The Observer

23 February 1997



Market-Leninist left no heir

Visionaries, not grey men, are needed to drive China forward

Gerald Segal



DENG XIAOPING was a man for whom hyperbole was invented. He shared responsibility for the horror of the Great Leap Forward, when 30 million Chinese died of starvation, and became the 'butcher of Beijing' in 1989, after the massacre in Tiananmen Square. He was also the architect of arguably the twentieth century's greatest economic reform - producing an average of 10 per cent growth for 15 years for a fifth of humankind.

 Deng's leadership will be followed by greyness. This is not because China and the rest of the world have moved beyond the age of great leaders, but because China is moving into a different stage of development and Deng failed to reform his political system. History's final judgement of his leadership depends on whether his successors can sustain reform in both economic and political terms.

 Understanding the importance of this stage of China's development also helps explain why Deng's legacy and the country's future are often seen so differently by Asia and the West.

 While the developed world is used to producing the sort of grey leaders that can survive the hypercritical scrutiny of press and public in a pluralist political system, Asians have only recently come through their own revolutionary phases.

 Those still undergoing democratisation recall the virtues of their authoritarian leaders and so have some sympathy for Deng's strategy of market-Leninism.

 Deng, like Mao Zedong, was the product of revolutionary conditions. Mao left revolutionary conditions but little prosperity for Deng to exploit, and Deng chose to destroy Mao's legacy and make his people rich instead. In his success, Deng ensured China no longer needed his and Mao's style of revolutionary leader, but he did not foresee his own failure to put in place a new generation of leaders with vision.

 The result is a delicate phase of China's history, when the country still needs a powerful visionary to safeguard the gains of the Deng era and to take it forward. Reform cannot stand still: as for a cyclist, pausing for breath is to risk falling over.

 The next stages reform--privatisation of state industry, mass migration from country to city, the setting up of a welfare system and the creation of a more liberal and decentralised political system, are all enormous challenges that are necessary consequences of Deng's reforms.

 Deng's own form of ruthless leadership would not be suited to the new challenges, for China must be led more through vision than through fear. It must become a pluralist, decentralised, perhaps even federal, country if it is to sustain long-term economic prosperity.

 Every large nation has a federal system, but federalism seems to come at the birth of the state. It is very hard, especially for vision-challenged bureaucratic leaders, to appreciate how they might manage decentralisation and build federalism.

 China's leaders will also have to find the vision to change its foreign policy, for as the country grows strong, it is likely to find a less amenable external environment. Western powers are already growing wary of what American planners call a looming 'peer competitor'. And as Asian nations grow freer and their economic growth slows to Western levels, they will see China increasingly as a rival. A weak Chinese leadership that reaches for nationalism as glue in these times will make the outside world more distrustful.

 While China's leaders will have to be far more subtle in dealing with foreigners, the main challenges will be at home. The leadership will need to become more transparent in its policies, evolve a system of government based more on blind justice than blinkered authoritarianism, and establish a more pluralist and decentralised political system.

 And although advocates of 'Asian values' squirm when prosperity Is explained in terms of stages of development, it remains true that China, like the rest of Asia, will have to grow freer if it is to sustain Its economic growth.

 These challenges require leaders who are more visionary than ruthless. Unfortunately, the system Deng has left produced the faded reds of Communism and the dull greys of bureaucratic rule.

 The few leaders with vision, such as Hu Yaobang, were already cut down by the Dengist political order. There may be greater visionaries among the current crop of potential successors - Zhu Rongji or Li Ruihan - but the red/grey system seems to empower 'leaders' such as President Jiang Zemin, who have as much constancy as a weather vane. When the ability to muddle through is elevated to a political art form, China is less likely to move confidently through the necessary reforms.

 Deng cannot be excused for not having known Jiang's failings - after all, he was Deng's third choice as successor. Deng seems not to have fully appreciated how much the likes of Jiang put his own legacy at risk. Deng could not produce a promised land of entrenched and secure economic prosperity, but he did have the opportunity to begin the kinds of political reforms that might have produced the leadership and vision that could meet the challenges to come. The gravity of this error may yet mean Deng will be judged a 'could-have-beení great leader.



Gerald Segal is a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and director of the UK Economic and Social Research Council's Pacific Asia Programme.