If you asked me — “which person would you most like to meet?” Deng Xiaoping, the mastermind behind China’s reform and opening, would be on that list in a heartbeat.
Growing up in 1990’s Beijing, and having attended school guided by Deng’s philosophy, I’ve long respected him as a leader that tremendously impacted China’s recent history. I still remember how the country mourned when he passed away in 1997.
Yet, it’s only after I finished reading Ezra Vogel’s tome on Deng’s biography (900 pages and 2 years after I started) that I realized the magnitude and implausibility of his legacy.
Deng’s legacy is a revolutionary and a general manager, and his story is as much a lesson in recent Chinese history as it is a powerful lesson in leadership.
A Brief History
Deng led China from 1978 to 1989, and he had a tough job. He took over a China that was marred by a decade of cultural revolution, struggling economy and institution, deeply demarcated lines between intellectuals and revolutionaries, and a cult of personality for Mao. Circumstances perhaps typical of communist countries at the time.
Deng had a different plan. Rather than betting on ideology as Mao did, Deng was ever the pragmatist. He believed economic growth would propel his country forward. Looking back, perhaps that seemed obvious, but he faced an uphill battle: planned economics, anti-capitalist ideology, a conservative climate.
In a short 10 years, Deng strategically and step-by-step dismantled the conservatism and seclusion of China, and instituted transformational policies that laid the foundation of a modern China. How did he do that?
This is where the story got interesting. Looking through the lens of a business, Deng executed the most audacious change management plan for a country with ~1 billion people.
His success as a paramount leader was built on qualities he developed over 50 years of fighting for China: personal convictions, pragmatic mindset, ease navigating the political landscape, and trust in people.
Determinedly patriotic: While Deng’s legacy lies in his reform, he was also a revolutionary and leader in China’s civil war. He was determined to make China a stronger, more stable, wealthier. Despite being criticized and attacked many times, he never lost his patriotism to the country. He was also selfless, willing to take risks and make mistakes to champion what his beliefs in reform.
Impact, not ideology. If Mao’s legacy was a revolutionary, Deng’s would be a general manager. He had little patience for rhetorics and ideology, only using them to the extent that they floated his avant-garde experiments. Deng was ultimately focused on the outcome. He famously said, “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice.”
Navigating politics. A seasoned politician, Deng was adept at handling politics, knowing when to push boundaries and when to accept setbacks. He also knew that reform was only possible within the boundaries of the existing institution; if he were to attack communism head on, failure would be swift. Creative as he was, he carefully introduced ideas of market economics and entrepreneurship under new interpretations of communism.
His legacy, Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, reflects this. Under this philosophy, he said that China is only in the primary stage of socialism — a stage that may last 100 years — where economic flexibility is needed to achieve a more advanced stage. Effectively circumventing any objection that his policies were anti-revoluionary.
Using the right people. With 50 years of revolutionary experience by the time he was paramount leader, he had an inner circle of peers to trust. Some of the people he leaned on in the 1980’s were classmates and fellow soldiers from the 1920’s and 1930’s. He was able to push the envelopes, because he had these relationships to count on during tough times. Relationships run deep, and power is personal. Additionally, he was able to identify emerging leaders to champion his initiatives locally.
Experimentation. Deng was a strong believer in experimentation. It gave him an opportunity to boldly try different techniques under the existing political structure, when the facts are unknown. Most famous among his experiments is the Special Economic Zones, where he experiment with foreign investments and market economics. He crafted the boundaries of each experiment so even the conservatives cannot reasonably argue against them. The success of Shenzhen, Guangzhou and others paved way for broader opening of the country.