June 4th 2016

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COVER STORY Gross desserts on the sex-education menu

CANBERRA OBSERVED Suggested parallel less a Murphy than a furphy

EDITORIAL Obama rewards Vietnam: a particularly nasty regime

ENVIRONMENT Land sinkage, not rising sea levels, the real threat

LIFE ISSUES Who am I? Baby's first memoir

SOCIETY Haircuts and tattoos: new rebels get funky

LIFE POLICY Queensland abortion bill is out of step with voters

SEXUAL POLITICS Gay 'marriage' and the given in human procreative behaviour (part 1)

RURAL LIFE Some of the reasons why farmers need a new bank

It's a queer theory that says kids can transgender (Part Two of two)

MUSIC Digital sonics by no means free of glitches

CINEMA Action movie lacks punch: X-Men: Apocalypse

BOOK REVIEW Tragic betrayal

BOOK REVIEW Great reformer or great dictator?

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Great reformer or great dictator?

News Weekly, June 4, 2016


DENG XIAOPING: A revolutionary life

by Alexander V. Pantsov and Steven I. Levine

Oxford University Press, New York, 2015
Hardcover: 640 pages
Price: AUD$41.95


Reviewed by Jeffry Babb


A long time ago, before I studied history at university, I was having a discussion with a friend over what constituted a great man. By what standards should he be judged?

Take Deng Xiaoping, the subject of this excellent biography, for example. As an economic reformer, Deng is unmatched in world history by any objective criteria. His policies lifted hundreds of millions of people – almost the entire population of the world’s most populous country – out of poverty. Yet he freely admitted that he didn’t understand economics very well.

Deng’s economic views were formed in Soviet Russia, based on the New Economic Policy, known as the NEP. The NEP, which was supported by Bolshevik theorist Nikolai Bukharin (1888–1938), combined market forces with the Dictatorship of the Proletariat and produced a period of considerable prosperity. Bukharin’s theories greatly influenced Deng.

The NEP years (1922–28) were unparalleled, the most prosperous in the history of Russia. But when the unctuous Stalin wormed his way into power, the NEP was crushed under the iron heel of Stalin’s state socialism, even though Stalin had formerly supported Bukharin and the NEP. Bukharin’s show trial was so absurd as to alienate a whole generation of communists, including Arthur Koestler, who based his denunciation of communism, Darkness at Noon, on the show trails, particularly Bukharin’s.

Bukharin was executed in 1938. He cooperated in his show trial on condition that his wife and family were spared. His wife nonetheless was sent to a labour camp. Bukharin was rehabilitated under Mikhail Gorbachev, an act that his wife lived to see.

Deng derived his application of market socialism from Bukharin’s writings. In market socialism, the market would operate under the supervision of the state. Utopian ideas like the abolition of money were rejected. Private enterprise would operate in retail trade, agriculture and light industry. Heavy industry would remain the province of the state, which would control the “commanding heights” of the economy.

Tiananmen Square

Market socialism did not entail political or social pluralism. Deng rejected both these political stratagems. He believed, as did Lenin, in the principle of the leading role of the Communist Party.

When this Leninist principle was challenged, as during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, commonly known in Chinese as the June Fourth Incident, Deng led the faction within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that demanded that the student protesters be crushed, thus asserting the primacy of the CCP.

This book confirms that in human terms, Mao Zedong was a man without redeeming features. He didn’t care whether those closest to him, including his children, lived or died. Deng was quite different. He loved his children and grandchildren dearly. Nothing gave him greater pleasure than to play with his grandchildren. Family life was his greatest joy. He was also a great conversationalist and joker. He was gregarious and people liked him.

Deng also showed compassion for those, who like himself and his family, suffered from intense and unjust persecution during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–76). He regretted the suffering of those who were innocent, but to the end of his life he struggled against “Rightists” who promoted liberal democracy and political pluralism. In 1980, looking back at the anti-Rightist struggle of 1957, Deng gave his assessment: “I’ve said on many occasions that some people really were making vicious attacks at the time, trying to negate the leadership of the Communist Party and change the socialist orientation of our country. If we hadn’t thwarted their attempt, we would not have been able to advance. Our mistake lay in broadening the scope of the struggle.” (pp185–186).

Incursion into Vietnam

Deng’s power base was always in the armed forces. As a political commissar during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–45) and the civil war against Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT), he proved that he understood military strategy and, more importantly, the psychology of the military mind. So, when he decided to “teach the Vietnamese a lesson”, at dawn on February 17, 1979, 200,000 Chinese troops crossed the Chinese border into Vietnam as he commanded. Some 35,000 Chinese and Vietnamese soldiers and civilians died in the 29-day conflict; the Chinese fared badly against the battle-hardened North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces.

