Deng Xiaoping and the Communist Party Don’t Deserve Credit for Chinese Economic Power

“Far from embarking on a new correct path, Deng was trying to turn back the clock. He wasn’t out to create a new economic system; he sought to restore the planned economy that had existed before the Cultural Revolution. The program he tried to implement after 1978 was based on the “Four Modernisations” Zhou Enlai had introduced in 1963 to revive the countryside after Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward. During the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976, the party’s radical elements encouraged renewed collectivization campaigns. Deng sought to reverse those extreme policies, not the planned economy itself.

Deng embraced reforms conservatively, after events on the ground had already made state restrictions obsolete. Upon taking control of the party, he endorsed private ownership of small plots but forbade dividing up collective land to individual households. It was only in 1982, four years after he took power, that households were officially allowed to contract production rights on collective land. He raised the price of grain that farmers compulsorily sold to the state by 20 percent—a substantial concession, but hardly evincing the kind of vision that the title “Great Architect” implies. Indeed, the year after the “great turning point” in April 1979, Deng and the party leadership ordered those who had left the communes to rejoin them.

The planned economy was undermined and subverted from below well before the communes were officially dissolved in 1983. Decollectivization occurred not because of Deng’s vision but because ordinary people, under cover of the Cultural Revolution’s chaos, left the communes. Several years before Mao died in 1976, it had become common for people to strike out on their own in search of economic opportunities. The party’s leadership lamented that the countryside had “gone capitalist,” but it couldn’t reverse that trend. By 1980, half of all production teams in Guizhou province and more than half in Gansu were under household contracts. This system gave farmers secure tenures of collective farmland, which significantly increased both their productivity and health. One cadre in Anhui province likened household contracting, as reported by the historian Frank Dikötter in a 2016 article in The China Quarterly, to “an irresistible wave, spontaneously topping the limits we had placed…it could not be suppressed or turned around.””

“Deng was not changing history; he was swept away by it. As the historian Kate Zhou wrote in her 1996 book How the Farmers Changed China: “When the government lifted restrictions, it did so only in recognition of the fact that the sea of unorganized farmers had already made them irrelevant.” Ordinary people, not Deng Xiaoping, resisted and reformed the planned economy.

To understand how the party’s control of economic activity slipped, one must look to the history of the Cultural Revolution. Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” of 1958–1962 had devolved into a Great Famine, killing tens of millions of people. While they starved, the party ramped up grain exports to fellow socialist countries in order to increase its international prestige.

This forced farmers to circumvent the state’s orders—one had to lie, cheat, steal, smuggle, or trade on the black markets to avoid starvation. Apart from the party’s loyal hacks, only the lucky or enterprising survived. In the early 1960s, even Mao had to acknowledge that the Great Leap Forward had failed. The Central Committee introduced a few paltry safeguards against extreme collectivization. Villagers were thus allowed to cultivate private plots, but only in their free time.

But Mao soon saw this as backsliding, and he launched the Cultural Revolution to secure his hold on the party. Revolutionary committees took control of China. The People’s Liberation Army was ordered onto the streets, and the Soviet-Sino border conflict was used as a pretext to reassert control over the countryside. Private holdings were once more collectivized on a massive scale. But the party tore itself apart in the process; its organization was vitiated by factional infighting.

The Cultural Revolution broke the party’s apparatus of control—it lost much of its capacity to coerce people’s everyday behavior. During the turmoil, people took back some of their lost freedoms. They expanded private lots, left communes, sold produce for private gain, moved to the cities, and even opened underground factories. It is here that we find the true origins of China’s modernization.”

“Villagers established private firms and factories throughout the country. For example, the rate of industrialization in the countryside of Jiangsu province in the early 1970s far exceeded the rate of industrialization there under Deng. And it was these rural industries that fuelled China’s GDP growth. Prosperity came not from the cities or from the state-owned enterprises, but from the countryside. The people who worked in these factories had often left the communes on their own initiative, not on party orders. When Deng became paramount leader in 1978, the silent revolution was already well underway.

