Interviewer: Why is it so fascinating to study Hakka leaders?
Larry Liu: My family is Hakka. And one thing I noticed while growing up is that my family portrays our own linguistic-cultural group as being superior or something better than the other Chinese language groups. It is not malice or detestation or anything like that, but there is some condescension against other groups. You can’t openly say it like that, because the Chinese are really aiming for maintaining face or reputation, mianzi, so showing respect in front of others is critical too. I myself was fascinated by that. I always liked to study people and cultures and wanted to find out more about it.
I: Why leaders in particular?
L: In part I had a long-running interest in politics, trying to understand how societies conduct their political business, how we are often shaped by elite forces. But mostly it was simply the fact that I had discovered by reading and from hearsay that many Hakkas had become prime minister or leading politicians in China and other parts of Asia. I thought this could not be a coincidence and I wanted to write about them. There is Deng Xiaoping in China, of course. but you also had Lee Teng-hui in Taiwan, Shinawatra in Thailand, Aquino in the Philippines, and Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore.
I: We will get back to each of these leaders in a minute, but first introduce your own background a little further. You are Hakka, but where exactly are you from, and how does that identity shape you today?
L: I was born and raised in Austria, Europe. My ancestors are from a Chinese city called Meixian in Guangdong province. I don’t exactly know when they left China, but I would tend to say in the late Qing dynasty and early republic. There was a lot of political upheaval at that time, and propertied people saw their best opportunities outside of China. They went to India. Emigration was no unusual path for many Chinese, especially from the South. There was a good study in the 1970s by Victor Nee, who showed in his ethnography of the San Francisco Chinatown that most Chinese there had come from a handful of villages in Guangdong province. The south of China is really populated by very restless people. In fact, the Hakkas themselves are migrants to the south, originating in northern China. There are some genetic studies that prove this link to northern China among Hakka, even though virtually all Hakkas live in the south.
Anyway, my family made it to Calcutta, India. The first Chinese that went there were brought in by the British in the 1770s, when they began colonizing India. the British really thought that the Chinese were reliable laborers, which was largely true. That is by the way how Singapore got started too.
There were three lines of businesses that the Chinese could take on, and they were ethno-lingusitically divided: the Cantonese became carpenters, the Hubeinese became dentists and the Hakkas owned leather tanneries and shoe shops. The Hakkas in Calcutta are well-described by a 1990s study by Ellen Oxfeld. My family stuck faithfully to this pattern. My maternal grandfather owned a shoe shop. My paternal grandfather owned a leather tannery, which my uncle still runs today. It was a fairly successful business until the 1990s, when the Calcutta government decided to force the tanneries to relocate. It was part of a clean-up campaign, because the tannery business pollutes the groundwater, but it also told you about the weak political voice that the Chinese in India had.
I: So there were no Hakka politicians in India?
L: Not that I know of. There were some Chinese, who tried to lobby the government to end the mistreatment of the Chinese. There was a border conflict between India and China in 1962. It was a stupid little conflict. No side gained ground, but it did sour bilateral relations and the Indian government deported some Chinese to Rajasthan province, where they were held in a prison camp like the Japanese in the US during World War II. My family was peculiarly spared this mistreatment. My grandfather had purchased Indian citizenship. But that was no blank check either, because there were quite a few Chinese, who lost their citizenship anyway until a 1998 amnesty law restored their citizenship. Many Chinese that were sent to Rajasthan really lost everything. Their property, their house, their business. It is only in the last few years that things have improved. I think the rising economic role of China plays a role too in improving bilateral relations.
But with regard to political engagement, the Chinese did not believe in political involvement, and want to generally stay out of trouble with the law if possible. That was the line that my grandparents held too.
I: But you argue that Hakkas are destined to become political leaders.
L: That statement is too extreme. There were certainly Hakka leaders in other countries, but it always depends on the larger polity. In Taiwan and Singapore, where you have a majority Chinese population, it is easy. In Indonesia and India, where you have many other minorities and strong anti-Chinese prejudice, you will also not have any political leaders, because leaders are supposed to represent everybody, so they require plenty of popular approval. It is different with owning a business, where it is more about entrepreneurial talent and social networks. So therefore you will find Chinese restaurants wherever Chinese people live.
I: Go back to your own family history. Explain your link between Austria and India.
