China's great experimentalist

By Nick Land

Shanghai Star. 2004-08-26

The centennial anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s birth is a natural time to reflect upon this extraordinary individual and leader, to whom the world in general, and China in particular, owe an incalculable debt. Deng was not only a revolutionary, even more consequentially he had the resilient courage, intellectual agility and vision to revolutionize the revolution, transforming Chinese Marxism into the greatest political engine of social and economic development that the world has ever known.

Shanghai has its own special relationship with Deng, based on its intense and hugely beneficial involvement in the tidal wave of “reform and opening up?which he initiated. The Pudong New Area is a child of this policy, and the city’s entire skyline pays homage to it.

In the early months of 1992 Deng remarked: “In retrospect, one of my biggest mistakes was leaving out Shanghai when we launched the four special economic zones. If Shanghai had been included, the situation with regard to reform and opening in the Yangtze River valley and, indeed, the whole country would be quite different.? These remarks are noteworthy in several respects. Firstly, they exercised what Western philosophers of language call “illocutionary force? they did not merely describe a situation, they rather acted to bring about change: serving as a trigger for the spectacular metamorphosis Shanghai has since undergone.

Secondly, they exemplified Deng’s understated, self-critical mode of leadership, eschewing personality cultism (“the two whatevers? in order to better learn from the people, encouraging their initiative and spreading their best practices throughout the country.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, they express a profoundly experimental approach to social development (concealed somewhat by Deng’s modest mode of expression).

This spirit of experimentation, it might be argued, was Deng’s single greatest strength. It was because Deng recognized a similar experimental boldness in his predecessor, Mao Zedong, that he politely countered the critical remarks aimed at Mao proposed by feisty Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci. Mao indeed made mistakes, as Deng readily confirmed, but the basic tenet of Mao Zedong Thought ?“seeking truth from facts??also provided the sole reliable guide to correcting them.

Deng’s own pragmatic approach to social development built upon this founding principle of Chinese Marxism, abandoning all rigid ideological fixations in order to respond flexibly to reality, “crossing the river by feeling the stones.? To “seek truth from facts?is to proceed experimentally, and experiments do not always work. Of course, with the luxury of a retrospective viewpoint Deng can be faulted for holding Shanghai back from the first wave of economic reforms. He was mistaken, because experimentalists are always at times mistaken, but most importantly ?he was undertaking the experiment, in Shenzhen, and elsewhere.

In 1985 Deng explained: “Recently I told a foreign guest that the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone was an experiment. That made some people abroad wonder if China was going to change its policies again and if I had reversed my previous judgment about special economic zones. So I want to confirm two things here and now. First, the policy of establishing special economic zones is correct; and second, the special economic zones are an experiment ... Our entire policy of opening to the outside is an experiment too.? Long may the experiments continue.

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