Feb 06, 2012 06:16 PM

Reviving Hope in Deng's Legacy of Reform

Twenty years ago, an 88-year-old Deng Xiaoping embarked on a whistlestop tour of southeast China. He spoke in Shanghai, Wuhan, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and other cities to set the tone for the 14th National Congress of the Communist Party of China held the following October.

Deng's tour is now recognized as a milestone in the history of China's economic reform movement. His words remain significant even today.

Deng changed national perceptions of reform. He shattered old concepts and overcame critics' doubts. Most importantly, his practical approach to the way a market economy, socialism and capitalism can work together marked a theoretical breakthrough. He offered a way out of an ideological tussle between socialism and capitalism that dogged previous efforts in China to implement reform. Deng legitimized the market economy. 

We can hardly overstate the importance of his thinking because at the time so-called Marxist theorists held sway. He put what had been a languishing reform movement back on track. Freed by Deng's contribution from outdated economic concepts, China's productivity levels soared. Freed from fear of a market economy, more people engaged in market activities.

Deng called for "bolder, faster" efforts to carry out reform, and warned that the central government would let no one stand in the way.

Many of Deng's suggestions have been put into practice, and premises he introduced during that remarkable tour – including the three stages of China's development and three criteria for judging reform – have become well-known. The specific circumstances referred to in the speeches no longer exist, but his rejection of dogmatism and willingness to experiment reflected the spirit he advocated as well as one of his most famous expressions: Seek truth from facts.

Deng's tour was a wise and responsible call to action. As the product of a sharp political mind, its legacy illustrates the value and effectiveness of a leader who takes decisive action at a critical moment in a nation's history. Leaders in China today would do well to take a cue from this architect of reform. Deng had a keen understanding of politics, Chinese society and the will of the people.

China's economy has seen stunning growth in modern times. But it's not a fully functioning market economy. Its market development has been distorted by a lack of understanding toward the rule of law, upon which any sound market system is based, and weak institutional controls that fail to prevent the collusion of big power and big money.

In China today, a profusion of special interest groups exploit under-regulated segments of the market for illegal gain. They range from China's Big Three oil companies to its three major telecoms. Some even perniciously engage in this behavior on the pretext of market reform. They can be compared to the "demons" with good speech but evil actions described by Confucian philosopher Xun Zi. They are pseudo-reformists who threaten to destroy the public's trust in reform initiatives.

Little wonder that there's talk in China now that the reform movement invigorated by Deng two decades ago is dead. Public anxiety over the future of reform is palpable. Some people feel helpless.

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