A Communist by any Other Name

William Muldoon

July 1, 1997

On Wednesday, February 19, 1997, the world lost a true liberal—or so most thought. Deng Xiaoping was celebrated by the media and praised as a revolutionary, a former enemy of the State, a power-broker, a political wizard, and an economic innovator.(1)  Nevertheless, absent from the outpouring of liturgies and requiems for Deng was his Communism, or more precisely, his Stalinism.

When CNN and the New York Times broke the news of Deng’s death, the most emphasis attributed to Deng was the “miraculous economic transformation” and “economic liberalization” that he instigated. The Chinese Revolution of 1949 and Deng’s role were mentioned in-passing as well as Deng’s relationship to Mao and Maoist thought. However, Deng’s excommunication from the Communist Party and subsequent political rebirth were mentioned many times. Tiananmen Square was mentioned, but only as a blemish on the face of Deng’s political career. The question that has yet to be entertained is why such emphasis was put, by the American and international media alike, on the so-called “positive” accomplishments of Deng, and not the typical Stalinist tendencies of China’s supreme leader.

To analyze this question one need only reflect on American foreign policy rhetoric for the past seven years. If one looks as far back as June 1989, on the surface would appear a tenuous relationship between the United States and China. In 1989, then-President Bush chastised the leadership in China (i.e. Deng) for brutalities related to Tiananmen Square. Several resolutions were proposed and subsequently passed in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives criticizing Deng and China for its actions. Serious consequences were threatened.

Now we jump ahead three years. During the Presidential campaign of 1992, Bill Clinton vilified George Bush for not dealing with China in an effective manner and not addressing the “human rights” abuses at, for example, Tiananmen Square. Bush and Republicans were castigated to the realm of supporters of Stalinist activity in China. Clinton and Democrats were vaulted to the realm of “human rights” supporters, if not staunchly anti-Communist. In 1992, the Democrat Party put on the tougher-face rhetorically when dealing with China. Though Clinton was quick to claim that the Cold War was over and that the American defense establishment had to be redeveloped to reflect that fact, he recognized the brutality of the last powerful Communist country on earth: China. Clinton and the State Department also recognized Deng’s role in repressing demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, not to mention monks in Tibet.

In 1996, four years later, during recent debates for Most Favored Nation trading-status, as an act of “principle” Romania was not granted MFN as an objection to Iliescu’s “repressive” policies, and yet despite some objections from various Democrats and Republicans, renewal of MFN was inevitable for China. Where MFN vis-a-vis Romania was considered an act of “principle,” MFN vis-a-vis China was questioned, but quickly ignored. Few in the media inquired as to the difference in trade policy between the U.S. and China versus the U.S. and Romania, or for that matter the U.S. and Cuba.

Finally, in early 1996, China positioned its submarines off the shores of Formosa to intimidate the Taiwanese who were to engage in their first Presidential election (Beijing saw this historic election as a direct threat to Chinese superiority). Washington responded again by condemning China’s action and issuing a rare warning telling China that the U.S. was prepared to defend Taiwan if necessary. Though China’s maneuvers resulted in no conflict, they were a clear demonstration of China’s military power and political dogma. Still, Washington continued to chastise, but not react with any substantive actions toward China; the status quo remained in all four (and countless other) examples.

The U.S. appeared and continues to appear to be beholden to China. This is Deng’s legacy and greatest success. In one capacity or another, Deng was involved in the decision-making process for all of these actions, yet even after his death he receives little criticism. Deng was certainly the master of the political spin. But how did he accomplish this “spin” in light of his vile actions?

The answer to this problem resides in the fact that Deng, like Nicolae Ceaucescu in the 1960’s and 1970’s, was a smooth-talking, amicable Communist. In the same manner that Ceaucescu befriended and charmed Nixon and American diplomats, Deng put on his ten-gallon hat for Jimmy Carter. But Deng certainly had a hat full of surprises. Deng was terribly photogenic and exhibited none of the harsher qualities (at least in public) to which Mao and Khrushchev were prone. He did not seem brash and doctrinaire. Deng was regarded in the West as simply a politician just like any other in the West—the only difference was that he was a liberal in a Communist country.

But by simply looking objectively at the entirety of Deng’s record, it would seem that the world would not anoint him a saint. This is not to say that his contributions to international political life ought be disregarded, but by no means should he be regarded as a hero. This, however, does not seem to be the case. By looking deeper at Deng the man and the facts of Deng’s rise to power, one sees at first an opportunist Communist and revolutionary and not a hero. Among his first duties was to go to southwest China and Tibet to quash dissent and “pacify” (of course with the “help” of military forces). After performing this job with great ease, Deng then joined forces with Zhou Enlai to build the monolithic Communist-apparatus that has controlled China for the past forty-five years. This included the all-intrusive party-structure that most westerners know and detest. In 1955, Deng headed an operation with both Mao and Zhou to finance the scientific organizat
ion that would build and detonate China’s first atomic bomb (nine years later, on October 16, 1964, China became the world’s third nuclear weapons state). Deng tried unsuccessfully in 1963 to patch-up the falling-out between the Chinese and Soviets that would henceforth be known as the Sino-Soviet split. Deng was a supporter of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” plan for industrialization. After Deng saw Mao’s failure, he focused more on practical measures for economic growth, especially those that contained incentives for China’s peasantry to increase individual production.(2)  It was not until 1978 that Deng would become China’s supreme leader after being purged twice by Mao. Does this appear to be the life of a liberal?

