Deng Xiaoping is a leader that perfectly epitomized the functionality concept of leadership. A more vogue key phrase to mark his form of leadership is a ‘transcendence’ leadership; neither abiding fully to the concept of West nor East, authoritarian nor democratic. He transcended all those labels to create his own brand of leadership. Mahathir in his several speeches conceded to what he described as ‘non-ideological’ approach. Nehru too abided to this rule. But the focus of this article shall be on Deng Xiaoping and how his approach marked him both as a moderate, as well as a strict leader in Confucian (or Eastern) term. His no-nonsense approach was a heaven’s apart from Mao’s philosophical king persona. Yet, Deng left a larger and more permanent mark in China’s modern society as compared to Mao. China today is unthinkable without Deng Xiaoping. Its robust economic activity, global participation, technological advances and the ascendance of the Chinese quality of living are only achievable after Deng’s strategic plan to open up China.
Determination to Achieve Strategic Goals
During the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution, Deng found himself cornered by the Gang of Four in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Instead of backing off, Deng along with Zhou Enlai proceeded with their veiled criticism of Mao’s economic policy. Despite Mao’s effort to shake him off his belief by forcing him to publicly acknowledge his ‘mistakes’, Deng was reluctant to admit that his policies were wrong in essence. Mao’s fury caused him to be further admonished by the Politburo. But Deng remained assertive and pragmatic in the same time. He knows that his ‘self criticism’ which was required of him by the Politburo would not be accepted as his ‘real confession’. He has been marked as a revisionist. His action not to self-criticise the essence of his own principles marked his integrity as a person. Mao must have seen through this, which was why his status in the CCP was later restored by Mao himself. Deng understood that had he buckled under the pressure put on him, Mao would have quickly dismissed him. His action must not be seen as a mere test of character alone but as a strategic move to gain back Mao’s declining trust. Deng understood Mao; both were comrades during the revolutionary struggle, which gives Deng enough time to study Mao’s character. He knew that working with Mao will not be easy, but Deng knew he had to work with Mao to realize his conceptualization of China. His determination combined with his strategic moves eventually bore its fruit.
Reinvigorate and Strengthen the Public Service
Unlike Mao, Deng believed in continuity of policy despite his mortality. In his speeches during his famous ‘South Investigation Tour’ to the Special Economic Zones, he was mindful that the fruits of his labour would not be tasted by himself but of his children and their offsprings. The successful implementation of his policies depended on his officials. Quick to realize that he needed a more vibrant bureaucracy, Deng sought to strengthen his public service. Kissinger in his book ‘On China’ noted thus; “An effort of such scope depended, above all, on the quality of the officials charged with carrying out the reforms”. Instead of supplanting the civil service with private sector as some countries had done, Deng strengthen and reinvigorated the civil service. It is not that Deng has anything against privatisation. But Deng realizes that privatisation has to be implemented when the societal structure is prepared to undertake it. Nigeria is the classic example of privatisation failure because its institutions and societal structure are not prepared to cope with privatisation. In Britain too, privatisation is deemed as a failure – especially with the rise of the big companies, which many had come to see as ‘privatised bureaucracy’. Ed Milliband, the Leader of the British Opposition has called for decentralization of the public service in early 2014. But the idea was not new to China. Deng has called for decentralization of governments away from Beijing to ensure responsiveness of the public sector back in the 1980’s. Deng, unlike Mao knew that the cult of personality will not ensure the progression of China; but the continuity in the form of strengthened public institutions is the core of China’s progression.
If you are a Moderate: Prove It
Deng was very vocal against the extremes; both left and right. As of late, there has been a lot of criticism of what many refer to as a ‘moderate leadership’. Weak, emasculated, unprincipled, Western-backed and indecisive are the oft-used phrases to describe it. However, I wish to defer. There are examples of moderate leadership which are strong and principled. These leaders have no need to adhere to Western principles of governance, but focused on what worked. Deng Xiaoping is one such leader.
Despite rising from the ‘leftist’ camp of the CCP, Deng knew that the time is up for more revolutions or indoctrinations. In one of his speeches Deng mentioned that “we are being by both ‘Right’ and ‘Left’ tendencies. But it is the ‘Left’ tendencies that have the deepest roots. . . In the history of the Party, those tendencies have led to dire consequences. Some fine things were destroyed overnight”. This bold proclamation was made despite the strong presence of the Leftist cadres in the CCP.