It followed the pattern of the March 1969 incident, in which Chinese and Soviet troops clashed in Manchuria in what the Chinese called the Zhenbao Incident. Fighting flared after months of tension between Russia and China, and threatened to engulf the whole frontier. The Soviets lost 58 soldiers; Chinese losses are unknown. Official statistics say 20 Chinese troops died; the Soviets claimed that 800 Chinese troops died.

The clear implication is that Deng was not afraid to use force. And that Deng could be confident that his orders would be obeyed. As Chairman of the Central Military Commission, he effectively had command of China’s armed forces.

No one knows how many people died in the Tiananmen Square incident. If they do, they are not telling. The toll could be hundreds, it could be thousands. Deng had no doubt what needed to be done. And, for himself, he stated that he had no intention of returning to house arrest. The protesters must be crushed.

Crushing the “rebellion”

Unrest had simmered in university campuses across China for months. Deng saw it as a manifestation of “bourgeois liberalism”. “This is not an ordinary student movement, it is a rebellion,” he asserted (p409).

When the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was ordered to clear Tiananmen Square on the afternoon of June 3, 1989, the soldiers obeyed. According to observers, the PLA troops were indoctrinated with the necessity of their role in saving China. The actual number of protesters killed in the square is estimated to be several hundred; many more were killed waging “revolutionary warfare” against the PLA as they forced their way into the city. The forces entering Tiananmen Square had previously been told that that they were defending communism against counter-revolutionaries. This preliminary “thought work” on the troops was fundamental to the PLA’s success in clearing the square.

Deng Xiaoping was never a democrat. He wanted “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. He did not believe in political pluralism. Deng’s first encounter with politics was in France, and later in the NEP period in Soviet Russia.

Soon after the communists took power in 1949, agriculture had been collectivised. Among other disastrous results, that led to starvation in the countryside. Then in the 1970s a movement to overturn collectivised agriculture began at the grassroots. Groups of peasant farmers gathered together to restore individual ownership of farmlands. Although Deng did not propose the reforms that led to the de-collectivisation of agriculture, he did not interfere, either. He knew that China was an agricultural economy: if agricultural output could be boosted, the whole economy would become more productive.

Deng was “paramount leader” but he was never beyond sanction, like Mao, who commanded unquestioned obedience. He was impelled to act more like a Western politician. Hence his rallying cries such as “to get rich is glorious” and “it doesn’t matter if the cat is black or yellow, as long as it catches mice”. Mao is said to have replied: “Only red cats catch mice.”

Deng did what Mao told him to do. Unlike another old Comrade, Liu Shaoqi, Deng did not die of neglect on a prison floor during the Cultural Revolution. Deng wanted his people to live well but he did not think that democratic government could achieve this. Gross domestic product (GDP) per head did quadruple, as he had envisaged. “Market socialism” worked.

Many of the old comrades from the pre-revolutionary days had lived overseas. Deng worked and studied in France in the early 1920s. He worked at the Schneider metallurgical works. He suffered greatly, mentally and physically. It was here that the diminutive 16-year-old began to muse about “imperfections in the social order” and that led him to join the Communist Party, which aimed to “transform man and society”. Deng never learned to speak French. His stated occupation was “steel worker.”

From France, he decamped to Russia, where he entered the Sun Yat-sen University for the Toilers of China. The two-year course was extremely demanding. Deng was an excellent student, but he was little better at mastering Russian that he had been at mastering French. When the mass lunacy of the Great Leap Forward was sweeping China, Deng knew making steel out of iron pots and door hinges would fail because he had been a steelworker.

Mao never left China during his formative years. He was a middle peasant from a country village in Hunan and was largely self-taught. He had been a librarian for a time and did have a good knowledge of the Chinese classics but had not a single clue about economics. Mao was no intellectual and he hated intellectuals. He really did believe that you could make steel in the backyard. Of course, any such steel was totally useless. As did communist leaders elsewhere, Mao had a fixation about production targets. In 1958, Mao vowed that China would overtake England in 15 years.

Deng had seen the world and mixed with non-Chinese people. He was a leading communist who actually had been an industrial worker. His life’s work began out of a sense of righting injustice.

Was Deng Xiaoping a great man? Significance is not greatness. He crushed the Tiananmen Square protesters because they threatened his life’s work. Yet, this diminutive man from a modest peasant family in Szechuan changed the world for the better as few others of his era did. We cannot describe China as “middle class” in the sense in which we use that term, but most Chinese no longer live in grinding poverty. For that, the credit should go to Deng Xiaoping.

Socialism has failed everywhere it has been tried, but China is not socialist in any meaningful sense. But, conversely, Deng showed that political liberalism is not necessary to induce economic growth.

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