L: Yeah, the India-China War really made the difference, because the Chinese are very unsettled people, and if they see conditions worsen where they live, then they will want to leave. Fortunately, many Western countries beginning in the 1960s and 1970s were opening up their borders to migration. It was not necessarily altruistic. In part, you had the political history of colonialism coming to an end, and the Europeans overcome with guilt let people from the colonies enter the motherland. In part, it was about filling the chronic postwar labor shortage. How did my father end up in Austria? By coincidence really, and there wasn’t so much colonial baggage behind that move. He had been travelling to different places in Asia and Europe. In 1983, he had visited a friend from childhood days, who operated a Chinese restaurant in a small town in Austria called St. Polten. He ended up offering my father a job as a dishwasher, and that is how the tourist became an immigrant. He lived and worked there for four years and decided it was time to find a wife, so he went back to India to find my mother. It was a matchmaking relationship, because there are only so many Chinese people that live in Calcutta, and everybody knew everyone else. And we Chinese are not really good daters, so a little help in approaching a potential mate always helps. My brother and I were born in Austria. We attended school there. Then my mother decided I should have a better future in the US, so she sent me here. There’s a story to that as well. My mother had attended a Christian school funded by American missionaries back in India, and she was immensely grateful for that and really wanted to to go the US. Fortunately my aunt, her older sister, had lived in the US for 30 years, and so that’s how we could make it here.
I: Great story. Does the Hakka identity define you in some way?
L: There are always some values that transpire such as hard work, frugality, the importance of education, and, yes, a passion for politics. But I have the strong notion that most Chinese and many other groups share these values too, so I really don’t feel special about it.
I: Let us return back to your project. So there are Hakka political leaders in all those East and Southeast Asian countries. What makes them so distinctive?
L: Lee Kuan Yew said that when he campaigned for premiership and then later for Singapore to join the Malaysian Federation, which they left only two years later, he learned the different Chinese dialects, including his native Hakka, Hokkien, which was spoken by most Singapore Chinese, and Mandarin. His fluent language really was English, and he knew Malay and Japanese too. But he said that he sweated really hard to become proficient in those dialects. The Hakkas had the reputation of knowing so many languages. There’s some historical truism to that, though I don’t think that we are inherently superior in language acquisition compared to other groups. The fact of the matter is that wherever the Hakka were, they were always in the minority and they had to adjust to majority culture. I grew up in Austria and the US, and was inculcated in German and English.
In China, which is where I make the crux of my argument, you had the early Cantonese arrivers, and the late Hakka arrivers. Because they were of different dialect background, and land was scarce, there was inevitably conflict between both groups. The Hakkas often took the short end of the stick. The land was owned by the Cantonese, and they rented the less fertile hill land to the Hakkas. You can read this in the excellent research done by Sow-Theng Leong on Hakka migration patterns. Anyway, the Hakkas then had to learn how to live frugally and work really hard. If you look at the Hakka dishes, many of them contain surprisingly simple recipe, and the reason for that was that you can’t grow such a great variety of foods on hill lands, so life was hard for many Hakkas, and they lived very resourcefully.
But that is only part of the story. The other part are the strategies the Hakkas developed to escape their dire material fate, which does remind you somewhat of the Jews. Some call the Hakkas the Jews of China. The first strategy was to study really hard and become a civil servant. You should be aware of the importance that the Chinese put on the civil service and the scholar literati that emerged out of that bureaucracy. That was the highest social status you could attain as a commoner if you did not happen to be born the son of the emperor. So it turns out that the Hakkas are overrepresented in the ranks of the early Communist party, when it took the reigns of the country. So it wasn’t just Deng Xiaoping. Interestingly the most famous Hakka in China was not a scholar official, but a scholar official candidate, who failed miserably in the civil service exam for four times. It was Hong Xiuqian, who led the Taiping rebellion that precipitated the downfall of the Qing dynasty, which was executed by Sun Yat-sen, presumably another Hakka.
