Guarding Africa’s Revolution: Lessons From China’s Deng Xiaoping

It matters not whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.”   Deng Xiaoping

Following the appointment of Emerson Mnangagwa as the new President of Zimbabwe, for the first time in its History, Zimbabwe now faces the challenge of plotting its course without the ‘guidance’ of its Revolutionary ‘Founder Leader’, Robert Mugabe.
In the grand scheme of things this is nothing new, and others have treaded this path with great success before…Notably, a Post-Mao China under the Leadership of Deng Xiaoping.
Although lacking Mao’s charisma, and like Mnangagwa he had been previously purged and even worse, imprisoned under Mao’s leadership, he took over a Post-Mao China and with a shrewd sense of pragmatic Economic sensibility, and he placed China firmly on the path that has made it the Global Super-Power it is today.
It serves as a model of what a Post-Revolutionary Society can become after the death of the ‘Founder Leader’.
A man of his significance has been written about by many others before, even more qualified than me on the subject…So once again we share and reproduce an online piece on Deng’s impact on a Post-Mao China…Perhaps Zimbabwe and other Post-Revolutionary African States, could learn a thing or two from Deng’s accomplishments in China.
Deng Xiaoping & The Transformation Of China

Deng Xiaoping was one of the old revolutionary fighters and a survivor of the legendary Long March. Having long been among the top leaders and an ally of Zhou Enlai, he still had a lot of respect in the Party. In 1977 he returned to the upper ranks of the Party, and by late 1978, as Hua Guofeng was fading politically, Deng became the Party’s “paramount leader” while holding the relatively modest post of Vice Premier.

Deng tended toward pragmatism, and perhaps it was part pragmatism that led him to portray himself as a Marxist-Leninist. Marxist-Leninists, by the way, were supposed to be practical, and Deng was guided by what worked. Deng said he did not care whether a cat was black or white, that what mattered was whether the cat caught mice.


Deng Xiaoping


Deng remained opposed to Maoist egalitarianism. Rigorous entrance examinations for universities were put in place. Gifted children were to be identified and given advanced training. Deng favored opening China to what was to be called the global economy. In late December 1978, China ordered three 747s from Boeing aircraft in Seattle. Also that December, Coca-Cola announced that it would be opening a plant in Shanghai. And in early 1979 China’s government shifted its economic strategy to emphasize the manufacture of consumer goods for sale abroad.

In 1979, China began to reassemble the rudiments of a legal system, Party leaders seeing insufficient legality as one of the causes of abuses during the Cultural Revolution. The Ministry of Justice was re-established. State courts were reopened, as were law schools. Party leaders hoped that more lawyers would help give people protections that had been lacking during the Cultural Revolution, and China invited a well known lawyer from the US, Alan Dershowitz, to lecture on the subject.  Those in the legal profession who had been purged during the Cultural Revolution were rehabilitated. Deng and his comrades began a five-year program of research on the rehabilitation of others who had been condemned as criminals during the Maoist years, some posthumously, including Liu Shaoqi.

In late 1980 the “Gang of Four” from Mao’s disastrous ‘Cultural Revolution’ were put on trail – in part to demonstrate that the nation was returning to the rule of law. They were charged with framing and persecuting more than 700,000 people and being responsible for at least 35,000 deaths. The trial was televised, with Jiang Qing showing defiance and continually protesting that all she had done had been supported by her husband, Mao.  She shouted at witnesses, and she called the judge a fascist. She no doubt saw her accusers as enemies of the revolution and was probably sorry that she had not crushed them permanently when she had the opportunity. She received the sentence of death, but none of the Four were executed. Instead they were to languish in prison.

By 1982, criticizing Mao was acceptable. But the Party feared that too much denigration of Mao would bring disrespect for the Revolution and the Party. The Party was now describing Mao as having been a great leader but that he had erred when he aged. Mao’s portrait was to look over Tiananmen square, but elsewhere across China his portraits and his statues were being removed. And stockpiles of his writings were collecting dust.

As a part of the drive for economic advancement and opening to the West, students were sent to foreign countries to study, at government expense. And in 1984, to improve China’s working relationship with foreign powers and foreign businesses, China adopted a patent law to protect foreign patents. Also under Deng, religious freedom was being restored. Nine hundred Protestant churches and ninety Catholic churches were reopened.

Marxism-Leninism was still the Party’s official ideology. The Party still declared itself the Party of the masses and that its domination in the political life of the nation was essential. But changes within the Party were taking place. During Mao’s time, few people in the Party had any formal education, and only about twenty-five percent of people in leadership positions within the Party were college graduates. By 1984, half of the Party’s rank and file were college graduates, as were seventy-five percent of those in leadership positions. Education within the Party gave it a greater insight into social dynamics and China’s social problems. Military men had lost their prominence in the Communist Party’s Central Committee, and young Party cadres with a college education or professional training were being sent to government positions in the provinces.

