After 40 Years China Still Needs to “Emancipate the Mind”

This week marks the 40th anniversary of China’s opening to the outside world, announced at the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Party Congress in1978. After Mao Zedong’s disastrous Cultural Revolution and the failure of central planning, the nation was ready to embark on a new path of development. Individuals were to be given greater economic and political freedom under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping.   

How successful was that new path in the long run? Today, China’s paramount leader Xi Jinping expresses his desire for a “socialist rule of law” and supports the “principle of letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend.” Yet what we see is increasing constraints on freedom of thought.

Xi and Deng had similar backgrounds, as both were at one point victimized and elevated by the Communist Party. During the Cultural Revolution, Deng was labelled a “capitalist roader” and his son was crippled by the Red Guards. Those events left an indelible mark and opened Deng’s mind to new thinking about how best to organize the economy and allow people to prosper. He thought that China’s leaders “ought to study the successful experiences of capitalist countries and bring them back to China.” That view contrasted sharply with Chairman Mao’s condemnation of private enterprise and his view of capitalists as criminals.

Deng announced a change of tone at the Third Plenum, two years after Mao’s death. Although he paid lip service to Mao, he rejected the idea of “class struggle” and made economic development the chief goal of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

In his speech, Deng argued that “the primary task is to emancipate our minds.”  He criticized the rigid thinking of many Party members, which he blamed on “historical conditions.” He was reluctant to openly blame Mao, so he pointed to Lin Biao, whom Mao had appointed vice chairman in 1966, and the Gang of Four, which included Mao’s wife Jiang Qing. Under the masquerade of “Party interests,” people were subject to Party control and oppressed. “Many important issues were often decided by one or two persons,” said Deng. Consequently, “there wasn’t much point in thinking things out for yourself.” He went on to say that “no clear distinction was made between right and wrong,” and that “people were naturally reluctant to use their brains.”  The simply adjusted “their words and actions according to whichever way the wind [was] blowing.”

In closing, Deng warned: “When everything has to be done by the book, when thinking turns rigid and blind faith is the fashion, it is impossible for a party or a nation to make progress. Its life will cease, and that party or nation will perish.” 

After the Third Plenum, Deng advocated greater freedom of thought and supported the “Democracy (Xidan) Wall,” which served as a place to post criticism of Maoist thought, including the “Two Whatevers”: whatever Mao said should be taken as the truth, and whatever examples he set should be adhered to. Nevertheless, as China’s paramount leader, Deng was unwilling to accept large protests that could threaten the power of the CCP. The infamous Tiananmen Square incident occurred under his leadership.

Yet, despite the contradiction, Deng led China to a significantly freer path than the one Mao had set it upon. Can we say the same of Xi Jinping?

Since he came to power in 2013, Xi has cracked down on officials who deviate from CCP dogma, institutionalized “Xi Jinping Thought”— a 14-point manifesto to ensure CCP “leadership over all forms of work”—in the PRC Constitution, ended Deng’s collectivist governance by being “elected” president for life, launched a “social credit system” that could seriously erode personal freedom, and silenced leading liberal intellectuals such as Mao Yushi, whose Unirule Institute has seen its website shutdown and its office shuttered. Academic freedom suffers from the presence of propaganda departments at all universities, and there is a strong feeling that “the door to a free market in ideas is nearly shut.”

Although China has accomplished much in its 40 years of reform and opening to the outside world, it has a long way to go in terms of both economic and political freedom. At this point, it needs a Deng—someone who actually advances liberal ideas—rather than a Xi—someone who pays lip service, at best.

Most important, China needs a free market for ideas, as well as a free market for goods and services. Silencing the voices of Chinese liberals—and blocking the transmission of Western ideas of limited government, separation of powers, and freedom under a just rule of law—will not “emancipate the mind” or create a harmonious society.