But Hong, who channeled his disappointment in the system into organized violence and opposition against the ruling regime, was emblematic of a larger structural problem. China in the mid-1800s suffered from severe economic problems, and the colonial powers that carved up China did their part in that. So the government at that time carried out a brutal austerity campaign, which decimated the ranks of the scholar officials. What happened after that is what scholars like Randall Collins described as “education credentialism”. That meant that the acceptance rate for civil servants was lowered significantly, because there were fewer openings, and more candidates failed, and you soon had test-takers in their 40s and 50s. You had to have a wealthy family to continue to support you in your studies. Factor in the quickly growing population and the high demand for these scholar official positions, and you can see how discontent is generated. There was a lot of latent discontent and Hong Xiuqian really channeled that anger against political authority.
I: So what was the second strategy for improving the fate of the Hakka?
L: The second strategy was emigration. This is what many other Chinese groups had done too, but we know that the south Chinese- Hakka among them- have usually been overrepresented in the Chinese diaspora community. But I would maintain my narrative that the Hakkas facing adverse conditions struggled particularly hard to succeed whether in China or in Thailand or in Singapore.
I: Okay, I get that. And it is well argued, but why political leadership? Working hard toward success can also be associated with business success. But why do the Hakkas become politicians?
L: Well, there’s no neat answer to that. I would not strongly distinguish between business and political success, as you do. Sometimes you do need both. In Thailand, for example, there has long been this patron-client relationship between businessmen- mostly Chinese-, and military leaders, bureaucrats and politicians. The former pay money to the latter, and the latter protect the former against other greedy leaders. As the country began opening up to the world in the 1970s, that relationship disappeared gradually. All of a sudden you had the Chinese businessmen like Thaksin Shinawatra, a Hakka, join politics. Cut out the middle man so to speak. Well, I shouldn’t say all of a sudden, because his family had long-running ties to politics, but mainly local politics. They were based in the northern city of Chiang Mai. But Thaksin was the first prime minister in the family. The business move into politics was done in part due to political ambition, and in part due to personal commercial interest, because, hey, if you as a businessman become prime minister, you can exempt your business from taxes and award your company lucrative government contracts. And you soon saw that whichever tycoon neglected the chance for political office is going to be left out.
I: But there were many doubters against Thaksin, because he was removed in a military coup in 2006. Why and how did that happen?
L: Yes, Thaksin was a quite extraordinary political figure, and there is a great biography on him by Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker. Essentially, Thaksin was a billionaire, who had earned his wealth by exploiting his great political connections to gain concessions, or monopoly business rights, and then used that wealth and power to join politics to further augment it, but that was not the reason why the established classes, the Democratic Party politicians, the military, the loyalists- Thailand still has a monarchy-, businessmen and middle class were opposed to him. And being rich alone does not make you a prime minister. What he did on top of that after founding his own political party in 1998, Thai Rak Thai (TRT), which was filled by his friends and relatives, was to run a populist political campaign, where he promised farmers and rural villagers in the populous north and northeast of the country all sorts of social welfare benefits. He had promised a so-called “village fund”, which were loans that were handed out to rural villagers so they can open up their own businesses. Or that was at least the hope. What happened in reality was that only few businesses were created, and villagers instead used the funds to pay off old debts or to finance consumption, which also benefited Thaksin’s own businesses. Another part of his program was a low-cost health insurance scheme, which saved farmers a lot of money when they got sick. One would wish that we could have universal health care here in the US, which is much richer than Thailand.
Now you would say, “what’s wrong with populism?”, because that is what democracy is all about, right? Serving the constituency and gaining majority support. TRT did receive two-thirds electoral support in election after election, some fluctuations here and there, but they have solid rural backing. But that situation really pissed off the political opposition and the oligarchy. You have to understand that income inequality is fairly extreme in Thailand, and what you had was a political consensus in Bangkok, where the elites agreed with each other to never redistribute the resources across the community. You have that everywhere, but if inequality is already so extreme, then acrimonious opposition against redistribution is going to be even more extreme.
Ironically, it is the middle class, which is then asked to finance this redistribution. Thaksin never raised the taxes on the rich, and the rich knew how to funnel their money outside of the country. You saw the same thing happen in Greece right after the Greek state revealed in 2010 that it had larger debt burden than previously revealed, such that the interest rate on the state debt escalated, and the government frantically passed austerity measures and tax increases. The middle class is getting shafted, while the millionaires disappear with their wealth in tax havens. In Thailand, the situation is no different. Thaksin’s own business got a $600 million tax break, when he became prime minister. I am sure many tycoons have organized similar arrangements. The middle class really pays most of the bills, and I think they were the kernel of the revolt against Thaksin.
