This year, 20 years after Deng Xiaoping stepped down as top leader, Xi Jinping will take the helm. He will confront disturbing problems: economic slowdown, massive corruption, widespread public demonstrations and a potential cold war with the United States.
Mr. Xi, the current Vice-President, will inherit a country that Mr. Deng shaped as he brought China into the modern world. From 1978 to 1992, Mr. Deng led a country exhausted by the Great Leap Forward, racked by poverty, divided by the Cultural Revolution and virtually closed to the outside world onto a new path that embraced the global economy, opened domestic markets, lifted hundreds of millions from poverty, and laid the basis for a strong nation that changed the global balance of power. No 20th-century leader did more to change the shape of the world. So what legacy did Mr. Deng leave his successors?
Mr. Deng made use of his enormous authority as a revolutionary hero and right-hand man of Mao and Zhou Enlai and managed a political transition that other Communist nations haven’t been able to achieve. As he began to support the opening of China, conservative Chinese officials, taught for decades that imperialists had exploited China, dragged their feet in allowing foreign firms to set up manufacturing plants. But they found it difficult to oppose “experiments” far from Beijing and, when the experiments produced results, they couldn’t stop their spread elsewhere.
In 1978, as soon as Mr. Deng began negotiations for normalizing relations with the United States, he played host to White House science adviser Frank Press. Mr. Deng was so insistent on sending hundreds of students to U.S. universities immediately after normalization that Mr. Press phoned Jimmy Carter, waking up the president at 3 a.m. Mr. Carter gave his approval and, since then, more than a million Chinese students have gone abroad – and more than a third have returned home with new technology and new ideas.
Mr. Deng believed the Soviet Union had made a terrible mistake by having hostile relationships with other countries and exhausting its resources on military expenditures, leaving few resources for the domestic economy. Mr. Deng improved relations with the West and, in 1989, with the Soviet Union. He decreased the percentage of the budget going for military expenses and plowed resources into the civilian economy.
Although Mr. Deng’s reform program remains the basis of China’s policies in the decades since he stepped down, some issues are now more pressing. China’s new leaders, who grew up within the system, can’t match the experience and authority that Mr. Deng had as a revolutionary leader, but, collectively, they can accomplish a lot. Corruption is far more serious than in Mr. Deng’s days, and they can do more to get it under control.
China’s growth will slow down, because the world can’t continue to increase Chinese imports at the same pace as in recent years, and the massive investment in infrastructure is beginning to bring diminishing returns. To continue its growth, China must do more to distribute the wealth to poorer areas, increase the role of consumption, and promote innovation and efficiency.
Criticism of the party on blogs within China and widespread demonstrations will require China to do more to reinforce the party’s legitimacy by providing stronger procedures to those with complaints and strengthening the representation of public opinion in supporting its policies. Xi Jinping may well make advances in these areas not because of advice from foreigners but because the leaders need the support of the people.
As China gains strength, it may be tempting for its leaders to move more boldly in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait and elsewhere. It’s in China’s interest for Mr. Xi to maintain good relations with the outside world and to follow Mr. Deng’s path, which brought such great benefit to the Chinese people and to the world at large.
As Chinese military power and the risk of a new cold war with the U.S. grow, it’s important for Chinese and American leaders to have frank discussions about their military goals. All this would be adapting the spirit of Mr. Deng to the new age.
Ezra Vogel is the winner of this year’s Lionel Gelber Prize for Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China. He will receive his award and deliver the annual public lecture March 15 at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto.