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Under Deng, China Fell Far Short of Democracy

November 08, 1987|Maurice Meisner | Maurice Meisner, author of "Mao's China and After" (Free Press-Macmillan), is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison

MADISON, WIS. — When Deng Xiaoping achieved political supremacy in China in late 1978, he did so on a program that promised "socialist democracy" as well as economic revitalization. Indeed, the economic reforms to come were only vaguely hinted at in the ambiguous formula to combine "market adjustment with adjustment by the plan." But in the heady days of November and December, 1978, what excited imaginations and aroused hopes was what many hailed as "Deng Xiaoping's march to socialist democratization."

After last week's 13th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, a celebration marking Deng's triumphant exit from the center of the political stage, now is an appropriate time to ask how socialism and democracy fared in the nine years Deng ruled China.

The 13th Congress itself was a triumph for Deng--for the leader personally, for his policies and for his ideology. This is hardly surprising since party congresses invariably celebrate the real or alleged accomplishments of those who prepare them--and this had long been in preparation under Deng's guidance.

What is cause for some astonishment is that Deng's retirement from power--or at least from formal offices--has taken place voluntarily and under circumstances he prepared. Supreme leaders of authoritarian states typically retire only through death or sudden political coups secretly prepared by opponents. Yet Deng, who has exercised dictatorial power for nearly a decade, managed to step aside (although by no means completely out) amid the kind of praise hitherto lavished only on Mao Tse-tung. Further, he has positioned his proteges to carry on his policies and repeat his ideological formulas.

There are many good and sufficient reasons why delegates to the 13th Congress should have praised Deng. He can claim many positive accomplishments, including the release of hundreds of thousands of political prisoners from jails and labor camps, the removal of many obscurantist ideological orthodoxies, new economic policies, new cultural and intellectual life that have yielded a significant (if unequally distributed) rise in an abysmally low material standard of living. It is with some justification that the 13th Congress lauded the successes of Deng's reformist economic policies--even while largely ignoring their often less-than-salutary social consequences. But what can the Congress truthfully say about Deng's promise of "socialist democracy"?

In reviewing Deng's record as a "socialist democratizer" during his years as China's "paramount leader" and then "senior leader" (to borrow the polite terms favored by Western journalists), historians will record that democracy was the first promise discarded. No sooner had Deng consolidated his power in 1979 than he undertook to suppress the Democracy Movement that had aided his rise to power the year before. From 1979-81, while the Deng regime was busily promulgating new legal codes--evidence of "socialist democratization," it was said at the time--youthful leaders of the once-flourishing Democracy Movement were being sent to jails and labor camps by administrative decree.

In the remaining years of Deng's rule, other repressive campaigns followed in succession--directed against intellectuals, students and a wide assortment of vaguely defined "leftists." These repressions were undertaken in accordance with Deng's reaffirmation of the "four fundamental principles"--the most important, as Deng repeatedly stressed, is "the leadership of the party." Indeed, Deng is nothing if not a sterling Leninist, and he has been unyielding in his refusal to tolerate any intellectual or political movement operating beyond the organizational control of the Communist Party.

To be sure, there has been much talk of "political reform" during the Deng era, with the term "democracy" constantly invoked. Without political reform, it is said, the economic reforms cannot be sustained. But "political reform," as envisioned by most party leaders, has little to do with democracy. Rather, the concern is with the institutionalization and rationalization of the party's state bureaucratic apparatus to ensure social and political stability. The aim, as Deng candidly put it, is to make the bureaucracy "better educated, professionally more competent and younger."

Insofar as plans to regularize and professionalize the bureaucracy are successful, "political reform" will not serve democratic ends but, in all likelihood, will have the long-term result of simply making the state a more efficient master. As for such elemental democratic reforms as general and direct elections, Deng recently dismissed the thought--on the grounds that the Chinese people remain mired in cultural backwardness.

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