And then, of course, you had the military, which has played a role in politics for a long time. There have been 12 coups against the ruling civilian government since the absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932. Recently, the military came in again to topple Thaksin’s younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who had been prime minister the last three years. There seems to be a natural cycle to that. And you can see how clannish the Shinawatra family is. This is what the Hakkas are accused of, though I don’t see this as a special characteristic of the Hakkas alone.
But true enough, Thaksin was very suspicious of outsiders, and after he went to exile, he entrusted all of the party leadership functions to his siblings. He has nine, but only seven of them are still alive. Yingluck was considered for the top job in 2008 already, but she didn’t want to take it then. She was a businesswoman in the family-owned Shinawatra Corporation, and had no political experience. But that made her the perfect candidate in 2011, when Thaksin nominated her to run- from his exile. And Yingluck, of course, pursued the same policies as her brother. She was toppled by the constitutional court due to the mishandling of a rice pledging scheme, whereby the government purchased rice from farmers at set prices, which further augmented her rural support, but the oligarchs, which include the courts, were not really happy about that, as you can imagine.
I: That is a nice insight into Thailand, and we learned a lot about China. What can you say about Taiwan?
L: Notice that Taiwan contains a substantial Hakka population, but much less than the Hokkien, who are the majority. Then you have some Mainlanders too, who came along with Chiang Kai-shek and the nationalist in the 1940s when they basically fled Communist China. There is also a small aboriginal population, maybe less than 2%. The Hakkas developed many capable leaders, and there certainly were some in the Kuomintang, but the really important figure was Lee Teng-hui, who was Chiang Ching-kuo’s hand-picked successor as president of Taiwan. Lee was not an obvious choice, because he was a trained agricultural economist, a learned academic really. But the Kuomintang really needed technocratic talent, and agriculture was a big issue in Taiwan, and he provided the necessary expertise for that. Ma Ying-jeou, current president, is also Hakka. And opposition presidential candidate Tsai Ing-Wen is Hakka as well.
But as far as generalization is concerned, I can’t tell you exactly what is peculiar to Taiwanese Hakka compared to Mainland Hakka, except that the fraction of the total population is higher in the former than in the latter, so you have more chances of seeing a Hakka leader in Taiwan than in the Mainland. There have also been some latent disputes between Hokkien and Hakkas, and the Hakkas over the last years became more confident to speak of their identity, run Hakka research programs, teach Hakka in school and so on, because the Nationalist Kuomintang government which had ruled the country for decades with martial law, had suppressed these different ethno-linguistic differences. This is almost the same thing that the Communists have done in the Mainland. The main disputes were between the Taiwanese- Hokkien and Hakkas that settled the island up to 300 or 400 years ago- and the Mainlanders, who came in the 1940s, because the latter dominated all political positions. Though the Hakkas were really caught in the middle, as I said, many Hakkas were part of the Kuomintang. You can read from opinion polls on national identity that the Hokkien are most likely to see themselves as Taiwanese primarily, the Mainlanders primarily as Chinese, and the Hakkas somewhere in the middle.
I: And Singapore? You have another Lee over there, and now his son is running the country. What’s going on in Singapore?
L: Singapore is an interesting case study. Singapore emerged out of Stamford Raffle, a British navy admiral and politician, who decided to settle the island. So over several decades the island was settled with many Chinese, but there were also Malays and Indians that moved there. Singapore became a multi-ethnic country, and the ruling party the People’s Action Party (PAP) really made this part of their ideology. But from the beginning, or since British rule, it was clear that the majority of the people were of Chinese descent. I mentioned to you the push away from China during the nineteenth century, but there was also the pull into Singapore, because, as I said, the Chinese were really reliable and industrious laborers. The first Chinese worked in the many sea ports, because Singapore was and has been a trade hub.
