The Devil’s Bargain

Deng Xiaoping was a little guy, 5 feet tall though one observer said that was surely an exaggeration. Purged twice in the course of his long political career, you could say Deng is a survivor.

The first purge was in 1966, at the start of the Cultural Revolution, for being a capitalist roader. He spent the next 7 years at an army base, on a farm, and in a tractor repair plant. In 1974, Mao restored Deng to power. His first actions were oddly prosaic.

Deng Xiaoping 1979 in US
Image source: Wikimedia

Deng spoke on the importance of discipline in the military and the reform of the Ministry of Metallurgical Industry. He issued a call to increase the number of railway cars loaded per day, to bar conductors from drinking on the job, and to regularize their lunch breaks.

Henry Kissinger, On China (Allen Lane 2011)

But in the context of the Cultural Revolution, a return to normalcy and order was heretical. For Mao and the Gang of Four, anarchy passed as social organization and endless struggle as a crucible for national purification. Deng was purged a second time.

“Poverty is not socialism”

Four big items
Image source: SCMP

The political landscape shifted when Mao died. His successor arrested the Gang of Four. Deng emerged with a new vision for China. He saw no merit in China’s poverty. China needed to reform and open up. Every household should own the four big items: a bicycle, a sewing machine, a radio, and a wristwatch.

Deng called upon the Chinese people to think for themselves. No more central planning. No more bureaucratism. Private initiatives, foreign trade, and capital investment were all encouraged. New ways and new ideas would rid China of its poverty and backwardness. There were, however, conditions to all this free thinking.

it assumed that these pathbreakers would limit themselves to exploring practical ways to build a prosperous China and stay away from exploration of ultimate political objectives.


This is the devil’s bargain Deng Xiaoping offered the Chinese people. Economic reform will be permitted. Wealth can be amassed. But do not challenge the Party or its monopoly on government. There is no better example of the costs of this bargain than the Tiananmen Massacre.

Deng sent tanks to conquer unarmed students. And when the international community protested, Deng offered a different devil’s bargain.

Had the Chinese government not taken resolute steps in Tiananmen, there would have been a civil war in China. And because China has one fifth of the world’s population, instability in China would cause instability in the world which could even involve the big powers.

Deng Xiaoping quoted by Kissinger

Deng’s response remains a touchstone for China’s relations with the world. Do not interfere with our internal affairs and all will be well. This devil’s bargain brings us, inevitably and inexorably, to Hong Kong.

One country, two systems

Deng Xiaoping on Hong Kong
Model reconstruction of 1984 meeting Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher on Hong Kong handover. Photo credit: Brücke-Osteuropa [Public domain]

One country, two systems is another invention of Deng’s. It allows for socialism and capitalism to coexist within a unified People’s Republic of China. Deng offered his generous solution to Taiwan, who rejected it. Instead, Deng applied it to Hong Kong and Macau to guide the handover of these former colonies.

The Basic Law is Hong Kong’s codification of the one country, two systems policy. Until 2047, Hong Kong’s judiciary and police forces will remain independent. A chief executive and a British-style legislature will rule Hong Kong rather than a colonial governor. Beijing takes responsibility for defense and foreign policy.

But the reality of the Basic Law looks different.

Beijing’s strict vetting of candidates for the chief executive position by late 2014 led to the Occupy Central or Umbrella Movement protests to call for universal suffrage, which is a long-term goal of Hong Kong’s Basic Law. Under obvious duress from Beijing, the local government in Hong Kong has also taken a number of actions that have greatly unnerved the population, including removing duly elected lawmakers for their pro-democracy stances, imprisoning pro-democracy activist leaders, banning the Hong Kong National Party for its pro-independence agenda, and targeting those who are critical of Beijing’s handling of Hong Kong.

Derek Grossman, “One Country, Two Systems, Lots of Problems” in Foreign Policy, 21 June 2019

Hong Kong is the only place in China where the Tiananmen Massacre is publicly and massively commemorated. Here, freedom of speech is a basic human right. The proposed extradition law would blow a tank-sized hole through Hong Kong’s independent judicial system and into the opacity of the Chinese one. For activists, writers, academics, would-be legislators, and voters, the writing on the wall is clear.

The Legacy of Deng Xiaoping

Is China reneging on its deal? Not if we look carefully at Deng Xiaoping’s words. He promised to maintain Hong Kong’s status as a free port and an international trade and financial center. He promised to allow the Hong Kongers to rule themselves, provided that they were patriots.

A patriot is one who respects the Chinese nation, sincerely supports the motherland’s resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong and wishes not to impair Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.

Deng Xiaoping on “one country, two systems” as republished in China Daily, 19 Feb 2004

In other words, he promised prosperity but not political freedom. The mainland has grown inured to this devil’s bargain. The majority opposes the Hong Kong demonstrations. Mainlanders see the Hong Kongers as foolish and ungrateful and a potential source of instability.

Freedom can’t fill stomachs, this thinking goes. And individual rights of the kind that people in Hong Kong enjoy — to challenge the government in the press, the courts and on the streets — would lead to chaos in the mainland, bringing back poverty and hunger.

Li Yuan, “A mainland backlash” in The New York Times, international edition, 2 July 2019

But what of this prosperity that has cost the Chinese people their political rights? Even at the time of Deng Xiaoping’s death in 1997, it was clear that his economic reforms were incomplete. Pollution and a soaring population would hamper future reforms. Today, China struggles with income inequality, an aging population and an overburdened health care system.

It doesn’t seem likely that the Hong Kong protesters will back down. If anything, fears grow of further escalation. Meanwhile, Beijing rejects international concerns as interference in Chinese internal affairs. Deng Xiaoping’s bitter fruit may soon take root.