Deng Xiao-Ping, China’s late leader and successor to Mao Tse-Tung, deserves a decisive place in history for setting off a chain of events that has led to China’s current economic success. His aggressive policy of economic reform in China was perhaps one of the most courageous acts of any political leader in the 20th century. In 1985, not quite a decade after Deng first launched his reforms, Richard Holbrooke was quoted in Time magazine as saying: “There is no other leader in the world who is doing anything even remotely in Deng’s league.”
In the same article, the Time writer contrasts the cautiousness with which Mikhail Gorbachev approached economic reforms in the former Soviet Union. Even today, the comparison between China and Russia can still be used as an example of the success of economic reform in China. The key drivers of China’s economy today are her entrepreneurs. In contrast, the key driver of Russia’s economy appears to be oil prices.
Deng Xiao-Ping had been cast into the political wilderness many times for holding “rightist” views. When he was finally rehabilitated as China’s supreme leader in 1978, it would be for the last time, as Deng would remain China’s key political personality until his death in 1997. Deng could be said to still have influence, even from the grave, as Jiang Ze-Min was anointed Deng’s successor to China’s leadership by Deng himself and Hu Jin-Tao, China’s current leader, was hand-picked by Deng as a future leader of China after Jiang, before his death.
The idea of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, which Deng labeled his reforms, still has resonance today. Jiang Ze-Min wholeheartedly continued in the vein of Deng’s other formulation for his economic reforms: “To get rich is glorious.” Hu Jin-Tao appears to favor economic growth more balanced by social considerations, such as environmental protection, stability and the rich-poor divide. Nevertheless, China can be said to be still traveling down the path which Deng Xiao-Ping set for her.