Learning from Deng Xiaoping: leadership principles from the man who transformed China

July 19, 2021

‘Let some people get rich first.’ (Deng Xiaoping)
‘It doesn't matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.’ (Deng Xiaoping)
‘Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.’ (Deng Xiaoping)

Deng: a man of unresolved contradictions

Folksy grandfather, pragmatic change agent, communist ideologue, cunning international negotiator, beloved family man, autodidact, brutal militarist, godchild of Marx and Lenin, relentless promoter of economic development, persecuted leader and lover of science and technology.

Deng Xiaoping, the father of modern China, was all of these things and more. The almost 900 pages of the Ezra Pound’s biography of Deng I recently read barely encapsulates this enormously gifted, complex, jovial and, at times, cruel man. He was a rarity amongst leaders of his stature in that he had a strong and clear vision for the future of China as a market-driven socialist country, along with an enormous capacity to organise and implement strategies that moved the nation towards its goals. He was also skilled at identifying, educating, and mentoring talented people. He was not threatened by others; his ego was in check.

Learned in the history of China, Deng observed how difficult it had been across the centuries to impose nation-wide change on his sprawling country. In response, he allowed and fostered experiments such as special economic zones. Rather than reform all the transport system, he started with one important rail junction and fixed it, including batting back the Cultural Revolution’s feared Red Guards in the process. If something worked, it could be tried elsewhere. If the experiment failed, the upheavals of massive change had been avoided. In another example, he famously encouraged ‘some people to get rich first’ so that others could follow in their wake. The fact that the past 30 years has seen a massive growth to household incomes in China is no accident. Ironically, the nation has also seen the rich grow very rich in a way many would consider to be anti-socialist.

As a believer in pragmatic realism over ideology, his quip ‘It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice’ was widely quoted.

Born in 1904 Deng lived until 1997. His life spanned virtually the whole of the 20th century and 60-70 years of the Chinese Communist Party’s twists and turns. Along with Zhou Enlai he was a key compatriot with Mao Zedong on the 9,000km ‘Long March’ undertaken in 1934-5 by the Chinese communist forces, a horrible experience that formed Mao as a future leader, created the Chinese communists party as a national and global force and shaped the following 60 years of Chinese leadership. Even though he was a ‘rusted on’ Mao loyalist, along with millions of others Deng and his family were exiled to the provinces during the purges of the cultural revolution. Subsequently rehabilitated and called back to senior leadership roles in Beijing, Mao pushed him aside again in the mid 1970s.

After Chairman Mao’s death in 1976, Deng skilfully and bloodlessly outmanoeuvred Mao’s nominated successor, Huo Guofeng, to become de facto then, finally, paramount leader. Unlike Mao, some years before he died Deng had resigned all his many executive roles, and on his own terms. The handover of power went smoothly.

In the west Deng is still reviled for presiding over the utilisation of the army to quell the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests. His precise role in the imposition of martial law and the ordering of troops to fire on, and kill civilians on the streets, is disputed. But as paramount leader, he could have stopped the violence before it happened. He never apologised and never shied away from clamping down hard against dissent when he felt the Communist Party was at risk. He was the ultimate Party loyalist; a Marxist-Leninist to the end.

Can we learn from Deng?

We can and should learn from a broad range of people. Just because Deng was a communist and rose to the top of a single party dictatorship does not mean we cannot learn from him - both good and bad. Ezra Vogel, China expert and author of ‘Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China’ identified what he called ‘some principles that underlay his (Deng’s) pattern of rule.’ I have summarised and added to several of Vogel’s observations below. Like the man, these principles are fascinating and, at time, contradictory. I am sure Deng just used them because for him, they worked!

Speak and act with authority

Deng was a military leader for a decade. He knew how to convey the air of command. Yet before major presentations, he would clear his speeches with other important leaders and with Party ideologues. Once a decision was announced, however, he rarely weakened his authority by admitting errors. With foreign leaders, he was remarkably open. In his early days as paramount leader he regularly called China ‘the poor man of Asia’ when speaking with foreign visitors. His calm authority and bluntness were highly regarded in the West, even when China was officially a closed country.

Build public support before promoting path-breaking reforms

Deng avoided going out on a limb to advocate policies that might engender resistance from either central or provincial leaders. He did not openly support the de-collectivisation of farms, for example. Forced agricultural collectivisation, one of the worst excesses of Chairman Mao, had led to starvation in some areas. In response, Deng simply said that where peasants were starving, they should be allowed to find ways to survive, a view few could criticise. When localised successes were apparent in regard to de-collectivisation or other policy changes, he then came out in support, but rarely in a major way. He was happy to let others take the running, tending to encourage and trust competent regional leaders to learn from each other’s successes and failures.

Avoid taking the blame

While avoiding taking blame is a ‘no no’ in Western management theory if not practice, Deng generally expected subordinates to shoulder the blame for unpopular policies or policy failures. In this he followed in the steps of his mentor, Mao. There were exceptions to this rule. When Deng judged that he had to put his authority on the line to accomplish a particular task - one example being the invasion of Vietnam in 1979 - he did so.

Set short-term policies in light of long-term goals

Not having to face elections, Deng focussed on the long-term. For example, he set a goal of quadrupling GNP between 1980 and 2000. He also had an explicit target of making China a middle-income nation by the middle of the 21st century, fifty years after his own passing. Some might argue that even in the early 2020s this goal has already been achieved.

