Michael Dillon, author of our new biography Deng Xiaoping: The Man Who Made Modern China, looks at how Deng’s legacy of ‘economic reform without democratisation’ is behind the current protests in Hong Kong.
In Hong Kong the pro-democracy demonstrations are coming to a ragged conclusion amid scuffles and recriminations. In Beijing the 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is meeting for its Fourth Plenary meeting. Xi Jinping’s position as the strongman of the fifth generation government is likely to be re-affirmed but the future of democracy and the rule of law in both Hong Kong and the rest of China remains uncertain.
In August 2014 China marked the 110th anniversary of the birth of Deng Xiaoping, who had set China on the road to reform after a landmark plenary session of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee in 1978. His commitment to economic reform is lauded in the West as much as it is in China but his failure to allow any measures of political democracy divides commentators.
Hong Kong, which had been under British rule since 1842, was returned to China in 1997 after long drawn-out and difficult negotiations, culminating in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 19 December 1984. Deng did not live to achieve his lifelong ambition to see the handover on 1 July 1997 when Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, to be ruled under the novel concept of ‘one country two systems’. Nevertheless it is Deng’s political inheritance in China – economic reform without democratisation – that is behind the current conflict in the former colony.
China’s president and Communist Party chairman, Xi Jinping, has emerged as a new strongman from what initially appeared to be a more collective leadership. He increasingly refers to the legacy of Deng Xiaoping to define his political position and has emphasised that there is no political future for China other than one in which the dominant position of the CCP is retained. The rule of law might be extended but the CCP will not be constrained by that law. It might be possible to develop internal democracy within the CCP but there will be no political opposition, and no concession to ‘Western-style multi-party democracy’ which the more conservative members of the CCP believe would lead to the demise of the party and its government.
In August 2014 the official Central Committee journal Qiushi (Seeking Truth) published a set of articles on the Deng legacy. Even the name of this journal is a permanent reminder of Deng’s continuing influence as it is a shortened version of one of his aphorisms, ‘seek truth from facts’ (shishi qiushi), his pragmatic riposte to those in the party who started with an ideological position and tried to fit policies into it.
One of the articles was under the name of Hu Chunhua, currently the Party Secretary of Guangdong Province, a member of the Politburo and tipped to be a key figure in the next generation of the leadership and a possible successor to Xi Jinping. The message could not be spelled out more clearly: for the foreseeable future the CCP will continue ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, the principles established by Deng that China must continue to reform its economy but will not be distracted by pressure for democracy or political reform. ■