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The transformation of China from a war torn rubble in the 1940s into the second largest economy on earth in the present time could be traced back by the life of one remarkable man: Deng Xiaoping. Who exactly is he? Deng Xiaoping is the successor of Mao Zhedong, Chairman of the Communist party in the People’s Republic of China. Under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership, he led the party from moving towards the brink of disaster to the path of prosperity and strength. From 1978 to his retirement in 1992, he introduced much needed economic reforms that led to where China is today. Without him, China would have been totally different. What exactly did he introduced in China that made the country into the second largest economy on earth today? Most importantly what can we learn from him that we can utilise in our ventures? There are three things to bear in mind.

First, he introduced market reforms meant to drive up economic growth through entrepreneurship and private initiative which could otherwise fail had they been planned by the state alone. During Mao’s days, all things were meant to be planned by the state. It produced great results for a country after the brink of war. Under Mao Zedong’s programme, industries and factories appeared across the country like mushroom providing employment to the masses. Industry ranged from ironworks to watchmaking, from livestock to agriculture. But under the communist system, it proved to be difficult as time went by. Without the incentive to profit or to own property, people started to slack off and this led to the deterioration of industry. Bureaucrats meant to drive the labours to work started to pocket whatever surpluses the factory makes and sell it off for profit. These two factors, among many usually associated with state-planning, were huge inefficiency which exist throughout the system.

The greatest damage occurred when hunger and famine struck the country as a result of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, a social and economic campaign meant to industrialise the country in a five-year period, which resulted in mass famine. Such a disaster was enacted by Mao and ended badly for the people, state, and nation. Mao never got to reverse the damage. Many years later he died of old age.

When Mao died, Deng Xiaoping effectively took over the helm of state. And he took precautions as to make the right decisions this time around to reverse any policies that may damage the nation’s interest. During those moments in finding the solutions necessary to revive China, his party members caught wind of a village which practised a form of ‘private ownership’ of goods and services. The farmers on that land agreed among themselves to divide the communal or public land into ‘private ownership’. Under the communist system, this was considered heresy. But things were different. Those land end up producing a surplus of food more than the provincial output combined. Deng Xiaoping saw this and thought to himself that whatever helped to make China strong or at least to avoid repeating any occurrence of famine must be implemented. And implemented he did. In a single stroke of a pen, he reformed the property system across communist China to remodel after that village’s. Famine was virtually eliminated within ten years.

He also encouraged his country to to drive up economic growth and development through private initiative. Gone were the days when the communist will come to the rich man’s house to take away his property for good. Gone were the days when people see entrepreneurs as parasites or robbers in the body politic. This time it was business for all. As he said in a conference one time which became his famous quote, “To get rich is glorious!”. He then introduced the concept of special economic zones, improved property system, the rule of law, and all these institutions required to facilitate voluntary exchange in the market. The result? In less than 30 years since the policy was implemented, China grew an unprecedented rate of 7% per year for over 30 years and effectively lifted up 300 million people out of poverty.

Second, he as a follower of Mao was pragmatic enough to realise his limitations and what he could and what he could not do within the system. Despite the rigid control and bureaucratic mania he was under, he learned the ropes to navigate through the intricacies of them all. He made mistakes in the past which could have cost his life, as did many of those unfortunate souls who served under Mao. But survive he did. The scholar Ezra Vogel remarked how he was a survivalist in the system. From the days he was recruited at a young age in his twenties in France to the day when he led an army to combat the nationalist forces on behalf of Mao, to the day he was kicked out of the system due to some jealousies that arose between the party member to time he came back stronger than ever and finally emerging triumphant to lead the system forward. He was there at the most troubled of times and the most dangerous of times. And he was victorious in the end.

How was he victorious? He learned the art to adapt in a system that had he failed could have cost him not just his position but his life. One simple mistake could have endangered his and his families life. But he adapted nonetheless. Philosopher Herbert Spenser once said how the fittest shall survive and from the very survival would lead to the replication of their characteristics into successive generations. His experience is no biological experiment. His was reality and had he failed, China would have been totally different today. Where biology seem irrelevant to this issue, ideas are not. His ideas of market reforms, counter to the communist ideology, ran deep in the party system that it became the core replacement of the entire ideology. And this in itself drove the country forward. There is a saying, that communist china may be communist but peel them off they are a capitalist country. And they have no problem in being labelled as outright capitalistic.

For them being a capitalist represent progress and advancement, both are a prerequisite in the modern society today. How exactly did Deng Xiaoping injected his idea into the system? First and foremost, he worked inside the system and he was respected at that. Secondly, he has his country’s best interest in heart. That whatever he do, he does it for the benefit of his people and future posterity. Dr. Henry Kissinger in his book Diplomacy commented on the difference between a good leader and a great one. The former will do his best to make those living the present so happy, and avoid making the hard decisions required to secure the livelihood of those living in the future. The great one shall be damned at the present for the hard steps he take but in best interest of securing posterity’s future. Deng Xiaoping was the latter. And he was brutally attacked from every side when he introduced his policy at first that had it been someone who has never made a hard decision in his or her life, that would be the end of the person’s career.

But Deng Xiaoping took the hard road despite the challenges which existed inside the system, and resisted greatly until he finally united the party forward in making things change for the better. And for the better it did, for the changes made – such as the market reform policies – the country advance so greatly that many people see China now as a strong nation. How did he manage to change the mindsets of the party, he simply recounted his predecessors’ quote, “It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice it is good”. If there was a mindset which represented his pragmatism that was it. He will utilise the existing system and steer it towards a better path needed to take his country forward in the best possible way despite the challenges which exist at that time.