Not only were factories established, but markets linked rich and poor provinces. And in the coastal province of Guangdong, traders revived overseas trading links, especially once restrictions were eased in 1972. Deng is said to have begun the process of opening up China, but as early as 1974, the amount of money reaching people in Guangdong from overseas was twice what it had been in 1965. Black markets existed everywhere, and although the state maintained rigid monopolies on several key products, almost everything was sold openly on the markets.”

“Deng recognized that certain changes were inevitable, but his reforms were little more than legalizations of already occurring practices that he was shrewd enough to claim credit for.”

Ukraine Still Hungers for Independence

“In the late 1920s, Soviet leader Josef Stalin sent Communist Party officials and activists out into the countryside with orders to convert private, family-owned farms into collective enterprises.

Ukrainian farmers resisted, and party leaders resorted to torture, threats, and graphic public shaming. In one Ukrainian province, according to Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine (Doubleday), a gang of Communist apparatchiks marched farmers into a room one by one and demanded they submit. Those who refused were shown a revolver. If they still did not comply, they were marched into jail, with the words malicious hoarder of state grain inscribed on their backs.

Stalin’s radical economic program was rooted in the idea that virtually all food supplies, land, and farming equipment were the property of the government. Collectivization was a state-sponsored program of mass theft perpetrated under the premise that Ukraine wasn’t even a real country.

Without private property, personal profit, or local pride there were few incentives to work. The new state-run farms were far less productive than expected, leading to -shortages. At the same time, Stalin increased grain procurement requirements from Soviet localities—Ukraine in particular—so that most of what was produced was seized by the state. By the spring of 1932, Ukraine had begun to starve.”

A Soviet-Style Strongman Still Rules Belarus

“Democratic governance, freedom, and flourishing in Belarus have long been hampered by Alexander Lukashenko, a demagogue and dictator who took power in 1994. In the country’s first and only open election, Lukashenko—who ran on an anti-corruption platform—was elected president. But once in office, he proved reluctant to let go of power or tolerate dissent.
“Openly nostalgic for Soviet times,” as the Associated Press put it in 1996, Lukashenko was dismissive of the country’s parliament, hostile to constitutional limits, and enthusiastic about state control of information. From the beginning, he was warm to Russia, signing a friendship treaty in 1995 that included concessions such as allowing Russian troops to be stationed in Belarus. He continues to encourage the people to speak Russian, not Belarusian.

By 1996, Lukashenko was proposing constitutional amendments to extend his term in office and expand his power. Parliament would not approve a referendum on it, instead proposing impeachment. “I will not give up the reins of power,” Lukashenko vowed in response. And he hasn’t.

Lukashenko has held on to his position by quashing opposition, suppressing nonstate media, interfering with elections, and otherwise denying civil liberties and political freedom to Belarusians.”

Cubans Rose Up. America Should Step Up.

“Biden’s words of support for the protesters—some of whom waved American flags as they demanded “libertad”—are nice. Actions would be better. And there is plenty the U.S. could, and should, do to aid Cubans in their fight against authoritarian communism.

For starters, Congress could lift the 59-year-old U.S. trade embargo against the island country.

Some leftists blame the embargo for impoverishing Cuba, but this is misdirection. Communism has destroyed Cuba’s once-prosperous economy. Still, the trade embargo, in place since 1962, has plainly failed to accomplish its primary goal of toppling the Cuban regime. If anything, it has helped to strengthen it by giving former President Fidel Castro and his successors a way to deflect blame for communism’s failures—a strategy that Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel also deployed during the initial wave of protests in July.

From America’s perspective, what has the embargo accomplished? That it remains in place nearly three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union suggests that America has failed to learn the primary lesson of the Cold War: Economic development is the best weapon to aim at communism.”

“where is the evidence that disengagement is working? Demanding political reforms before economic changes is exactly backward—and again ignores the lessons of the Cold War.
Economic freedom is the key to other kinds of freedom. Consider what happened when the Obama administration loosened some of the rules on American travel to Cuba as part of an effort to reestablish diplomatic relations. Even with the trade embargo still in place, that slight policy change induced then–Cuban President Raul Castro to relax state controls on private commerce. While accurate figures on Cuba’s economy are understandably difficult to come by, a 2017 Brookings Institution report estimated that “the number of authorized self-employed people (cuentapropistas) rose from some 150,000 in 2008 to about 580,000 in 2017.”

