Three Harvard professors gathered to discuss the reforms of Deng Xiaoping, leader of China from 1978 to 1992, and their significance in shaping China’s past and future at a forum at the Institute of Politics on Monday night.
Graham T. Allison Jr., a professor at the Kennedy School, introduced Deng as being largely responsible for the nation’s rapid economic growth—China is now the world’s largest exporter and holder of foreign reserves.
“The dramatic rise of China is the most significant geo-political development in the last quarter century and is likely to be the most significant geo-political development in the century to come,” Allison said, identifying Deng as the main initiator of this rise.
Deng’s small stature did not correlate with his leadership ability, argued Ezra F. Vogel, an emeritus Harvard professor and author of “Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China.”
“He doesn’t look like he has any kind of inferiority complex,” Vogel said while standing in front of a picture of Deng, who was five feet tall.
“I think what’s great about Deng is that he was the political manager,” Vogel said.
Vogel referred to his Deng’s leadership, which he characterized as exemplary, in de-collectivization and distancing China from Maoism.
Vogel identified five areas that helped Deng set the pattern of reform: regularization of political and social conditions, moves towards a meritocracy, leadership teams for regions of the country, openness in international affairs, and limiting military expenses. He noted these still play an important role for modern Chinese policy.
“He had a very important influence in shaping China today,” he said.
Despite Deng’s achievements, his image as a reformer may not be completely accurate, argued Anthony Saich, a Kennedy School professor.
“He could be just as ruthless as Mao,” Saich said, noting that the two leaders had similar upbringings and revolutionary influences.
Saich also recognized Deng’s role in causing inflation in China and his protection of party privileges, which continue to plague modern day China.
Though he acknowledged these flaws, Saich noted Deng’s influence on the party. “In some ways, Xiaoping was a collective figurehead for China’s leadership,” he said.
Students said the forum helped them recognize Deng’s impact on China and its relevance for modern Chinese affairs.
“I think this forum really highlighted the legacy of Deng Xiaoping on modern China,” said Sietse K. Goffard ’15, “It especially highlighted how his influence on China was crucial not only in decades past but will also influence future decades to come, especially with regards to US relations.”