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Deng Xiaoping: Biography & Policies

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

China is both the world's leading communist nation, and one of the world's most active international economies. How can it be both? In this lesson we'll explore the life and policies of Deng Xiaoping and see how compromises changed China.

The People's Republic of China

The 20th century was an interesting time. I mean, it's not everyday that you see a new system of government sweep across the world. That system was communism, based on the Marxist-socialist ideology that the government should control the means of production and distribution of wealth.

Several nations turned to communism throughout the 20th century, but only a few remain. The big one? The People's Republic of China, or the PRC. China has been a communist nation since 1949, but the road hasn't been easy. In fact, it's been full of contradictions.

For the last communist powerhouse, China plays an awfully big role in international, free-market trade. When's the last time you saw something that wasn't made in China? So, the nation has had to figure out what it means to be communist in a free-market world. How do you accomplish something like that? Well, partly by having leaders with the foresight and flexibility to compromise. Leaders like Deng Xiaoping.

Deng Xiaoping
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Deng Xiaoping's Beginnings

Born as Deng Xiansheng to a wealthy landowner in 1904, Deng was a young man when he was first attracted to the revolutionary ideas of communism while studying in France. There is an old Chinese custom of changing one's name to signify an important change or a new phase in life, and in 1924 Deng changed his personal name to Xiaoping, which means 'Little Peace'.

He became entrenched in the revolutionary movement, and joined the communist Red Army that started China's communist revolution. When the communist party overthrew the government in 1949, Deng was one of men leading the military campaign.

Deng Xiaoping in 1937
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In 1949, the revolutionaries turned China into a communist nation, reorganizing its government. Deng rose quickly through the ranks, but the more powerful he became, the more often he was at odds with the party leader, Chairman Mao Zedong. Mao ruled China for almost 30 years, and was fully committed to a strict communist ideology. Deng was certainly a communist, but had a much more pragmatic approach.

Deng vs Mao

When famine struck China in the 1959 as a result of Mao's industrialization policies, Deng authorized the privatization of collective lands, giving individual plots back to individual peasants. As the famines and death rates increased, Deng proposed loosening up further on strict communist practices, including a limited free market. For this, he was exiled to southern China, far from the capital.

In 1976, Mao Zedong died and a power struggle ensued. By 1978, Deng and his supporters controlled most of the PRC. For nearly the next 20 years, Deng Xiaoping was in all practicality the leader of China. He died in 1997, leaving China more prosperous than it had been in a century.

Policies of Deng Xiaoping

Deng Xiaoping's policies for China can best be described as a communist middle ground. While Mao had been a strict adherent to purely communist practices, Deng recognized what was and was not working. Mao had instituted rural communes, communally owned and farmed land, but the result was widespread famine and death. So, Deng turned this land back over to individual families. Urban Chinese citizens were allowed to open up small, private businesses, and international investors were actively pursued to bring their industries into China.

Throughout the rest of his life, Deng teetered on the edge of capitalism, permitting China to operate within an international free market while still remaining committed to the ideologies of the 1949 communist revolution.

Deng Xiaoping opened relationships with foreign nations, shown here with US president Jimmy Carter
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Tiananmen Square

For all of his compromises, it is important to remember that Deng Xiaoping was a true communist, and this especially extended to the idea of a single-party state with near authoritarian control. In fact, one of the worst massacres in China's recent history was the use of the military to violently suppress unarmed protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989. While Deng was open to expanding China's markets, he was not open to political reform that would challenge the dominance of the Communist Party.

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