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China's Reforms Don't Contradict the Communist Revolution, they Consolidate it

By Wang Gungwu

SCMP, September 30, 2019 

Chinese historian Wang Gungwu, speaking at the launch of ThinkChina magazine in Singapore,
on September 24, 2019

As the People’s Republic turns 70, sinologist and historian Wang Gungwu delves deep into ancient history to illustrate how modern China, from Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping, has followed a continuous rather than contradictory path.


How do we see the last 70 years, when a revolution that succeeded under Mao Zedong in 1949 was followed by reform?

In this case, Deng Xiaoping didn’t make the mistake of calling it bianfa. He said it was gaige.

In English, we translate both of them as reform. So the word reform can be confusing. If you associate it with bianfa, it’s very negative. If you associate it with gaige, it’s very positive. So be careful how you use the word.

Thirty years of successful geming, followed by 40 years of successful gaige. Revolution followed by reform. Just the opposite of that by Shang Yang (an adviser to the state of Qin in the 9th century BC), which was reform leading to revolution. In our times, it was revolution followed by reform.

These are contradictory images, certainly difficult to explain. But the fact remains that in this case, in the last 70 years, it’s very clear – 30 years of a revolution’s victory that included Mao’s idea of continuous revolution, jixu geming. That was quite an extraordinary idea. Frankly, I don’t think it had any chance of success, but that was what Mao thought, and he seemed to have seriously believed it.

It led to the very confusing period of the Cultural Revolution , in which Mao nearly destroyed his own party, the very party that he had led to victory. When Deng came back, he took over the country and offered gaige reform. Now the context of that reform was significant. It was proposed to reform something that had already won, not like the Hundred Days Reform (1898) or the Wang Anshi (1021-1086) Reform in the Song dynasty, that tried to rescue a system. This was reform to build upon and consolidate the revolution’s success. Advertisement SUBSCRIBE TO This Week in Asia Get updates direct to your inbox By registering, you agree to our T&C and Privacy Policy Thank you for your subscription. You can also view our other newsletters.

Deng did not think the revolution had failed. On the contrary, he was quite confident the revolution had succeeded. After all, he had served it and worked hard and was willing to die for it. It had succeeded, but some mistakes were made. Mao made a lot of mistakes in his old age. He stayed too long. Deng was honest enough to say mistakes were made, but the revolution was successful. Therefore, what needed to be done was to consolidate it through reforms. Reforming it and making the necessary changes to enable the revolution to be even stronger and more successful.

Thus, that reform was different altogether from bianfa reform that came from some kind of desperation, particularly true of the Hundred Days Reform. That was desperate because the Qing empire was collapsing and Chinese civilisation was being threatened. In fact, China had just been defeated by a small country – Japan – and Western ships were free to wander back and forth, in and out and up the great rivers deep into China. What kind of China was that? So it was a desperate attempt to rescue a collapsing China. That was the context of this bianfa.

But gaige was to make changes to improve and enable a revolution to be even more successful after it being victorious. To see Deng’s reforms as replacing what Mao stood for would be a complete misunderstanding of what he sought to do. Deng built on what Mao had succeeded in doing, in clearing the field, as it were, of the jungle of vested interests that might have stopped his reforms.

In comparison, when looking back to the cases of Wang Mang (45BC-23AD) or Wang Anshi, or for that matter, Kang Youwei’s (1858-1927) Hundred Days Reform, they all failed because the vested interests of powerful elite families were opposed to bianfa; the conservative forces were against changes that they found too radical and threatened their interests. And they were strong enough to ensure that each of those reforms would fail.

In the case of Deng, Mao had cleared the land of those vested interests. Although the Cultural Revolution created a lot of problems, and certainly made a mess of some earlier achievements, Mao had nevertheless ensured that there were no vested interests left to oppose Deng when he introduced reforms. On the contrary, everybody was so relieved and happy that Deng had offered a fresh attempt to consolidate the revolution that had lost its way for a couple of decades. Deng was bringing the country back to its original purpose and drive, its ambitious programmes, and thus enabled the revolution to regain its credibility.


Reform therefore was to consolidate revolution. Was there anything like it in Chinese history? Compared with the well-known reforms, this was not what Deng did. Those negative examples I mentioned earlier, and there were others, were not what Deng was following.

