That is an interesting and important statement from Peking University’s Niu Jun, from a roundtable commenting on the recent Pantsov and Levine biography of Deng (for what it’s worth, I agree with the consensus of the reviewers that the bio is vividly written and has interesting insights, but is marred by mean-spirited editorializing). Deng has variously been portrayed as a reformer, a revolutionary, and a dictator, but rarely first and foremost as a nationalist. Niu argues that this was one of the important things distinguishing him from other leaders of his generation, particularly Mao:
I think that Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life pays insufficient attention to another prominent facet of Deng’s identity. Vogel’s book does likewise. If one is assessing Deng’s life, one should state that he was an outstanding Chinese nationalist. There were not many such among his generation of Chinese communist comrades-in-arms. This year, “The Nine-Day Whirlwind” [aka Mr. Deng Went to Washington], a documentary film screened in China, included an interview with former U.S. National Security Adviser [Zbigniew] Brzezinski. Facing the camera, he recalled one of Deng’s talks during his January 1979 visit to the United States. Deng remembered his sojourn in France as a young man on the ‘Diligent Work Frugal Study’ program. Deng said that when he arrived in Paris, what impressed him most deeply was how backward China was in comparison. So he resolved to save his motherland and help it become a powerful country. This was the key to his becoming a Communist, because he saw this as the only way forward. …
Deng’s nationalism was manifest above all in his dealing with Sino-Soviet relations. … Deng’s method of dealing with the normalization of Sino-Soviet relations after Mao demonstrates, on the one hand, that in the Sino-Soviet theoretical debates, he was a firm supporter and executor of Mao’s policies. On the other hand, he also had important differences with Mao. In comparison with him, Deng was more of a nationalist. Put simply, Mao’s opposition to Soviet ‘revisionism’ was rooted in a more utopian way of thinking. He thought that Khrushchev’s reforms were to take the capitalist road. Of course, Mao loathed so-called Soviet chauvinism that was displayed toward the “fraternal countries,” but replacing the Soviet Union as the leader of the international Communist movement and continuing to promote the world revolution were obviously more important to him. Deng’s subsequent words and actions show that he was more inclined to oppose the Soviets for having humiliated China and for posing a threat to China’s security. His ‘anti-revisionism’ was more a matter of following and implementing Mao’s thought while his ‘anti-Sovietism’ accorded more with his own nationalist inclinations and was a distinctive feature of his foreign policy once he was in power.
In his talks with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in May 1989, Deng stated that both sides were at fault with regard to the theoretical dispute, but more important was that the Soviet Union had not accorded China equal treatment. This had been a problem through several periods from Tsarist times to the Soviet era. Deng stated that the humiliation inflicted on China from Russia and the Soviet Union was almost as serious as Japan’s aggression from the same era and was extremely detestable. This talk marked the normalization of relations between the two countries thirty years after they had fallen out with each other. Deng’s lengthy speech was the result of very long deliberation on his part. For Deng the theoretical dispute was not significant; it was the Soviet attitude and the harm and threat it posed to China that were the real sources of the deterioration of relations between the two countries.
Deng’s much-praised pragmatism was rooted in his nationalism: whatever made China stronger was good. In 1980, Deng’s nationalism meant recognizing that China was weak and underdeveloped, and doing what was necessary to strengthen its global position and drive economic growth, including borrowing ideas and capital from Japan. By 1990, nationalism increasingly meant taking pride in China’s accomplishments and standing up to real or perceived slights. Vogel’s biography of Deng recounts how an anti-foreign, and specifically anti-Japanese, tone was adopted in government propaganda to shore up its popular support after the chaos of 1989:
After 1989, when Western countries were imposing sanctions, there was a widespread patriotic reaction against foreign sanctions. To many Westerners, sanctions on China were a way of attacking Chinese leaders who used force on June 4, but to Chinese people the sanctions hurt all Chinese. Patriotic “education” linked nationalism to the Communist Party, as the Communists in World War II appealed to patriotism and nationalism to rally support against the Japanese. Conversely, criticism of the Communist Party was ipso facto unpatriotic. … Within weeks after the Tiananmen tragedy, Deng began emphasizing his patriotic message. The Propaganda Department skillfully publicized anti-Chinese statements by foreigners that caused many Chinese, even students who advocated democracy, to feel outraged.
There’s little question that nationalism has become the dominant political theme in China since Xi Jinping took over the top positions in 2012. While a lot of commentary has emphasized how Xi is breaking with recent precedents, the continuities with previous leaders, particularly Deng, are still quite strong. Xi’s nationalism may be another, underappreciated way in which he is building on Deng’s legacy.