Perhaps later in life Deng’s political philosophy evolved and changed, assert most in the media. But Deng’s political ideology did not change drastically. Despite his eventual coming to terms with the “Great Leap Forward” and the Cultural Revolution, Deng remained as orthodox a Communist as there ever was. What most fail to recognize is that the ends of Deng’s actions never changed; he always maintained his commitment to the dictatorship of the proletariat. This he openly asserted when speaking of Chinese economic policy and, “Socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Again the world seemed to confuse Deng’s ends when falling in love with his means. Deng, opportunist that he was, was not inclined to point-out to the West their error. So long as this confusion persisted, the monolithic Communist structure in China persisted. Deng recognized the West’s role in helping to perpetuate Communism in China. Again, how was the West so easily deceived?

One of the most fundamental components of Deng’s economic policy was opening China to western investors. Soon Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Chanel, Maxim’s, Pierre Cardin, just to name a few, found that there was a market to be had in China, not to mention cheap labor. Throughout the process of Chinese-perestroika during Deng’s rule, which included semi-candid discussions of Mao (not entirely candid, but much like Khrushchev’s discussions of Stalin) and an increasingly-growing availability of consumer-goods, China projected the image of an increasingly open and less-totalitarian nation. The West hastily assumed, and continues to assume today, that the new iconoclasts in Beijing had a legitimate commitment to freedom, pluralism, and capitalism. Beijing was happy for the West to assume whatever it liked, so long as the misconceptions contributed to China’s universal popularity. The result was the most remarkable honeymoon in modern international relations: businessmen and diplomats fr
om the world’s biggest and most prosperous companies and countries besieging with temptation and flattery the government of one of its poorest and most completely totalitarian states.(3) But quasi-free markets did not and do not equate to freedom.

Any balanced discussion of Deng will not neglect any aspect of his rule. Though many western journalists were not loath to discuss the growing choice and consumerism in China, they failed to recognize that repression was still a fact of daily existence. In addition to the influx of massive amounts of foreign-dollars into China, China felt the need to tighten its purse-strings. The best way to ensure that there would be enough for everyone (both with regard to food, and to wealth) would be to restrict the amount of children born to families. This was Deng’s notorious theory on population. Though the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, China Daily, reports that poor mothers have benefited from the family-planning program and many households are becoming financially better-off and have expressed their willingness to have fewer children, we know better.(4) One would think that the silence of western observers on this issue either signals assent to, or ignorance of D
eng’s plan. Serious observers recognize that Deng’s plan threatens men with sterilization, women with forced abortion, and families with heavy fines who go over the cap of two children per family. While many outsiders and activist groups (i.e. Amnesty International) publicly decried Chinese policies on family planning, few newspapers made mention that the policies were the brainchild of Deng, if they mentioned them at all. The official propaganda of the Chinese government recognizes this simple fact, but the Western media still remains silent.

Accordingly, despite the fact that the media, the President, and Congress are not prepared to accept Deng for what he was—a Stalinist—the careful observer will realize this inevitable fact. All of the miracles of Deng’s political life are well-documented, from his cooperation in the Chinese nuclear development program, to his political rebirth after being purged twice by Mao. Everybody in the world seems to be awestruck by the economic success that China has experienced. Deng has been exalted as bringing China prosperity ex nihilo. But the most shrewd and cunning miracles that Deng accomplished were not related to GDP and international investment, but shrewd politics and spin-doctoring. Deng was able to dupe the United States and the West into believing that things were to change in China. Nobody doubts that economic things did change, but when it came to political change, nothing occurred. Deng realized that the appetites of the Western companies and governments had
been whetted. Deng had delivered half of his promise (an open door to foreign investors and special economic zones with minimum red tape and Hong Kong style taxation), but did not deliver, nor did ever intend to deliver the part that was related to political liberalization. Deng pulled the old “bait and switch” sales tactic: He baited governments into liberalizing their policies regarding trade with China (i.e. extension of credit, MFN, etc.) with the promise of internal political and economic liberalization. But when corporations endeavored to take advantage of increasingly liberal economic policies in China and more openness by their respective-governments concerning trade, Deng withheld the political liberalization. Like an addict, the United States and the rest of the world became dependent on China and attempted all sorts of political subterfuge to cover up the fact that they, the liberal Western states, had been duped. One need only look at the schizophrenia of the
U.S./Cuba trade policy and the U.S./China trade policy and try to make sense of it as the practical manifestation of the West’s stupidity.

Deng ought be remembered as the Communist that saved Communism in China—a kind of quasi-Gorbachev that succeeded. Despite the fact that Gorbachev was loved by the West, the Reagans and Thatchers did not fall for his pleasantries. With Deng this was not the case. It makes one wonder where the Reagans and Thatchers were during Deng’s flirtation with perestroika with Chinese characteristics. Deng’s legacy is his use of half-truths to rebuild a regime that was dying. Deng was nothing more than an innovative Communist.

William James Muldoon is a senior from Wexford, Pennsylvania, majoring in Political Science and French. This summer, he will be participating as a Publius Fellow at the Claremont Institute in Claremont, California. This fall, Mr. Muldoon will be pursuing his Master’s Degree at Boston College.


(1)Patrick Tyler, “Deng Xiaoping: A Political Wizard Who Put China on the Capitalist Road,” New York Times, 20 February 1997, p. A10.


(3)Robert Cottrell, “The Chinese Economic Mirage,” The Spectator, 10 December 1988.

(4)Zhu Baoxia, “Deng’s Theory on Population Emphasized,” China Daily, 13 March 1997, p. 12.