Mao’s communes were being dismantled. People living on communal lands were permitted to farm collectively if they wished, but those who wished to farm individually were allowed to do so – on land that was not privately owned. Exhortations about equality were out, and in its place was an emphasis on peasant initiative and incentives. Both collective farms and individual growers were encouraged to make as much profit as they could and to invest in any kind of local business. People were encouraged to grow what suited them and to trade as they pleased.


Under Deng, manufacturing industries had to resort to ascertaining economic realities such as demand and the prices they should set for their goods. Managers of industrial plants were minding the quality of their product, keeping their own books and working for their industry’s profit, and this was working better than when the industries were being run by Party committees. And, in 1985, price controls were dropped from a range of manufactured

Much of industry remained state-owned. But small-scale, privately own enterprises were allowed, as were joint ventures with foreign capitalists.  Thousands of privately owned small-scale businesses came into being, which employed millions of people. Individual initiative resulted in such stories as that of the director of a bankrupt shirt-making factory who made the business prosperous by firing inept employees and introducing incentives that linked wages to output. A 34 year-old female engineer and eight other employees took control of a floundering pharmaceutical company, branched into new products, introduced new manufacturing methods and turned a profit their first year.

In agriculture, the production of grain had risen to almost 300 million tons in 1983, up from about 200 million tons in 1976 – while grain production in the Soviet Union was declining. In 1989 grain, production would reach 1.2 billion tons.

By 1987, China’s Gross National Product had risen substantially. But when averaged out €per person it was only one-third of that of the Soviet Union and less than a seventh of that of the United States – just above Albania and just below Nicaragua. China’s population, approximately 750 million in 1966, had risen to over 1,008,000,000 according to its 1982 census.  And by 1987 it was somewhere around 1,093,000,000. China had experienced a rapid rise in births after the starvations of 1958-61, and the government had responded with the strictest family planning in the world. Couples were encouraged to marry late and had been allowed only one child. A lot of abortions and the killing of female newborns resulted. In the eighties, the one-child policy was relaxed slightly, and it remained hard to enforce – accounting for the continued growth in the population, at a higher rate in the countryside than in the cities.

In 1987, China’s literacy rate was still relatively low, at 69 percent, below the customary 99 percent of European nations and Japan, and the 96 percent in the United States. But life expectancy (at birth) in China had reached 70 years, equal to the Soviet Union, a little behind the 78 years of Japan, the 77 years in Western Europe and the 76 years in the United States.

By Chinese standards the economy was booming. The incomes of hardworking families were rising. In the countryside they were raising an abundance of chickens and pigs, growing fruits and vegetables, advancing the fishing industry, and people were taking advantage of new opportunities to work in local service industries. Rise in the incomes of farmers was stimulating industrial production, as farmers were purchasing their own machinery, including small tractors, and buying fertilizer. In rural towns and in cities, sidewalk entrepreneurs had become a common sight, such as sellers of hot snacks, bicycle mechanics and shoe repairing.

One source of wealth for China was the increase in tourists from abroad – an industry encouraged by the government. Wealth was entering China also in the form of foreign investment, to areas that the government had designated for high-tech development, which offered tax exemptions and other benefits to foreigners.

The cities were producing not only fertilizers, tractors and other tools; they were producing consumer goods that were described as the “eight bigs:” television sets, refrigerators, stereos, cameras, motorcycles, furniture sets, washing machines and electric fans. A common sight in China was a delighted couple carting home a television set or a washing machine.


The drab dress of Maoist times was gone. Chinese women were now dressing themselves in “bourgeois colors.” The Chinese were now attending motion pictures, exhibitions of western art and attending plays from the West. There were rock bands and disco dancing. Party officials were promoting western dancing, especially disco, and sponsoring dance parties, happy perhaps to see people spending their time interested in moving around on a dance floor rather than brooding and planning demonstrations.


It seems as if too much is being made about Zimbabwe’s new President lacking Robert Mugabe’s ‘Flair’ and ‘Statesmanship’…Thats not the point, as Deng put it It matters not whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.”   

The speeches given by the new President reveal flashes of a pragmatic man, and in particular with regard to the elementary need to address the State of the Zim Economy.

We hope Zimbabwe’s new President and more of Africa’s Post-Colonial States having passed the stage of ‘Founder Leadership’ begin to focus more on simply making the kill and delivering results…I will swap a man with ‘Charisma’ for a good ‘Mouse Trapper’ any day.

For more on Deng Xiaoping and China’s Transformation, you can check out the Deng and China documentaries on our YouTube Channel’s ‘History & Politics’ Playlist.


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