What he was trying to do did have other comparable actions in Chinese history, although those were not described as gaige or bianfa reforms. I offer some examples here, not suggesting that they were the same, but as actions worth considering here.

For example, the Qin dynasty lasted a very short time. When Qin Shihuang (259BC-210BC) died, the dynasty was replaced by the Han dynasty (206BC-220AD). The Han emperors, particularly the second and third emperors, Han Wendi and Han Jingdi, provided what may be described as fresh attempts to build on what the Qin had established. There had already been a mandate change, but the Han rulers retained the Qin legalist state. The Han emperors tried to soften the state’s functions to enable it to work properly, so that people were not fearful of it, but actually believed in its success.

Mao Zedong. Photo: Handout Share:

Eventually, Han Wudi brought in the Confucians, to try and give it a new set of ideals and principles, and induce people to accept what was essentially a legalistic state. I suggest that was a relevant analogy of Wendi and Jingdi consolidating the Qin revolution.

That consolidation enabled the Han dynasty to last through the Eastern Han dynasty, nearly 400 years. It was the reform of a successful geming mandate and more like gaige. They didn’t use the word, but they didn’t use the word bianfa either. The reform changes that Wendi, Jingdi and Wudi introduced for the Han dynasty were to consolidate the Qin revolution.

Another example was the Sui dynasty that unified China after 400 years of absolute confusion, with the wuhu luanhua (Uprising of the Five Barbarians) and the division of northern and southern China. Sui Wendi and his son Yangdi reunified the empire, but Yangdi made bad mistakes, and after the Tang founder had ended Yangdi’s reign, his son Tang Taizong took over and introduced a series of improvements to the imperial system.

Taizong, with the help of a brilliant administrator and thinker Wei Zheng, provided new plans, a new blueprint, as it were, and consolidated the changes that the Sui dynasty had failed to protect.

One can compare the kind of geming mandate that had ended with the Sui reunification of China, but the Sui rulers failed. It was the Tang that brought the gaige reforms to confirm the Sui achievements. No one used the word gaige or bianfa. But in effect, what happened was something like gaige.

These are other somewhat different examples.

The Tang dynasty was followed by another 400 years of division after the An Lushan rebellion, at its most divided, the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms of the 10th century. The Song dynasty never managed to reunify the country, with the Southern Song not much more than one small kingdom that barely survived, attacked incessantly by various enemies, and eventually being conquered by the Mongols.

As for the Mongols, theirs wasn’t a Chinese achievement. The Mongols never became Chinese. They reunified China after 400 years of division. And when Ming Taizu Hongwu (1328-1398) led the Chinese to drive them out, China was reborn. But not quite the same as the earlier Chinas. The Ming was very much modified and influenced by the Mongol conquest. The interesting thing is that founder Hongwu also made mistakes, and one of them was to bypass his sons and give his throne to his grandson.

Deng Xiaoping. Photo: VCG/Getty Images Share:

When that happened, his ablest son, the Prince of Yan, was in Beijing and saw the world differently from his father’s perspective in Nanjing. In many ways, his view of the world was closer to the Mongol outlook. That included the whole continental world of Central Asia that the Mongols had brought back into the Chinese ken, and gave the Prince of Yan a different understanding of what those overland threats were about.

So what did he do? When his father passed him over and gave the throne to his nephew, he couldn’t accept that. He got rid of the Emperor Jianwen, his nephew, to become the Emperor Yongle.

And he made a foundational change. He moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing. Today, we take for granted that the capital was always in Beijing. Nanjing was the failed capital. But Yongle’s father had been successful in launching what might be called a Chinese revolution against the Mongols to establish his new dynasty, and built its capital in Nanjing – for the first time, as the capital for the whole empire.

Yongle consciously changed that and made the decision to have the capital moved to Beijing in order to improve his perspective of the new Chinese empire. Whether he was right or wrong to do so is another question, but it was a very successful move. It enabled the Ming dynasty to look at the world somewhat like the Mongol view of a larger world.

When the Ming was succeeded by the Manchu Qing dynasty, the conquerors took over all that the Ming had established. They kept the capital in Beijing, and again, extended that world into Central Asia in a way that was reminiscent of what the Mongols had earlier done.