Pursue policies that help achieve long term goals

Once he had built consensus around long-term goals, Deng set annual and 5-year plans. He was also a supporter of the so-called ‘Four Modernisations’. Originally proposed by Premier Zou Enlai in 1964, but held back by the Cultural Revolution, the Four Modernisations articulated four areas of development focus for China —agriculture, industry, science and technology, and defence. The embrace of the Four Modernisations, and the related emphasis on economic development marked, a significant departure from the country’s policies immediately prior, which had been primarily focused on ideology. To this end, Deng fought a long-term Party battle against some of Mao’s legacies. He was a supporter of the view that practice or experience should be the test of truth, not abstract ideology, even if that ideology had been upheld by Mao himself.

The following story makes the significance of the practice versus ideology point clear. In May 1978, a commentary had been released in some leading media publications entitled ‘practice is the sole criterion for testing truth.’ The article criticised the principle of the ‘two whatevers,’ which some members of the leadership of the Communist Party of China clung to as a Mao legacy. Under that principle: a. whatever decisions made by late leader Mao Zedong (1893-1976) must be upheld; and: b. whatever instructions given by him must be followed. Thus, the origin of the rather arcane phrase, ‘the two whatevers!” In order to pursue the Four Modernisations Deng had to win the argument between the ‘two whatevers’ and ‘practice is the sole criterion for testing truth.’

Westerners should not laugh at this seemingly unproductive communist party feud. We in liberal democracies face similar battles over the veracity of climate change and the efficacy of vaccination. These friction points are nothing less than battles between objective data (evidence) and ideology.

Push, consolidate and push again

Deng believed that on matters where he encountered significant opposition it was best to push hard and apply pressure, then wait for things to consolidate, before pushing again. Even in the second half of his 80s Deng was using this strategy to move ahead economic reform. He was until his later years a master at reading the mood both of the Party and that of the populace. As his deafness grew more profound, and age limited travel, he was less successful at tracking sentiment. Some would say the Tiananmen Square massacre was an example of the latter. He did not see the student rebellion coming. Rather than consolidate he cracked down.

Uncover even the unpleasant truths

As a leader Deng faced up honestly to massive failures of Maoist policies such as the ‘Great Leap Forward’ and the Cultural Revolution. Deng confirmed information from several sources before he adopted it as truth. Similarly, he did not necessarily believe the massively inflated agricultural production and industrial output figures that had become common practice amongst officials of both the USSR and China under communism. Although he avoided direct criticism of Mao, he was skilled at speaking in code. When he blamed Mao’s advisors, the infamous Gang of Four, for the excesses of the Mao era, Deng’s listeners understood what was being said: Chairman Mao although revered was not perfect, he made errors.  When something was not working, Deng worked diligently to uncover why it was not working so a better way could be found.

Use aphorisms to explain complex, controversial issues

The shrewd, folksy Deng was a master at explaining policies - in the West we would say selling policies - using popular aphorisms. This made it difficult for Party figures to disagree with him and had the added bonus of making Deng himself seem personable and down to earth. Apart from the famous ‘cat theory’ aphorism noted above, and ‘some people can get rich first’, he also framed the saying ‘groping for stones with your feet while crossing the river’ as a creative way of stating that it is legitimate at times to tentatively feel one’s way forward in a new situation.

Study and shape the ‘atmosphere’

Invariably, Deng avoided acting on major issues before he sensed that the political climate was supportive. He was patient, sought to influence individuals over time and kept good lines of communication open with those he knew disagreed with him. Direct confrontation and public shows of disunity were not the way of the senior echelons of the Chinese Community Party. When a colleague was attacked either in public or in meetings behind closed Party doors, it was generally the expression of an organised, pre-ordained campaign and not a product of an individual ‘shooting their mouth off’ as might be more often the case in Western democracies. Deng had twice been the victim of Mao’s campaigns. He had been forced to undertake infamous ‘self-criticisms’ and share his reflections on his failings at key gatherings. He knew how the system worked to take down those who had run ahead of policy or strayed from Marxism-Leninism and Party precepts.

Due to these subtleties, nuances, and pitfalls, even Deng needed to keep a close ear to the ground, to quickly pick up on unspoken signs of disagreement, or concerns that were not being openly aired. He was also an expert in timing the major shifts and changes he pushed through.

Deng’s legacy and the current President, Xi Jinping

Deng’s legacy is significant. His impact cannot be underestimated. But what would Deng think of Xi Jinping, the current Chinese President, and his successor as paramount leader? Xi Jinping is a child of the Party that Deng helped create and form, the son of Chinese Communist veteran Xi Zhongxun. Like Deng’s children, Xi was exiled to a rural area as a teenager following his father's purge during the Cultural Revolution. He lived in a cave in the village of Liangjiahe, where he joined the Party and worked as the party secretary.

I am no China expert, but I suspect Deng would be proud of China’s status in 2021 as the second great global superpower, and of the manner in which the country he loved has continued to eat away at that once unassailable monolith, the US. No lover of the USSR, Deng considered its great reformer, Gorbachev, a light weight who in an ill-judged suicidal act tried to reform the communist system before reforming the broken economy. In getting the order of events wrong Gorbachev set in train the end of the USSR and the fall of the Iron Curtain. In comparison, thirty years on from the destruction of the Berlin wall, the firm hand (or iron fist) of the Chinese Communist Party seems as entrenched as ever. But history shows that the Party’s inner sanctum will likely be the last to see their demise coming.

I expect that the wily Deng would be far less overt than Xi in flaunting his nation’s new found economic and military power. Why do I think Deng would have been more reticent than Xi in trumpeting China’s current dominant position? In giving advice to colleagues late in his career, Deng said the following:

Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.

Both master strategist and cunning tactician, Deng always played the long game.

Philip Pogson FAICD

July, 2021.

Philip has been a company director, Chair, and business owner for more than 20 years. He consults and advises on strategy and governance across a range of business sectors and also co-owns and operates a music production and promotion business. He enjoys writing about the intersection between leadership, governance, and long-term strategy.

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