January 03, 2019

The Radicalization of Deng Xiaoping

Writing about web page https://global.oup.com/academic/product/deng-xiaoping-9780199392032

On a beach in the autumn, I read a biography of Deng Xiaoping, the reformer of Chinese communism after Mao (Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life by Alexander Pantsov and Steven Levine: Oxford University Press, 2015). I've been interested in communist reforms and reformers for a long time, partly because there was a time when I believed in them. Also, because of their personal histories before reform: the only way the reformers could rise to authority was through the system, so they were products of the system they wanted to change. They had to be very hard people, otherwise they could never have survived to that point.

Khrushchev, for example, decided to break with the legacy of Stalin, although he had been responsible for many mass killings in Stalin's lifetime. Why did he decide to rule differently? No doubt there were many reasons, but one seems to be that he was uncomfortable with the way things were. He had enough of a conscience to want to rule without continuous killing -- not enough to want to confess his sins, but enough to want to stop sinnng. Deng Xiaoping, too, built his career on the millions of victims of Mao's terror and famines. He too chose to put a stop to it when he had the power to make that choice. It seems Deng was led not so much by conscience, more by pragmatism and by a recognition that that China was weakened by the legacy of Mao.

Probably Khrushchev, like Deng, would have remained willing to go to any lengths to preserve party rule. In Deng's case the evidence is there in the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, for which he was directly responsible. There was no similar challenge to party authority in the Soviet Union under Khrushchev.

Pantsov and Levine cover Deng's adult years in fascinating detail. But what struck me particularly was something about which I knew nothing: the story of Deng's youth and his path to revolutionary activism (roughly pp. 15-35). The story seemed to correspond quite neatly with what social scientists have found out about recruitment into modern terrorism: what sort of people are attracted to join militant political factions and what other factors are involved in their selection.

Of course, you could object that communism and terrorism are quite different, as they are in many ways -- but I think not in this respect. (A logical test would be to go through, mark each time I use the word "communist" or "communism," replace it with "terrorist" or "terrorism," and check for sense.)

What the literature suggests is that the people who are radicalized in this way are typically young, mostly male, and on average relatively affluent and relatively educated. They are psychologically normal. Often they have faced some difficulty in finding a place in society. If male they may be unemployed; if female, they may have been widowed; if migrants, they may be poorly assimilated. Often they turn out to be surprisingly ill-informed about the philosophies and goals of the organizations they have joined; more important to them than ideas and programmes is the opportunity for intense comradeship with other young people based on common action for a common cause -- whatever that cause might be. (More detail and references here.)

Deng was born in 1904. His family was moderately well-to-do, in other words, well above the level of most Chinese. Later Deng described his father as a "small landowner" or a "middle peasant." In fact, he was a pillar of the local community, able to have his son privately educated and even to pay for him to study abroad.

Although educated, Deng was not a natural scholar. As a teenager, when he should have been studying in class, he was more often hanging out with his friends around the town.

The political atmosphere of the time, which Deng absorbed readily, was one of agitation against the monarchy and against foreign influences. But it is not clear that he ever encountered a foreigner at this time, other than the local Catholic priests.

In 1919, when Deng was 15, his father placed him in a school designed to prepare young people for study in France. France was not only a wealthy country but the home of "liberté, égalité, fraternité." A former classmate from this time is quoted to the effect that Deng studied "very diligently and seriously" but on other evidence he spent more time hanging out and taking part in various "patriotic" disturbances.

At the end of the year Deng scraped through his exams. He had qualified to study in France, but not by enough to earn a scholarship, so his family paid his expenses. With other students from China, Deng travelled first to Paris, then onward to college in the French provincial town of Bayeux.

In Bayeux, Deng's studies were not successful. The main subject was the French language, which he could not master. Because of this, he dropped out of his course. But his poor French also isolated him from French society, so that he was restricted to the company of other Chinese students in a similar situation. He had nothing to do, so there was more hanging out.

Running out of money, Deng took a series of unskilled factory jobs, all of which he hated and soon gave up. Eventually he gravitated to Paris and to the Chinese-French society that had organized his studies. He turned out to be one of hundreds of young Chinese men in a similar situation. They could not support themselves in France, but nor could they return home and admit that they had failed their studies. Without occupation, for several months of 1921 they hung out at the society premises with the help of a daily handout.

In early 1922, Deng found employment with other Chinese students at a provincial rubber factory. By now the other students had reached the conclusion that all their troubles had a single cause: capitalism. In this, they were ahead of Deng, but eventually he too came to share their view. "I acquired class consciousness," he wrote later, "when the capitalists and their tools--the foremen--slighted and exploited me." But he had no familiarity with Marxist ideas and it seems unlikely that he had ever met a capitalist, so the main factors must have been the racism of the French foremen (who were only half a step above the French proletariat) and the influence of his friends.

Deng's friends concluded that the remedy was communism. By 1923, although he knew little about the ideas of communism or Marxism, Deng had followed his friends into the Chinese communist party. His father sent him more money so that he could return to study, but instead he broke off relations with his family and immersed himself in the revolutionary underground. He made new friends, among them the youthful Zhou Enlai.

Deng now began to show his qualities as an effective organizer. By 1925, he was one of the leaders of the Chinese communist party in Europe. In January 1926, under increasing surveillance, with the police not far behind, he fled to Moscow. There he would receive his first serious training in the ideas of Marx and Lenin.

To summarize:

  • By family background, Deng was not ground down by poverty. His family supported him and gave him many opportunities.
  • Deng was not uneducated, but he was also a poor student. He was semi-educated, perhaps, in the sense that he was receptive to new ideas but untrained in testing or criticizing them.
  • A strong influence on Deng's outlook was distrust of foreigners. His personal interactions with them were extremely limited. Even when living in France, he did not share their language and he could not share their company.
  • In Chinese society Deng was not isolated or discriminated against. But in France he was. There, his social world shrank to the company of a few young men like himself. When he came to place his loyalty, the decisive factors were friendship and the chance to find solidarity with his comrades against an indifferent world.
  • When Deng chose the communist party, comradely feeling was a much more important factor than political or philosophical ideas. Deng's ideas did not choose his friends for him; it was the other way around. By becoming a communist, he could spend more time hanging out with his friends.

This was an ordinary path to an extraordinary life.


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I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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