The facts dictated a more pragmatic model of making use of capitalism to grow China’s economy.
And that is what China has done since the 1980s, with spectacular results. It has become the world’s second-largest economy and an emerging superpower. Deng was in favor of people becoming rich, though he realized that it would not lead to an egalitarian society for a long time to come, if at all.
The consequent income gaps between rich and poor, urban and rural areas, among coastal regions and the interior as well as the border areas have caused widespread social tensions, frustration and unrest. Such unrest is further fueled by widespread corruption at all levels of the CCP and the government by blurring the line between politics and economics.
For instance, reporting by the New York Times and Bloomberg recently revealed that the families of former Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) and Xi had made millions through their political connections, though neither Wen nor Xi were said to be personally involved.
There is a sense among many Chinese, with new generations having grown up with no knowledge of the convulsive events of Mao’s time that when he was China’s leader, things were simple and everybody lived happily with guaranteed employment for life.
However, there were awful things happening.
For instance, Mao’s Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s and the early 1960s, which was intended to kickstart industrial development, seriously contributed to a famine that resulted in millions of deaths from starvation.
And when the CCP sought to reverse Mao’s policies, he unleashed his Cultural Revolution against the party leadership to reassert control. It was a lost decade, with Red Guards — Mao’s stormtroopers — turning on the party’s veteran political leaders who had fought during the revolution alongside Mao.
Among those hounded to a miserable death was then-Chinese president Liu Shaoqi (劉少奇). While Mao was a great leader, who spearheaded the communist revolution and helped establish the People’s Republic of China, his record in the post-revolutionary period was disappointing, to put it mildly.
It was not until after Mao’s death that Deng, who was purged during the Cultural Revolution, turned things around to build China into a successful nation by emphasizing economic growth.
However, the new China faced a new dilemma, which continues to dog it today: How can it reconcile the virtual abandonment of its communist ideology by following the capitalist mode of production while still insisting on maintaining the party’s monopoly on power?
This is where China’s post-Mao leadership finds itself in a difficult position, and where Mao’s legend (even with some caveats) is useful.
If Mao is delegitimized, his successors in the CCP who brought about the revolution, might also become delegitimized, especially in the midst of pervasive cynicism among many Chinese about the party leadership at all levels.
Xi’s speech on Mao’s 120th birthday neatly encapsulates the dilemma the party faces.
Sushil Seth is a commentator in Australia.