In facing the ‘Right’ tendencies, Deng has responded with equal force. When the students’ protests erupted against the ruling government, Deng stood his ground. Deng knew that if civil order disappeared from China, chaos would ensue. Having lived through the hell of Cultural Revolution, he was not prepared to put China’s future at stake. After what is dubbed by the Western press as the ‘Tiananmen Massacre’, many in the moderate circles who subscribe to the Western epistemology would chide the idea of Deng Xiaoping as the epitome of a moderate leadership. However, as a realist I would argue that Deng had done what was best for the continuity of the People’s Republic of China. Having fought alongside Chairman Mao and later thrown off the pedestal during the Cultural Revolution, Deng had witnessed first-hand the terror of the extreme left. In his later years, the undoing of the Soviet Union enforced his belief that moving to the extreme right would risk the Balkanization of China.
Address Weaknesses, and Not Afraid to Admit Them
Unlike his aloof predecessors Mao Zedong or the Emperors, Deng strode the global map literally to make friends. His well-coordinated tour of Malaysia, Singapore and the USA contrasted sharply from Mao’s aloofness or the arrogance of the Emperors who do not see any benefit from engaging with ‘foreign barbarians’. Unlike the Forbidden City officials who chided the gifts given by the Jesuits and foreign diplomats as trinkets, Deng was at awe with the new technology coming in from the West. Deng conceded that China lacked in its technological advancement and was eager to learn from the developed countries. Deng was realistic enough to realize that the advancement of China requires itself to unlearn the old ways and learn how things function in a new modernized world, where China could play its role on the global stage. He went from country to country to learn how these small states could succeed where China at that time couldn’t. Deng knew deep in his heart that to govern China towards a developed, he required modern technology that could strengthen the nation’s economic status. The new ‘Mandate from Heaven’ comes in the form of new machineries and state of the art technology. Deng was adamant to secure the new form of Mandate.
He Knows When to Retire
Deng knows that once everything is set in place he could retire peacefully. Deng knows that to ensure the continuity of his grand design, he must groom the new leaders to take the helm of leadership. Too often in an autocratic society a leader will have a problem in passing down the baton. But Deng has made his preparations early, as noted by Kissinger. Kissinger mentioned that long before Deng retired from public life, he has worried himself with the issue of succession. In one of his many famous speeches Deng was quipped as saying, “we should go on selecting younger comrades for promotion and helping train them. Don’t put your trust only in old age”.
A quality young leadership will ensure him peace during retirement. Had the new cadres of the CCP did not live up to his standards, Deng Xiaoping might still be worrying over China’s future till his death in 1997. Furthermore, Deng conceded to the fact that he may not be able to lead wisely at an old age. In his own words, Deng mentioned that “the reason I insisted on retiring was that I didn’t want to make mistakes in my old age. Old people have strengths but also great weaknesses – they tend to be stubborn, for example – and they should be aware of that. The older they are, the more modest they should be and the more careful not to make mistakes in their later years”.
As someone who has sacrificed a lot for China, both personally and in his career; seeing China descending into chaos was the last thing that he wanted to see. This and the fact that his plans need to be executed even after his passing strove him to look for the right successor. When he found Jiang Zemin; he was not afraid to pass down the aegis of leadership. His thorough search for the right successor and Jiang Zemin’s successful manoeuvre of the students’ rebellion in 1989 set Deng’s confidence in stone. Although Jiang Zemin’s leadership was at first seen as an interim period before someone from the far left or far right takes over; it never happened. Deng was again proven the masterful leader of a wakening giant.
The Legacy Remains
Today, Deng is largely seen as the saviour of China. Had it not been for him, China would have continued into further chaos if the extreme left remained in power. Despite Mao’s looming figure, China today is built more in the conceptualization of Deng’s rather than the former. Open market, increased GDP, strong international presence and its open door policy are all attributed to Deng. His tenacity in maintaining order despite the Tiananment Protest ensured the change that he made lasts.
So should a leader be a good speaker? Charismatic? Autocratic? Recluse? In Deng’s approach; it does not matter as long as it works. Transcendence Leadership requires one to look beyond the trappings of ideology.