The 'Glue' That Holds China Together - Deng Xiaoping Encouraged the Populace to Study China's History and Past Accomplishments to Revive Feelings of Pride and Gain Support for His Economic Reforms

By Copper, John F. | The World and I, July 2002 | Go to article overview
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The 'Glue' That Holds China Together - Deng Xiaoping Encouraged the Populace to Study China's History and Past Accomplishments to Revive Feelings of Pride and Gain Support for His Economic Reforms


Copper, John F., The World and I


When Deng Xiaoping assumed the mantle of political power in 1978, he set in motion reforms that significantly changed China. Maoist China had been communist, totalitarian, egalitarian, and poor. Deng's China would be very different.

Deng started by revolutionizing agriculture. He allowed the peasants small private plots and created a "free" market in rural China. Next he changed industry: getting the cadres out of the factories and putting managers in their place. Incentives were used to increase production, and quality control became a central goal. Soon factories were privatized. Deng even welcomed foreign investors.

He simultaneously stimulated nationalist sentiment to support the profound changes he engineered. He had enemies; many opposed his reforms. Deng used nationalism to fill the void left as he decimated communism.

Deng also decentralized much of economic and political decision-making. This policy complemented China's free-market approach and helped economic growth. It afforded the Chinese population some basic freedoms.

Weakening the Communist Party

His actions also weakened the Communist Party's control, generated centrifugal forces, and evoked fears that China might fragment and break up. Deng again reached for the nationalism "glue." He dealt with flagging communist control, made his reforms work better, and parried opposition criticism that China had become too beholden to Washington by further cultivating and even institutionalizing nationalist sentiment.

Deng's nationalism was "historical nationalism." Its point of reference was China's splendorous past. Deng linked this to his economic growth plans. China had fallen behind the rest of the world, he said, because it was poor. "A strong China is a rich China," he asserted.

Deng encouraged the populace to study China's history and past accomplishments. Citizens were encouraged to see the Great Wall (even though Mao had said it was built by the exploitation of workers and massive loss of life) and visit museums and other historical places. As pride was revived, he garnered further support for his reforms.

His supporters soon boasted that China had the largest zoo in the world and planned to build the largest dam and tallest building. They talked of multiplying China's economic influence and of surpassing the United States as the world's largest gross national product very soon. Indeed, this seemed possible if not likely.

Deng's reforms were eminently successful. China boomed. Incomes of Chinese citizens soon doubled and tripled. According to former New York Times correspondent Nicolas Kristoff, 250 million people were removed from the poverty rolls--almost equal to the population of the United States.

Still, his reforms were not without serious problems. They spawned crime and other social problems, unemployment, a deep and growing gap between rich and poor citizens and provinces. They created alienation and increased foreign influence in China.

Maoist remnants and others on the Left saw an opportunity. They became unified and energized by the problems created by his program. But the reforms were popular with the masses and were making the country great again. Unable to oppose them frontally, the Left instead tried to hijack and redirect Chinese nationalism.

Building anti-Americanism

Keeping their faction together and trying to lead China in a different direction would require more "glue." Communism wouldn't work anymore. Deng's opponents sought to turn nationalist sentiment based on China's proud past and its successful drive to grow economically into anti- Americanism, irredentism, and secularism. Large segments of the military, along with leftist factions in the party, the government, and the media, were behind the conversion.

They began with a credible charge: America, they proclaimed, was jealous of China's economic and other successes and frightened by its growing military strength.

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