So there may be an analogy here, of Hongwu having made bad judgments in his old age, and his son had to provide gaige methods to change the imperial perspective and move his ablest officials and troops up to the north, and look at the empire in a different light.

I have chosen the above examples because it has been difficult to find better ones to illustrate the role of Deng’s gaige as a consolidation of geming.

They have been selected to show that some kind of gaige reform was not unknown. It is possible to see how a successful geming as mandate change could be consolidated by reforms.

Perhaps even better examples are those of the three emperors of the 18th century: Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong.


Kangxi was the third emperor, but he was known for reforming the mixed system that his grandfather had left him. The dynasty was founded by Nurhaci (1559-1626) in Manchuria. He was essentially an outsider who didn’t really understand China that well. Kangxi, however, was brought up by Confucian scholars and could understand the system from a Chinese perspective. What he set out to ensure was to consolidate Manchu power by bringing together Manchu and Han political cultures into one integrated whole that would be acceptable to the Chinese.

By the end of Kangxi’s reign, there were fewer Chinese who opposed the Manchus than there were at the beginning. Those who had fought desperately as loyalists to save the Ming from the Qing had died out, and the new generations had to admit that Kangxi’s rule was a good one.

If you look more closely at the early years of Kangxi’s reign, you would find someone who was always on the lookout for ways to improve and strengthen the system that he inherited. He thus enabled Manchu rule to integrate the Ming structure of government and have the two neatly locked together, and ended with the successful system that stabilised the empire. And yet, towards the end of his life, Kangxi relaxed and made mistakes, and things began to go wrong.

His son Yongzheng took over. He was only on the throne for 13 years and didn’t rule too long. His record, however, was full of reforms that I imagine Deng would recognise as gaige. All that time, he was trying to improve the system and was never satisfied. Like his father Kangxi, he was educated by some of the best Confucian scholars selected to train him to run this Chinese imperial system. Whenever he found the Manchu ways inadequate or the Ming methods inefficient, he would introduce necessary reforms to make the Qing dynasty even stronger. He was thus able to pass to his son Qianlong a really powerful empire.

And Qianlong in his early life was also a very successful improver. He was continually reforming the system that he inherited, not always for the good of the Han Chinese. He was suspicious of them and was ready to make changes to stop Chinese from being patronising towards the Manchu. He resented those who thought they were superior. At the same time, he was a fine scholar of things Chinese and very proud of his Chinese heritage, always showing off his calligraphy and literary skills. During the early years of his reign, he was seeking to improve the system to make Manchu power more dominant, more secure and better respected by all Chinese. It could be said that for the first 30 years, he was extraordinarily successful in building on his father’s heritage. But again, like his grandfather Kangxi, he lived too long. And during the second half of his life, things began to go wrong.

I won’t make too much of all that here, but simply note that there’s a lesson there somewhere.

Anyway, at the end of it all, most historians agree that the 18th century was one of the greatest centuries in Chinese history. It was peaceful and prosperous, people were confident and always hopeful that things would get better. The population increased, the economy – at least by the standards of the time – was one-third of the world’s economy. That was how successful these three emperors were.

I suggest that what they did was somewhat like gaige reforms after a revolution, after Nurhaci had successfully changed the mandate. But it was the Kangxi, Yongzheng, Qianlong century that consolidated that mandate to produce an empire that the world could respect. By that time, the Jesuits and the Europeans who came to China to trade could see why China saw itself as the greatest country in the world.

If you look at European writings of the 18th century, after what the Jesuits reported and their merchants had confirmed, China was seen as a model for reforms elsewhere. Many ideas about agriculture, about taxation and administration, about meritocracy and examinations, were taken by the Europeans to build their states. One of the best examples and most successful was the kingdom of France.

The French took the Qing state very seriously. What they saw reflected the result of what was close to gaige reforms and did not need anything like bianfa. Even without the word gaige, the improvements that were made had strengthened the mandate. This was what Deng’s reforms set out to do to make the revolution even more successful.


Let me now bring these thoughts together to look at recent developments. Deng concentrated on using reforms to consolidate the revolution, making sure that the country recovered from its mistakes and started afresh and became more prosperous.

