After 20 Years of 'Peaceful Evolution,' China Faces Another Historic Moment

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China's central challenge now is remedying the social consequences and cleavages that its growth has wrought.

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A man looks out from a window next to a portrait of late Chinese leader Deng in a gallery at Dafen Oil Painting Village, in Shenzhen / Reuters

Twenty years ago this month, the octogenarian Deng Xiaoping embarked on his "southern tour," a journey that would turn out to be one of the most significant acts of modern Chinese history. Although Deng would die five years later at 92, his organs donated to medical research, the elder leader's bold maneuvering in the winter of 1992 made the China of today possible. Deliberately ambiguous in intention, the trip was in fact a political campaign of sorts aimed at achieving two crucial objectives: First, to sustain the political conditions that would facilitate continuous reform and economic liberalization; and, second, to rescue the Communist Party -- via a reform agenda - -from reducing itself into a speck in the dustbin of history.

Indeed, Deng was thrusting himself into a political climate that was entirely anathema to his "reform and opening up" policy. The conservatives in the party seemingly emerged victorious after the Tiananmen crackdown three years earlier, only to have the collapse of the Soviet Union hand them another convenient justification to block economic and political reforms. A considerable conservative faction vehemently discredited further reform, claiming that it would bring the party to its knees. To them, the Tiananmen tragedy of 1989 and the Soviet disintegration were all products of "peaceful evolution," which they viewed as the clear and present danger. Peaceful evolution was the most serious and threatening in the economic sphere, they claimed, and any economic reforms must be first and foremost subject to the question, "is your surname socialism or capitalism"?

Deng had attempted to shred this ideological straitjacket in 1991, in which he ordered a series of pro-reform essays to be penned under the pseudonym Huangfu Ping (皇甫平). But given the conservative zeitgeist, he could only publish the pieces in the Shanghai-based Liberation Daily, not the more authoritative central mouthpiece People's Daily. His messages were simple but sharp, directly taking the conservatives to task. Deng believed that without reforms and economic development to improve peoples' livelihoods, the CCP was writing its own death sentence. He had little patience for the ideological battles that paralyzed the political system from pursuing a rational course of development. Instead of managing the economy, the political elites were ensconced in petty "left" vs. "right" battles that obscured the larger prerogative of nation-building. One of Deng's most poignant comments to rewire China's ideological mindset was, to paraphrase, "going 'right' can bury socialism, and going 'left' can also bury socialism. China should remain vigilant against moving too far right [toward capitalism], but must primarily prevent returning to the left [toward Mao-style revolutions]."

Needless to say, the commentaries immediately ignited a furor within the party. The conservatives countered forcefully, and Deng did not get the effect he had intended with the public ideological fisticuffs. Having risen from the ashes of political purges three times, Deng was anything but a quitter. When he realized that he needed a closing act to solicit political allies, he orchestrated his month-long trip through central and southern China to win "hearts and minds." Win he did. The southern tour proved highly successful, sending reverberations through Beijing and knocking conservatives off balance. Those who remained on the fence, such as future Chinese president Jiang Zemin, understood the ground had shifted and swiftly coalesced behind Deng's agenda. When the 14th Party Congress opened in October 1992, it was unambiguously clear that Deng had, with persistence and political acumen, once again set China on a course that would dictate its development for the next two decades.

What a course it has been, as the record speaks for itself. Since 1978, China's economy has grown more than 100-fold, while per capita GDP has risen roughly 80 times (not adjusted for inflation or exchange rate differences). It has far exceeded Deng's expectation of reaching a per capita GDP of $4,000 by mid-21st century--a milestone that was achieved forty years ahead of schedule. China's steel output is now north of 600 million tons, an incredible feat considering that the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s mobilized nearly 100 million Chinese only to end up with 11 million tons of steel.

I recount this snapshot of history on the anniversary of the southern tour not for its own sake, but because I believe it is instructive for observing China today. As China proceeds through a political transition, culminating in the new 18th Party Congress this fall, there are echoes of 1992. The Jasmine Revolution, Arab Spring, Wukan violence, increasing civil disobedience, and pluralism on social media, are new manifestations of peaceful evolution, as Hu Jintao's culture essay elliptically warned against. The unusually public campaigns for political office--primarily construed as a two-way contest between Bo Xilai and Wang Yang--appear to be fundamentally about a referendum on the direction of reforms.

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Damien Ma is a fellow at the Paulson Institute, where he focuses on investment and policy programs, and on the Institute's research and think-tank activities. Previously, he was a lead China analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk research and advisory firm.

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