The British were really in charge of Singapore and had a fleet stationed there. Not even the young Lee Kuan Yew, whose first chosen language was English, and not his native Hakka or the majority Hokkien, could imagine anybody other than the very orderly British ruling the country. But what really shook the popular confidence in British rule was the Japanese occupation of Singapore during World War II. The Japanese were very heavy-handed occupiers, but their rule lasted for only three years. After their defeat, the British colonial masters returned, but this time they were not welcomed with such enthusiasm. The British were also deeply challenged economically, with the war against Nazi Germany having almost bankrupted them. The US loans really kept them alive, and yet here they were having this huge empire beneath them, which they really no longer could control. India, Queen Victoria’s crown jewel, became independent in 1947. The real blow to the empire happened in 1957 during the Suez crisis, when the British realized that they could no longer call the shots on the world stage. The furious US president Eisenhower threatened sanctions against Britain and France for jointly invading Suez, which had just been nationalized by Egypt’s Nasser, and Harold MacMillan, then British prime minister retreated, and the empire quickly unraveled.
For Singapore, the fate changed in 1955 already-though independence came only in 1963-, when the first native Singaporean, a Sephardic Jew named David Marshall became the first chief minister of Singapore. That was the same year that Lee Kuan Yew and his associates in the labor movement founded the People’s Action Party with him becoming the chairman of the party. Lee was a young lawyer, who had just returned from his overseas studies in Cambridge, England. I don’t think that it was clear to him in his early years that he was going to become prime minister, but he quickly became politically involved. There was a very strong labor movement developing in Singapore, and Lee helped their cause by representing them in court in many lawsuits. He gained the confidence of many labor leaders, and could win a clear electoral victory, which the opposition parties were not capable of achieving.
Lee was a really canny and savvy politician, because he aligned himself with both the English-educated middle class of which he himself was part of, and the more extreme, radical labor faction under Lim Chin Siong. That got him elected prime minister in 1959, but the alliance did not last too long. Lee wanted Singapore to become part of Malaysia, and the radicals broke away and founded their own party, the Barisan Sosialis, which was under the influence of Communist China. That was the perfect opportunity for Lee and his government to smash that opposition. Even though Lee displayed some sympathy for the working class, he was in part also a very conservative politician, who thought the workers had to be reined in, not protest too much or make too many demands. His goal was to rapidly industrialize and modernize Singapore, and you needed foreign capital to do that, so he and his government tried their best to put in place a very restrictive industrial relations regime. He made the situation more palatable to the workers by providing housing and a pension savings plan, the Central Provident Fund, and that helped his party win election after election. There really has been no effective political opposition in Singapore. Even today, you have opposition parties, who just receive token representation in parliament in the form of appointed MPs.
You mentioned yourself the fact that Lee Kuan Yew bequeathed his seat to his son Hsien Loong. In his autobiography, Lee strongly denies the allegation of nepotism, because, so he argues, Hsien Loong did not take over immediately after the father resigned in 1990. There was a 14 year lapse until Hsien Loong took over, and Goh Chok Tong, a Hokkien, filled the role of prime minister during that time period, while Hsien Loong was deputy prime minister and finance minister. But come on, you can’t deny nepotism. That move reminded me of Vladimir Putin’s decision to have Dimitri Medvedev take on the Russian presidency for four years, because there was a two-term consecutive limit on being president, only to take the reins back four years later. If you count in the four years that Putin was prime minister, Putin really has held the top job since 2000, or 14 years. The same thing is happening in Turkey, where Erdogan was elected president after serving as prime minister for 11 years. Once you are in power, you can’t give it up. That’s Michel’s iron law of oligarchy.
There is one more thing that comes to mind with Lee Kuan Yew, and that does bring up some of the Hakka connection. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping was on a state visit in Singapore. Deng himself had returned like a phoenix from the ashes three times, because Mao Zedong and his followers really did not like Deng. It was only after Mao’s death that Deng returned to importance. So what was the point of the state visit? Well, Deng was curious about what the Singaporeans had done to develop their country so rapidly, and Deng did pay special attention to what happened in Singapore, because so many Singaporeans were of Chinese descent, and it always helped to have some cultural ties to understand how changes happen. So you imagine the two Hakkas, Lee and Deng facing each other, and Deng confesses to Lee that he doubted whether China would ever become as successful as Singapore. Lee reportedly replied, “[W]e, the Singapore Chinese, were the descendants of illiterate landless peasants from Guangdong and Fujian in south China, whereas the scholars, mandarins, and literati had stayed and left their progeny in China. There was nothing that Singapore had done that China could not do, and do better.” I think the results should speak for themselves.
I: I wanted to return one more time to China. You hinted several times at Deng Xiaoping and he played an immense role in the opening up and the modernization of his country. Is there anything that we can take from that?
