1990s >> 1997 >> no-1112-april-1997

Don’t Mourn Deng Xiaoping

Deng Xiaoping, the behind-the-scenes boss of Chinese capitalism, died on 19 February at the ripe old age of 93. He had an eventful life, on a political roller-coaster that saw him ejected from government in disgrace more than once but enabled him to live out his last decade as a wielder of unofficial but still supreme power. He had long enjoyed all the benefits of ruling-class membership, such as access to the best health-care that he didn’t need to buy, and flying his cronies in for games of bridge, a privilege unavailable to most workers in China or anywhere else.

Deng will be remembered as not just one of the most cunning of political survivors, but also as the architect of China’s market reforms and as one of those behind the bloody suppression of the popular movements of 1989. His best-known remark, mercilessly lampooned by his opponents, was “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice.” The implication was that political purity was less important than efficiency or effectiveness. This so-called pragmatism came to the fore after 1979, when Deng’s government opened the Chinese economy to market forces and overseas investment. The new policy was, in effect, that the cat’s colour didn’t matter as long as it made a profit. This was not a result of Deng’s own preferences as much as a question of fitting in with the needs of Chinese capitalism, which is well-placed to undercut wage costs in more developed countries and so make big money for Chinese capitalists (the new private owners as well as the state bureaucrats) and overseas shareholders. It is fitting that Deng’s death should be marked by profiteering from tasteless mementoes of him.

This privatisation policy had disastrous effects on workers. Inflation, reduction of subsidies on food and travel costs, and an increase in unemployment and job insecurity meant a more anxious existence for millions. It was particularly galling that many people were obviously benefitting from the new policies, and that this was often due to nepotism and favouritism. Deng’s own family prospered from his eminence and influence. Resentment at corruption and the lack of democratic politics led to the mass uprisings of 1989, when workers across China showed their opposition and demanded better treatment. Though media attention focused on the students in Tiananmen Square, this was only a small part of the resistance. The crackdown when it came, vicious and bloody as it was, was also not confined to Beijing and Tiananmen. Deng was one of the motive forces behind the repression, his earlier reputation for flexibility shattered by the guns and tanks of the Chinese army.

Deng’s death will no doubt be followed by a power struggle, as those at the top of the “Communist” Party vie to maintain and improve their positions the policy of political dictatorship allied with greater appeal to market forces is likely to continue for a while at least, as the rich and powerful do very nicely from the present system; it may well be boosted by the imminent take-over of Hong King, with all its financial pickings. Workers in China will go on suffering, as before. No member of any ruling class deserves to be mourned by workers, least of all a tyrant such as Deng Xiaoping.

Paul Bennett

Leave a Reply