Two new articles out this week provide an interesting counterpoint on how Xi Jinping, China’s current top leader, compares to his predecessor Deng Xiaoping, the “paramount leader” of the 1980s and 1990s. The first is an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal by George Soros, the investor and philanthropist, and the second is a posthumous article by Ezra Vogel, the eminent scholar of Asia who passed away last year, entitled “The Leadership of Xi Jinping: A Dengist Perspective.” It is probably his last piece.
Vogel and Soros happen to have been born in the same year (1930), so they belong to the same generation of China-watchers, although of course their backgrounds are quite different. And so are their conclusions. Soros argues that Xi is reversing many of Deng’s reforms, and indeed is trying to overturn his legacy. Here’s a key passage:
Mr. Xi came to power in 2013, but he was the beneficiary of the bold reform agenda of his predecessor Deng Xiaoping, who had a very different concept of China’s place in the world. Deng realized that the West was much more developed and China had much to learn from it. Far from being diametrically opposed to the Western-dominated global system, Deng wanted China to rise within it. His approach worked wonders.
Mr. Xi failed to understand how Deng achieved his success. He took it as a given and exploited it, but he harbored an intense personal resentment against Deng. He held Deng Xiaoping responsible for not honoring his father, Xi Zhongxun, and for removing the elder Xi from the Politburo in 1962. As a result, Xi Jinping grew up in the countryside in very difficult circumstances. He didn’t receive a proper education, never went abroad, and never learned a foreign language.
Xi Jinping devoted his life to undoing Deng’s influence on the development of China. His personal animosity toward Deng has played a large part in this, but other factors are equally important. He is intensely nationalistic and he wants China to become the dominant power in the world.
There are some issues with this argument. Joseph Torigian, who is very well informed on the history of Chinese elite politics, has explained why it is not quite right to blame Deng for the elder Xi’s political purge in 1962. In the late 1970s, Xi Zhongxun played a pivotal role in the creation of the special economic zones in the late 1970s, a move for which Deng probably took more of the credit than he deserved. But both Deng and Xi Zhongxun were committed to the project of reform and opening, and the elder Xi’s greatest legacy is his contribution to that project. It makes no sense to argue that Xi Jinping is trying to undo Deng’s reforms because of resentment over his father’s treatment.
Moving away from armchair psychologizing to documented public statements, it’s clear that Xi Jinping has consistently presented himself as Deng’s heir. He wants to be the ruler who is realizing the aspirational goals that Deng set for China decades ago. This is obvious both in the focus on achieving “moderate prosperity” in Xi’s first term, and in the more recent campaign of “common prosperity.”
That term is an explicit reference to Deng, as all Chinese would understand. When Deng famously endorsed inequality in the 1980s by saying “We should let some people and some regions get rich first,” he justified that by insisting it was “for the purpose of achieving common prosperity faster.” By talking about common prosperity now, Xi is saying the time has come to deliver on what Deng had always wanted. Overall, my view has always been that Xi Jinping is a giant Deng Xiaoping fanboy: what’s remarkable is not his rejection of Deng but how often and how explicitly he has linked his own actions to Deng’s.
It’s true that on foreign policy Xi’s more aggressive approach is obviously quite different from Deng’s low-key one. But Deng was making hard-headed decisions based on his intimate knowledge of China’s very weak domestic and international position after the Cultural Revolution. It would be a mistake for Western commentators to interpret that tactic as some kind of principled acceptance of China’s subordinate role in a US-based world order.
In reality, Deng Xiaoping was an outstanding Chinese nationalist, and if he had presided over a China that was as strong as Xi’s he would probably have made quite different decisions. On this question my view is closer to Vogel’s: China is acting differently in the world today because China is different, not just because someone different is in charge. Here’s a bit from his piece:
Because of the changes introduced by Deng, Xi Jinping inherited a China that was far stronger than China during Deng’s era. Deng’s approach for dealing with foreign relations, ‘taoguang yanghui, juebu dangtou, yousuo zuowei’ (avoid the limelight, never take the lead, and try to accomplish something” was well-known. In the 1980s, Deng held back on increasing military expenditures in order first to build up an economic base. After 1995, the Chinese began to increase military expenditures even more rapidly than the economy was growing. Thus by the time that Xi Jiping came to power, since China had much greater economic and military power than during the period of Deng’s rule, he could take a much stronger stand in dealing with foreign countries.
Vogel’s piece also has some interesting comments on the differences in the management styles of Xi and Deng. While Xi is a famous micro-manager, taking personal charge of policymaking on every important issue, Deng was happy to let his subordinates make decisions most of the time. Vogel attributes this to Xi’s insecurity and lack of experience in central government before he took over, a big contrast to Deng’s decades of service.
Xi is also more focused than Deng was on exerting control over localities and their officials, but again Vogel sees this as a difference of circumstances more than personalities:
In the early years of Deng’s rule, when the economy was much smaller, local Chinese governments depended on allocations from the central government and the size of the resources they were forced to forward to the central government. There were no sizeable pockets of local wealth that allowed local areas and local enterprises to carry on activities apart from the national budget.
During the decades under the leadership of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, businesses and local governments acquired resources that enabled them to initiate activities on their own. When Xi Jinping became the pre-eminent leader in 2013 Party officials gave him the power to clamp down on corruption. Popular support for clamping down on corruption was also very strong. But from the perspective of Beijing, the problem was broader than corruption. It was the problem of keeping control over local areas and successful enterprises.