Chiang Kai-Shek.  It was during the Long March that Deng Xiaoping became part of Mao Zedong’s inner circle.  Deng was even married by Mao… in a cave in Yan’an in September 1939.  It was Deng’s third marriage but a long-lasting one, and his last.

For nearly twenty years Deng would serve the Red Army as a “political commissar”– the top civilian officer attached to a military unit.  During these years, though never especially distinguishing himself militarily, he made important connections and established his creditentials.

After World War Two, when the Second Unified Front between the Communists and Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists fell-apart, it was Deng Xiaoping who, our authors tells us, “emerged as the key political commissar in the pivotal fight against Chiang Kai-Shek for control of central China,” serving as the “chief political officer in the legendary 1948 Huai-Hai Campaign that sealed the Communists’ military victory over the Nationalists and sent Chiang Kai-Shek running to Taiwan.”  And he was with the victorious Red Army when it triumphantly entered the abandoned Nationalist capital of Nanjing.

After the Communist victory in China, Deng Xiaoping was for a few years put in charge of the Southwestern Department, one of the Army’s six military commands.  This vast Department included not only his home province of Sichuan, but also Tibet.  Concerning Tibet, Deng Xiaoping is said to have instructed his men to consider Tibet’s different customs and to be lenient, to patrol “with one eye open and one eye closed.”  Our job in Tibet, he told them, “is to make harmonious relations and to eliminate hatred between nationalities.”   

By 1956, Deng Xiaoping was a member of the Standing Committee of the Polit Bureau, the highest level of administration within the Central Committee of the ruling Communist Party.  As our authors put it, he was now “one of the six men who ran the country.”  It was Deng Xiaoping who “orchestrated” Chairman Mao’s Anti-Rightist Campaign in 1957, which was created, our authors tell us, in order to punish intellectuals who had criticized Mao’s regime too harshly during the preceeding Hundred Flowers Movement— a movement which had encouraged intellectuals to speak out– but apparently only if they agreed with Mao.  Years later Deng would acknowledge that during the Anti-Rightist Campaign, “large numbers of people were punished inappropriately or too severely.”    

Deng Xiaoping was never as zealous about maintaining a strict Party Line as Mao Zedong, nor was he as insistent upon centralized control.  Yes, the Communist Party absolutely must stay in power– but how it stayed in power… that was somewhat negotiable.  At a meeting of the Communist Youth League in the early 1960s, he told those assembled that he favored whatever type of production the people thought could “relatively easily and rapidly restore and increase agricultural output” as long as the masses are willing to implement it.  “If it is not yet legal,” he said, “then it should be legalized.  Yellow or white, a cat that catches mice is a good cat.” 

As Mao Zedong’s long Chairmanship continued, Deng Xiaoping’s political position became more ambiguous.  During the Great Leap Foward, Deng began subtly shifting his allegiance toward the more moderate wing of the Party, the wing which, for instance, was willing to allow farmers to sell some of their surpluses privately in local markets– something Chairman Mao’s strict Communism would never condone– even if millions were dying from the downsides of his forced collectivism of the farms.

Deng Xiaoping’s less than totally enthusiastic support for the deadly reforms and methods of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution garnered him the disfavor of Mao and of the other (perhaps jealous) top party officials.  He was denounced for “pursuing the capitalist road,” stripped of all party and government positions, and banished for five years to the Jiangxi Province.  His fall was great.  From one of the top rulers of the most populous nation in the world (in world history, for that matter) to the position of part-time machinist in a tractor repair facility far from the seat of power.  The Party’s Central Committee declared –in stereotypical Marxist/Hegelian language– that “the Deng Xiaoping problem has turned into one of antagonistic contradiction.”  Now caught on the other side of Mao Zedong’s innovative “Thought Reform” program, he was forced to write a self-criticism and admit the errors of ways.

In 1973, Chairman Mao suddenly brings Deng Xiaoping back to the top of the power pyramid.  When Mao dies a few years later, Deng is close enough to the power-center to finish his miraculous comeback and ascend to the very top of the political layer cake.

The authors of Wealth And Power call Deng Xiaoping’s years as China’s top leader a “great capitalist counter-revolution.”  His goal was to increase China’s wealth and power– and to do so quietly, not arousing the West’s fears as the great giant of the East awoke from its troubled slumbers.

One of Deng Xiaoping’s greatest skills was his ability to organize people  He had a knack, our authors tell us, for putting the right people into the right positions, and for knowing when to make corrections– and what corrections to make– when things weren’t working.

As different as his style was from Mao Zedong’s, both men were determined to enforce Party loyalty.  Besides increasing China’s wealth and power, Deng felt– no matter what mix of Capitalism and Communism China had– and no matter what mix of local rule and centralization– the most important thing was that the Communist Party keep its monopoly on power.

The class warfare that so many people inside and outside of Marxism tend to focus on was actually something which Deng Xiaoping felt could take a backseat.