When it came to Jiang Zemin, he talked about the san ge daibiao (Three Represents) to seek a greater inclusiveness, that is, in addition to the proletariat and the peasants, to recognise that the merchant classes, the intellectual workers and so on had made their contributions and could continue to contribute to the greatness of China.

By doing that, he was in fact pushing back the revolution to recognise the historic role of the Xinhai Revolution of 1911. That first revolution just did not have enough time or opportunity to succeed and the job had to be completed by Mao with the 1949 revolution. But the first had contributed to what happened, including the May Fourth Movement, and stirred the young educated generation of the time to enable the revolution eventually to succeed. So he was pushing back to be more inclusive of that past, for its contribution to successful revolution.

As for Hu Jintao, one can interpret his reform emphasis in many ways. But when he highlighted the harmonious society (hexie shehui), this was an example of looking even further back. He had turned to the traditional virtues of the daotong (moral governance) drawn from the orthodoxy of lixue (Neo-Confucianism) of the Song and Ming dynasties. He drew from its fundamental ideas that had been enriched by Buddhism and Taoism to become the backbone of ethical governance for hundreds of years. In his own way, Hu was selecting from the best of that daotong tradition that could still be relevant today. Whether he’s right in what he has chosen, we don’t yet know. But when he looked to the past, he went even further back in time. I would say that what he chose to do was to restore a sense of continuity with China’s long past.

There is awareness that learning only from West One (the liberal capitalist republican revolutions) was a failure, and learning only from West Two (the Soviet, anti-capitalist communist revolution) was also a failure. Both West One and Two taught the Chinese a great deal, but each could not provide what China needed. China could master all the things that they could teach, but also had to draw upon its own resources. It should still remain true to its own traditions while being modern and progressive. Together with new ideas of organisation and management, science and technology, finance and economics from the capitalist and socialist systems that could be consolidated, it was helpful to go back to the country’s foundations and look for the values that would enable the country to be distinctively Chinese.

Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Xinhua Share: I believe that Xi Jinping understood that Deng’s reforms were to consolidate a revolution. I think it was clear what Jiang Zemin was trying to do to give the country a longer sense of the past. With Hu, that sense was even deeper in going back to its cultural roots. But Xi also saw something that could pose a problem for continuity in China’s development. He thought that, during the last 40 years, many people had written off the 30 years of Mao’s revolution as a complete failure. That was not Deng’s judgment. From the beginning, he had concluded Mao’s revolution was 70 per cent successes and only 30 per cent mistakes.

Mao’s successes during that period should not be neglected; the tendency to set it aside as a period of bad mistakes to be forgotten is wrong. What Xi has done is to point to a gap of 30 years that should be brought back to complete what the country should now see. Chinese traditions are part of that continuity and should also respect the 30 years following the successful revolution of 1949.

I think this is how he understands continuity in history. When the country is built on solid foundations, it can look with confidence to socialism with Chinese characteristics for the new age. The characteristics that the socialists would find in the Chinese past would help that socialism to succeed on Chinese soil. At the same time, for the country to remain progressive, it would also need to have a new frame. The idea of progress was a revolutionary ideal that appealed to the Chinese. In their tradition, Chinese culture had looked to a glorious past, a golden age when all the sages were in charge. And they longed to become as good as the people in the past. Thus the tendency to favour the past.

For modern revolution, including the revolution of 1911 but even more that of 1949, it is the future that is more important. With the gu jin (ancient and modern) dichotomy, the balance is now very clear. Not so much gu (ancient) but more jin (modern).

That was already clear in the debates throughout the 20th century. Now is the time to recognise that this must be established firmly as a clear message for everyone. I think that the Chinese people all recognise that jin is the more important and that progress is the future. Socialism with Chinese characteristics draws upon the idea of progress invented by the West during the 18th century.

Chinese leaders have taken this progress to heart and see socialism with Chinese characteristics as the road towards a better future. In that context of reforms consolidating the revolution, the relationship between the two makes good sense.

This is the second instalment of an edited version of Wang Gungwu’s speech at the September 24 launch of ThinkChina, an English-language online magazine on developments in China by Lianhe Zaobao, a Chinese-language daily in Singapore. Read the first instalment here  


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