Increasing entrepreneurship reduces Cubans’ reliance on the Communist state. And when people are allowed a little freedom, they tend to want more of it. ”

“calls for the White House to allow private companies to beam internet service into Cuba to circumvent the government’s blackout and help protesters organize. Technologically, this is possible: Balloons anchored miles offshore could broadcast mobile internet signals into Cuba. The same tech was deployed near Puerto Rico after two devastating hurricanes crippled the island’s digital infrastructure in 2017.

Even if Biden does nothing more than re-instate Obama’s travel and economic policies and call on Congress to end the failed trade embargo, it would signal to the Cuban people—and to the country’s potential future leaders—that the United States recognizes trade and tourism as vital economic and political lifelines for the island’s long-suffering residents. It also would remove the biggest excuse that Cuba’s government uses to distract people from the failings of communism.”

Will the Internet Destroy Cuba’s Communist Dictatorship?

“On Sunday, July 11, thousands of Cubans in dozens of cities around the island nation took to the streets to protest the country’s communist dictatorship and persistent shortages in food, energy, and medicine, all of which have been made worse by the pandemic.

The demonstrations have been enabled by social media and the internet, which only came to Cuba in a big way in late 2018, when President Miguel Diaz-Canel allowed citizens access to the internet on their cellphones.”

The Trade Embargo Allows Cuba’s Regime To Blame the U.S. for Communism’s Failings

“Despite being in place since 1962, the trade embargo has plainly failed to accomplish its primary goal of toppling Cuba’s regime. If anything, the policy has likely bolstered the regime by allowing the communist government to blame the U.S. for its own economic problems, as Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel did on Sunday. The trade embargo has contributed to the Cuban government’s impoverishing of millions of Cubans while limiting Americans’ economic freedom, too. That it remains in place nearly three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union shows that America’s foreign policy towards Cuba has failed to learn the primary lesson of the end of the Cold War: Economic freedom is the best weapon to aim at communism.”

“Cuba’s government is authoritarian, but there should be no mincing of words about this. Communism is what broke Cuba. The authoritarianism on display is merely the natural evolution of communist regimes—a pattern of economic and political repression that has been tragically repeated in too many corners of the world during the past century.
Biden’s statement is right to conflate the lack of economic freedom with long-running political repression in Cuba. That’s exactly why America’s trade embargo is such a backward strategy, one that assumes economic and political freedom aren’t fundamentally linked.

Look at what happened when the Obama administration loosened some of the rules banning Americans from traveling to Cuba as part of an effort to reestablish diplomatic relations. Even with the trade embargo still in place, that slight policy change helped create a boomlet of entrepreneurship amid then-Cuban President Raul Castro’s thawing of tight state control over private businesses on the island.”

“Since taking over as Cuba’s president in 2018, Díaz-Canel has cracked down on Cuba’s private sector. Former President Donald Trump helped him smother the nascent economic reforms by reversing some of Obama’s attempts to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations and by slapping new economic sanctions on Cuba just before leaving office in January.

Advocates for maintaining the embargo against Cuba argue that increased trade and tourism would enrich and strengthen the communist regime while failing to aid most Cubans. This was basically Trump’s approach—one that reflects longstanding hardline conservative views about how to handle the communist state just 90 miles from the Florida coast. “There is zero reason to delude ourselves into believing that ‘engagement’ will get the tyrants in Havana to change their ways,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.) wrote in January.

This is a clever misdirection. Where is the evidence that disengagement is working? The embargo has been in place for nearly six decades. How much longer should we wait? How much longer should the people of Cuba have to wait?”

“As the people of Cuba strive to cast off their communist oppressors, the United States can do more than simply offer words of support. Undoing Trump’s restrictions on the remittances that many Cuban Americans send to their families still trapped under the communist regime would be a great place to start.

If Biden were to reinstate Obama’s travel and economic policies toward Cuba and call on Congress to end the failed trade embargo, it would be unlikely to immediately change the reality on the ground in Havana. But it would signal to the Cuban people—and to the country’s potential future leaders in the event of a full-scale toppling of the regime—that the United States is prepared to let trade and tourism serve as vital economic and political lifelines for the island’s long-suffering residents. And it would remove one excuse the Cuban government routinely uses to dismiss the failings of communism.”