From this day forward,” he declared in 1978 soon after taking the reins of government, “we renounce class struggle as the central focus, and instead take up economic development as our central focus.”  With hindsight, one can easily see just how straightforward the man was actually being.

The class struggle was not –was never– the end-goal, not even for the strictest Marxist.  It was a way forward to a better world.  Deng Xiaoping wanted that better world for his people, and he was convinced that only the CCP (China’s Communist Party) could lead them there.  No matter what else occurred, the CCP must stay in power.  China must remain a single-party state.

Focusing on economic development, Deng Xiaoping ditched agricultural communes within just a few years after taking power.  He also started promoting initiative by allowing some people, as he put it, “to get rich before others.”

 “People’s contributions do differ,” explained Deng Xiaoping.  “Shouldn’t there, therefore, be differenced in remuneration?”  

 When people complained of some of the negative consequences of his restructuring (such as the emergence of a filthy-rich class within a supposedly communist society), Deng responded, “when you open the window for fresh air, some flies get in.”

In spite of the appearance of income stratification within China and the appearance of backpedaling from some of Chairman Mao’s harsher tactics of forced communism, Deng Xiaoping was not aiming China toward a wholesale adoption of Western-style capitalism.  On other hand, he said, “we don’t want socialist poverty either.”  […] “Socialism does not exclude a market economy.” 

I don’t think Deng’s reforms to Maoism was actually a betrayal of communist ideas at all.  Deng Xiaoping was simply reaching back to socialist and anarchist ideas that existed before the convergence of the differing streams of socialist thought into Marxism, which would dominate socialist theory and practice for over a hundred years.  For most of their history, socialists have tended to agree more on desired outcomes than on the proper methods to use for achieving those outcomes.  Certain strands of pre-Marxist socialist thought actually allowed for quite a bit of free enterprise in their envisioned systems… as long as individuals shared equitably in the wealth and power created by the combined efforts of the members of society.

I’m put in mind again here of Deng Xiaoping’s statement that what color the cat is doesn’t matter.  What matters is that it catches mice.  If a Capitalist cat can catch a wealth-and-power mouse, then it’s a good cat.  “We must integrate the universal truth of Marxism with the concrete realities of China,” Deng Xiaoping said.  The path to the future would be what Deng called “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” [I’ve also heard it called Communism with a Chinese face].

To cite just a few of Deng Xiaoping’s economic restructuring measures…


These are local public-private ventures.  According to our authors, these led to “an unprecedented surge of grassroots capitalism.” 


These were first established around the centers of capitalism on China’s periphery, such as Hong Kong and Macao (at the time, these were Chinese territories under long-term lease to Western powers) and the tres capitalist island –nation? autonomous area?– of Taiwan.  These were designed to suck up outside investment and serve, in Deng Xiaoping’s words, as “a medium for introducing technology, management, and knowledge” into China.  Our authors inform us that these zones “remained highly controversial throughout the 1980s”– not so much due to communist convictions as to a fear of foreigners– a fear practically endemic among a nation that only recently suffered through a long century of foreign domination and exploitation.  “People were afraid,” explained Zhao Ziyang, a Premier and General Party Secretary during the Deng era (and someone who later, during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of the 1980s, would fall from favor due to the soft line he took with demonstrators).  According to Zhao Ziyang, the people feared “being exploited, having our sovereignty undermined, or suffering an insult to our nation.”


It is true that Deng Xiaoping was far less ruthless and revolution-obsessed as Mao Zedong, but he, too, had his ruthless side.  The authors of Wealth And Power tell us that in 1975 he dispatched troops to a remote Muslim village near the Vietnam border for the purpose of forcing the people to pay a grain tax which they were refusing to pay until receiving greater religious toleration.  An estimated 1600 men, women, and children were killed during the 21-day Muslim “pacification.”

In 1979, Deng Xiaoping ordered troops into Vietnam, in our authors’ words, “to teach Hanoi a lesson about siding with the Soviets and daring to overthrow the Beijing-backed Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia“.  The brief war did not go well for China.  Relations with Vietnam were normalized a decade later in 1991.

And then, of course, there is elephant in the room… Tiananmen Square… [see next post]


Other HAMMERING SHIELD posts on the politics of modern China…

Third Generation Rulers & Recent Dissidents In China

Deng Xiaoping & Tiananmen Square

Permanent Revolution: The Rise And The Ruthlessness Of Chairman Mao

China Under Chiang Kai-Shek

China Goes Red: The Forgotten Chen Duxiu And The Founding Of China’s Communist Party

China’s May Fourth Incident (and another reason why the Treaty Of Versailles sucked)

Liang Qichao, Yan fu, and China’s Post WWI Disenchantment With The West 

The Transition Of China From Dynasty Rule To Republic, 1912

China Stumbles:  Opium Wars and the Tiaping And Boxer Rebellions

China In The 19th And 20th Centuries:  The Time Of Writhing

China Today:  Post-Confucian, Post-Maoist, and Post-Communist 



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