What India can take away from Deng Xiaoping

Mao may have created a nation called the People’s Republic of China,but he left it as a flawed nation without the tools to realise its ambitions of achieving great power status

Written by Arjun Subramaniam | Published: January 16, 2012 2:53 am

Mao may have created a nation called the People’s Republic of China,but he left it as a flawed nation without the tools to realise its ambitions of achieving great power status. It was Deng Xiaoping,the dimunitive,progressive leader,who transformed China after Mao’s death in 1978 with his visionary brand of realpolitik that many called Maoist capitalism. Innovative,fearless and incorruptible,there can be little doubt he is the maker of modern China and one of the greatest statesmen the world has seen in the second half of the 20th century.

I read Henry Kissinger’s On China with a military mind,with the aim of understanding a competitor and a potential adversary. What held my attention was not Mao or the opening of relations between the US and China in the early ’70s. It was Kissinger’s analysis of Deng Xiaoping that struck me as relevant for the India of today. Let’s not look at the system but at individuals who make a difference to the existing system,be it an autocratic or democratic one. Deng was one such phenomenon; a survivor,a nationalist,a visionary in the mould of Kautilya,and according to Kissinger,more of a mandarin who enjoyed the ability to shape and influence events.

Purged twice at the behest of the Gang of Four led by Mao’s second wife,once during the Cultural Revolution in the mid-’60s,and the second time,a few years before Mao’s death,Deng displayed great fortitude — biding time to unleash his ideas on a China that had a volcanic reservoir of intellectual brilliance,economic potential and technological innovativeness. Not many commentators or biographers have explored Deng’s close relationship with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its impact on his survival through the purges. Whenever he was banished to a remote location by Mao,the local PLA commander,without interfering with the punishment meted out,ensured his survival. Even after his son was thrown down from a building by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution and paralysed,Deng never lost focus. His military acumen sensed the PLA had degenerated into a tool to propagate and enforce Maoism across China. Added to this were the pressures exerted on the PLA by the Gang of Four that forced it to forsake military skills for “cultural purging and reinvigoration of the Chinese people”. It is believed through all this,Deng maintained that while the PLA was indeed a politicised force,it needed to modernise and display an ability to flex its muscle and develop credible coercive capabilities to safeguard frontiers and expand influence while China developed economically. It is this conviction that won him the loyalty of the PLA and allowed him to pursue his agenda of agricultural,economic,intellectual and technological growth,without worrying too much about PLA interference.

Deng never took himself seriously and like most great statesmen,he only took his work seriously. Intellectual freedom is a given in democracies. So is the tolerance for mavericks and irreverence for conservative practices. The greatness of Deng lay in his ability to manage all the above contradictions and leverage their benefits within the framework of a controlled regime. While Western scholars like Joseph Nye have been at the forefront of the debate on hard power versus soft power,Deng quietly balanced the two in Chinese statecraft. Unlike Mao,Deng realised unless he nurtured a young team with a like-minded vision for China,all his efforts would be futile. Zhao Ziyang,Hu Yaobang,Jiang ZheMin,Hu Jintao and Wen JiaBao are all protégés of Deng who have carried forward his vision till today. Any pointers for us?

The easiest thing to say is: “Oh,the Chinese model is buttressed by lack of transparency and overwhelming support of the state”. Notwithstanding that credible argument,can a democratic,conservative,restrained and responsible Indian Elephant compete with the aggressive Chinese Dragon by taking a few leaves out of Deng’s book? I think it can!

The writer is assistant chief of staff (space) at Air Headquarters

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