“Ideology doesn’t attract Chinese people – Marxism-Leninism barely registers with them”, writes Professor Kerry Brown in his succinct excellent new book whose title is soberly China (Polity Books). That notion comes as a surprise to anyone following international politics and assuming that communism is the glue of the régime. But the key to understand the rising superpower can rather be found in two other aspects. First, nationalism, which is frequently evoked between the covers.
And pragmatism. The author, who is also Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, credits Deng Xiaoping with ensuring the rise of his country on the world scene. “It was the less dramatic Deng who finally found a balance, trying to work with the world, gain from relations internationally, but always with an eye to China’s benefit.”
Those who assume that those who work at Zhongnanhai (the seat of Chinese power in the Forbidden City) are just a bunch of ideologues should think twice. Of course, the ruling party still advances under the red banner, but its strategists have a cunning vision of history. Hence, the shift from being simply concerned with influence on land to developing capacities to also emerge as a sea power.
While Mao Zedong is pictured as a vengeful and petty figure who encouraged open criticism to expose his enemies, Deng Xiaoping emerges as a more balanced personality and the real power broker behind the current positioning of China. The future leader of the country survived Maoist’s purges because of his “administrative abilities”. Along the way, he was also “[…] one of the many who had noticed that for all the rhetoric of Maoism, something was amiss.” His approach would not be about big speeches and slogans, but concrete actions.
I was reminded of a recent interview I published in which François Bougon, a French Sinologist and author of a book on Hong Kong who told me how Deng Xiaoping used a technical issue – reassuring investors about the future of then British colony – to sandbag Margaret Thatcher. The Iron Lady was outsmarted by the older, shorter and half-deaf former tractor factory worker. Underestimating China is as fatal as misunderstanding it. Even though Kerry Brown reminds us that there are only a few large images of Deng displayed in China, he is the architect of the current – and potentially future – posture adopted by the decision-makers at home and in the world.
For that reason, Kerry Brown’s insightful book is an essential read for whoever seeks to understand the real intentions of the decision-makers in Beijing. If there’s only one thing to take away from this book, it’s the following:
“Despite their very different personalities, interests, and outlooks, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and Xi Jinping are united by their commitment to a nationalist vision promoted by a Communist ideology. While never declared explicitly, Marxism-Leninism almost functions in their calculus not as an end in itself, bringing about an ideal society, but as a means to something they heretically believe matters much more: a resurgent, great, powerful China, restored at last to its central place in the world.”
Chinese leaders are patient people and Xi Jinping likes to refer to the 5000 years of history of his country. They are not seeking immediate gains. Pragmatism is in their DNA. Reading the news, one might be brought to think that China’s current positioning in the South China Sea and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) comes from a new orientation adopted by the current General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and Chairman of the Central Military Commission. It would be a mistake to think that this strategic design simply is a whim of the boss, since it is grounded in history. I have often read about the influence of Mao on the president of China. After reading Kerry Brown’s book, I understand that Deng Xiaoping might also be a determining, while more subtle, source of inspiration.
The works of Professor Brown are always tremendously informative and agreeable to read. Because of what precedes, I would love to read more about Deng Xiaoping under his pen.
Kerry Brown, China, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2020, 224 pages.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Lucas Jones of Polity Books for his continued and generous assistance.