The ‘children’ of Deng Xiaoping
The other Chinese revolution: Meet the people who took Deng’s economic great leap forward
Deng Xiaoping was no Winston Churchill. He possessed a thick southern accent most people found nearly impenetrable, and was anything but garrulous. In fact, little of what he said was memorable or even original. His most-cited aphorism – “To get rich is glorious” – did not actually spill from his mouth; historians suspect its provenance can be traced to the West.
But in deed more than word, Mr. Deng was the linchpin in redirecting China’s economy away from the backward, centrally planned beast it had become under Mao Zedong. He set it on a path that would see decades of unrelenting growth and the creation of credulity-defying prosperity.
What he wanted to do, he said in 1978, was to “light a spark” for change:
“If we can’t grow faster than the capitalist countries, then we can’t show the superiority of our system.”
– Deng, 1978
He succeeded in spurring growth, and wildly so, marshalling the power of the world’s most populous nation. Now, 110 years after his birth – an occasion that its leadership has sought to celebrate with lengthy TV biopics and other remembrances – China is filled with millionaires.
But has the sudden influx of wealth made it happy?
Where chasing profit was once grounds for harsh re-education, the country’s heroes and superstars – Jack Ma and an entire generation of tuhao, or nouveau riche – are now, in ways both spiritual and economic, the children of Deng.
President Xi Jinping has consciously sought to present himself as the current generation’s version of Deng. But for many of Deng’s figurative progeny, wealth and happiness haven’t always come together. In a recent survey published in the People’s Tribune magazine, worries about a moral vacuum, personal selfishness and anxiety over individual and professional status were high on the list of top concerns about the country today. The poll reflected a pervasive cultural disquiet that has reached even into the ranks of those most richly rewarded by the Deng-led opening up.
“On the social level, money became the only currency in terms of personal relationships, and that’s a really sad reality,” says Yang Lan, one of the country’s top television hosts.
She points to “the lack of a value system” that she sees when she hears young girls “discussing how they would love to be a mistress so they can live a wealthy life before they are too old. And you see girls discussing these things very openly.” China, she says, needs “a new social contract.”
There is little doubt that those who no longer need to worry about making money are more free to criticize others, raising the spectre of hypocrisy. But pained reflection has been among the less-anticipated products of the wealth China has amassed. The comforts of financial security have provided a new space to rethink the path the country has taken and ways it has fallen short.
And as China’s economy slows to a pace not seen in decades, it also faces a moment to consider the sweep of its modern history – decades marked by the vicious turbulence of the Mao years, followed by the full-throttle race away from it inspired by Mr. Deng.
From 1978, the first year of the Deng-led reforms, China has been so thoroughly reshaped that even numbers struggle to do it justice. Gross domestic product has expanded 156-fold, the value of imports and exports is 727 times higher, and savings are up by a factor of 2,131.
The growth has been driven by an extraordinary – and massive – cohort of people who have turned personal quests for profit into a national obsession. “China has, in absolute numbers as well as percentage of populace, the most successful entrepreneurs anywhere in the world,” says Peter Fuhrman, chairman and founder of China First Capital, a specialist investment bank based in Shenzhen.
But even those who most warmly embraced the Deng mandate are now pausing for a second look at a country whose vast financial progress has become marred by other problems.
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