Deng’s Coalition and Verdict on Mao


By Richard Baum, Ph.D.University of California, Los Angeles

Deng Xiaoping’s sudden turnabout on the question of political reform was symptomatic of a deepening division within his ruling coalition. This schism became more open, more intense, and more antagonistic as the ’80s progressed. Deng’s coalition was anything but monolithic in nature. It contained a broad mix of liberals and conservatives seasoned with a generous sprinkling of middle-of-the-roaders.

A Deng Xiaoping billboard in China.
Deng was both a leader to his coalition and a mediator between contending factions. (Image: Brücke-Osteuropa/Public domain)

Power Dynamics in Deng’s Coalition

The one thing that united Deng’s coalition was a strong commitment, borne of bitter experience, to the idea that China must never, ever go back to the days of one-man dictatorship, radical utopianism, and vigilante justice. 

Beyond that, however, they differed widely over just how far and how fast China should proceed down the uncharted road of market reform, political tolerance, and opening up to the outside world.

Within the reform coalition, Deng played two very different roles. One role was that of paramount leader, while the other, less publicized role was that of “power balancer”. In this latter role, Deng mediated among the contending factions in his coalition in an effort to prevent one side or the other from trying to overpower its opponents.

In his role as China’s paramount leader, Deng lacked Mao’s autocratic authority. He was neither party chairman, nor prime minister, nor president. Instead, his rank was based on seniority, and he was first among equals. His power derived not from any institutionally defined leadership position but a combination of these factors of prestige and seniority within the party.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of ChinaWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Behind the Scenes of China’s Politics

Image of Zhao Ziyang
Zhao Ziyang was one of the faces that represented the new look of China’s government. (Image: Rob Croes/Anefo/Public domain)

Deng made key decisions in consultation with a small group of a half dozen or so of his most senior colleagues, including Chen Yun, Peng Zhen, and Bo Yibo. Operating mostly behind the scenes, these veteran cadres comprised an informal “council of elders.” 

They advised Deng and, with his approval, they provided on-the-job guidance to the younger, more progressive-minded members of the reform coalition, people like Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, who represented the public face of the new regime.

Both Hu and Zhao had been persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, and both believed that systemic reform was necessary to prevent a recurrence of feudal autocracy within the party. Although Zhao was a bit more conservative on economic issues than Hu, both men strongly supported political liberalization.

Treading Uncharted Waters

At the apex of this carefully counterpoised leadership system was Deng Xiaoping himself. Deng’s job was to ensure that neither the youthful reformers nor their more conservative elders gained exclusive dominance over the policymaking process. In his role as mediator and political balancer, Deng steered China through a series of deepening policy conflicts and mini-crises in the 1980s.

No Communist country had ever successfully reformed itself from within by reshaping its fundamental institutions. There were simply no relevant precedents to follow. In fact, China’s reformers were flying blind. 

Without a detailed, coherent roadmap or plan for the country’s overall development, they made it up as they went along. As Deng himself put it, their basic strategy was to “cross the river by groping for stones” (mozhi shitou guohe). Such improvisation inevitably lent Deng’s stewardship a kind of schizoid appearance, as China zigzagged its way erratically through the 1980s.

The existence of sharp differences within the reform coalition was clearly revealed when party leaders met to formulate their definitive assessment of Mao Zedong’s role in modern Chinese history.

Learn more about Deng’s early regime.

Mao Zedong: “High Crimes” or “Ordinary Misdemeanors”

Early in 1980, the task of drafting a “Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party” was begun. In line with Deng’s role as a “balancer”, the hand-picked drafting committee included a broad mix of party liberals, moderates, and conservatives and young, middle-aged, and old cadres. 

Right from the start, its members disagreed among themselves intensely over whether Mao’s achievements ultimately outweighed his mistakes and whether his sins should be characterized as “high crimes” or “ordinary misdemeanors”, or just mistakes.

For almost 15 months, the committee members bickered and bargained, working their way through more than a dozen drafts and uncounted amendments. When liberals on the committee pushed for a harsh verdict on Mao’s policies during the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution, Deng personally intervened, insisting that “the historical role of Mao Zedong must be affirmed”.

When the final resolution was approved by the party Politburo in the summer of 1981, it treated Mao rather gingerly, if not downright generously. Though it didn’t fully whitewash the chairman, his “errors” were whittled down to just a handful, and they were said to be the errors of a “great revolutionary”.

Learn more about Mao’s infamous Cultural Revolution.

Mao’s Contribution and Mistakes

Specific mistakes that were singled out included Mao’s willful persecution of intellectuals in the 1957 Anti-Rightist Rectification movement and his reckless disregard for the welfare of the peasants during the Great Leap Forward. However, he was not held personally responsible for causing any of the 30 million deaths between 1959 and 1961.

Nevertheless, Mao’s overall contribution to modern Chinese history was, as Deng had wanted, reaffirmed. Though some of his mistakes were acknowledged to be “serious” in nature, his errors were nonetheless those of “a great proletarian revolutionary” who, throughout his lifetime, paid “constant attention to overcoming [his own] shortcomings”.

Though no fixed ratio of positives to negatives was given, the final verdict on Mao was, on balance, favorable. Mao’s contributions were judged to have substantially outweighed his misadventures. Thus, five years after his death, the unquiet ghost of Mao Zedong was finally, if gingerly, laid to rest.

Common Questions about Deng’s Coalition and Verdict on Mao

Q: What was Deng’s role in his coalition for political reform?

After Deng’s coalition was formed, he was forced to serve two roles. His first role was being the leader of the coalition. His second role was that of a “power balancer” who mediated among the contending factions in his coalition.

Q: What was the difference between Deng and Mao’s power when they were the leaders of China?

Unlike Mao, Deng did not have any official political power. Instead, he was respected because of his seniority, and his power was derived from prestige and seniority within the party.

Q: How did the Politburo ultimately judge Mao?

Though the Politburo didn’t fully whitewash Mao‘s mistakes, his “errors” were whittled down to just a handful, and they were said to be the errors of a “great revolutionary”.

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