Finally, Deng Xiaoping is a bold yet surprisingly slow person in making decisions. While others may present one thousand and one ideas on the table, it was he and he alone who assume full responsibility for matters of state. And he had to be bold because whatever decisions or legislations passed before their “congress” have the effect of changing the lives of millions. The last thing any follower wants to see from a leader is him being uncertain of an action. Leaders must exhibit confidence and confidence can only be gained after battling through hardship. What kind of hardship did Deng Xiaoping exactly face in his career? He was a man who has been through hell. He fought in the trenches with his men in the Chinese Civil War. There he rose up the ranks from being just a normal soldier to commander-in-chief. He started from the bottom and rose step-by-step to the very top. He was famed for saying how “Young leading cadres have risen up by helicopter. They should really rise step by step”

He exhibited his boldness in the task to unite and manage the entirety of China after the passing of Mao. If Prime Minister David Cameron of UK has a trouble in managing his country’s affairs of 60 million people, imagine how it would be for Deng Xiaoping who had to manage close to seven hundred million people in a political structure that has only been formed decades before that! Any serious mistake could not only have costed China political instability, but total regional and national disintegration. If there is anything the Chinese are most afraid of, it’s total disintegration. For thousands of years, like those in the age of the three kingdoms (yes, the dynasty warriors days) and the Taping Civil War, China has always been in throes on dealing ways to avoid such issue. Any serious mistake could have disintegrated China. But with his iron hand, he managed to strengthen the unity of China. This takes great courage and great courage is hard to find in a man who’s not been through hell.

Deng Xiaoping may be the de facto ruler of China, but he is quiet and slow in making his decision. It was frustrating to those who do not know him. Being of slow character, he was perceived as weak and useless especially in the begging of his career. “Where are they now?” I must personally imagine Deng Xiaoping must say to them who criticise him for his personality. But quiet or slow as he was, he always take into consideration important matters. And when he does finally decide, no one can move him. He is like a turtle, moving slowly and steadily to his end destination overturning setbacks or challenges that made impede him along the way. Stop him if you may, he will find ways to get things done and he will do so in what is best for his nation’s interest. What drove him to have this style of leadership may be emulated by the incident which happened between the Athenian councils as documented by that great piece of work, The History of the Peloponnesian War.

In The History of the Peloponnesian War, there was a period when a truce existed between the Spartans and Athenians. Both sides were exhausted after decades of continuous warfare. Whereupon a council was held in Athens to discuss matters of state. One young man rose up to centre stage and implored his audience to invade Sicily, an Italian island far away from Athens. After the young man ended his speech, an old man rose up and argued how foolish such action where. “Sicily is far away and we do not have the resources to carry out another war. Let us deal with the Spartans before even venturing this dangerous thought. Greed can lead to disaster! Forget about it!” Upon the conclusion of their positions for a given motion as to whether to invade Sicily or not, the people drunk with the thought of greed in winning more power and glory, succumbed to the young man’s temptation and waged a war against Sicily. Sicily trashed the Athenian army badly. When the Spartans caught wind of this message, they quickly regrouped, marched in front of the gates of Athens and conquered Athens for good. “And so it was not the fault of the Spartans we lost the war but that of ours!” one Athenian said.

What can be learned from this is one has to be pragmatic in dealing with issues and to never let greed overrun the mind for it could lead to unmitigated disaster and destruction. Deng Xiaoping knew this based on his experience and possible reading of the history (the The History of the Peloponnesian War is considered the best political work one can ever read), and if there is any reason why he was slow in his deliberation it is because he does not want to make any mistakes for it could not just cost him his head but that of his country’s interest. And so he dealt and managed China with a cool head. Never once would he gamble away his country’s interest for the proverbial immediate buck or that horrendous greed which tend to cloud weak minds. Blasted he is by the young people or weak minded in his party for the “opportunities forsaken” in taking that short-term decisions, he shall be undivided in thought and spirit to deliver what is necessary for China in the long-term – which is to secure a strong foundation of growth and prosperity, of political stability and social development.

Ultimately Deng Xiaoping was the master of the country’s affairs. He was bold, pragmatic, and willing to stake his life to do what is best for China. Since his appointment as China’s ruling leader, he faced many turbulent times which could have broken the spirit of any normal man. It is not everyday you will be able to find someone being able to lead a population of 700 million people after all. In his calling to make China a force for progress through the introduction of market reforms coupled with his pragmatism and boldness in navigating through the system, he has managed to strengthen the resolve and spirit of his entire people and country into the right direction. The path he set is now carried out by the auspices of the Chinese leaders today, with Xi Xinping being one of the principal admirers and proponents of Deng Xiaoping and his reforms.

If Mao, the philosopher and founder, united the People’s Republic of China, it is Deng Xiaoping, who with his pragmatism and boldness, cemented the country’s unity as a powerful force through his extensive reforms that affected millions of lives and which led to where the country is today, the second largest economy on earth. One person once said that one should learn as far as China. What can be studied from that viewpoint is we should also learn from its leaders. Deng Xiaoping is one person we should learn from. With the advent of scholarship and nowadays, one can simply order a remarkable book by Ezra Vogel on Deng Xiaoping’s biography. It is a great book about Deng Xiaoping and it is something I highly recommend others to read to study about effective leadership!

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Oh, my friends and I are launching Brunei’s economics club which goes by around the same name and which I invite you all to join in! Check out the Brunei Young Economist Club and do fill in the form here. It is an informal place where we can meet up and discuss issues which is important to Brunei and to simply promote the subject amongst the youngsters in the country. Hope you can join in!