L: Yes, Deng was really an important political figure. He was born and raised in a village in Sichuan province. His ancestors were Hakka, who did live in Guangdong for a while, but they continued moving on westward. As I say, the Hakkas are really restless people. Deng really received his political education in his years in France. There was an agreement in China, where some private investors supported students to go to France, learn some technical skills, then come back to China and apply them to help industrialize the country. Deng was one of them. That was in the immediate post World War I years. But it turns out that the investors soon bailed out, and Deng and his colleagues were soon stranded in France without any means of financial support. They dropped out of school, but stayed on working in various French factories to make a living. I am sure this experience profoundly shaped Deng, because he certainly was not used to it. His father was a mid-level official, not very wealthy, but by no means poor. Yet, there he was in France, struggling to earn a living. There was a group of other Chinese workers, Zhou Enlai among them, and they became communist agitators. You should know that France at that time was a hotbed of revolutionary rhetoric. This goes as far back as the French Revolution. So Deng absorbed all these Marxist ideas, and fraternized with what turned out to become the leading members of the Chinese Communist movement. Upon his return to China, he immediately became a functionary in the CCP, the Chinese Communist Party.
I don’t really want to go into all of the details of the positions that he occupied, but he made it into Zhongnanhai, which is the majestic building in Beijing, where all of the important decisions are made. There were several low points in his career, and this revealed to you how capricious and arbitrary Mao’s rule was. He got essentially removed from office several times for disagreement with the other leaders, Mao and a bunch of other apparatchiks. He was removed once for criticizing Mao’s Great Leap Forward. That was his campaign in the late 1950s to generate rapid economic growth and industrial development by squeezing the surplus of the farmers and investing in industries. It was a failure, and led to a huge famine. In the early years, Deng was a Mao loyalist. You would not have thought that he would ever come to oppose Mao. But Deng was no stupid person either, and recognized along with Liu Shaoqi, another major leader, that the party needed to moderate course, leave more space for individual decisions, and emphasize technical skills over ideological campaigns to brainwash children. Mao really did believe in propaganda and ideological campaigns, and it was really important to adhere to the party doctrine. But this is really ironic, because the proclaimed dictatorship of the proletariat became a dictatorship over the proletariat. George Orwell had warned about it in his parody Animal Farm, and he is spot on.
Anyway, Deng was now in a bind, because he wanted to promote the interests of his country, which forced him to strongly oppose Mao’s misguided policies, and on the other hand, he wanted to save face, because it was a dictatorship and not a democracy after all. His fall from grace happened in the late 1960s, when Mao called out the Cultural Revolution. Why did he do that? Well, it was a way for him to restore influence. After the end of the Great Leap, he retreated from the very top leadership to spare himself criticism from the party. And Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping were running the show for a few years, and they promoted some sensible moderate reforms. But by 1966, Mao saw his legacy threatened, and he thought he would restore his unquestionable influence by making teenagers go around with their Mao bibles and round up and denounce political enemies. And so one of the enemies happened to be Deng, and the other was Liu. Both had their houses surrounded by an aroused mob. Deng desperately apologized and wrote recantations, basically saying he was all wrong, and Mao was completely right. But it did not help. Well, it is interesting, because Mao wanted to really get rid of Liu, but he was okay with Deng. What that meant was that Liu was beaten up, badly tortured by the mob, only to die a year later of his wounds. Deng, however, still facing the mobs was removed from the site, and placed into a small, rural village, along with his family, where nobody knew who he was. He did some heavy labor, but he had a lot of time to read and reflect. That really saved his life, and I am not sure how big of a role Mao played in saving his life.
It was the death of Lin Biao, one of the opponents of Deng, that brought Deng back to Beijing. What also helped was that his friend and ally, Zhou Enlai, who was the only Mao critic not to be touched by Mao’s clique, became prime minister, and promoted Deng back to Zhongnanhai. Deng became a leading minister, responsible for foreign affairs. But Zhou became sick in 1975, and he died a few months later of cancer. There are rumors that Mao may have wanted him to die, because he had refused a life-saving surgery for Zhou a few years prior. That was bad news for Deng, because now the Mao clique, which included his wife Jiang Qing, could get rid of Deng. This time Deng anticipated the ire, and fled to a southern province. Fortunately for him, Mao died in September 1976. Jiang Qing had thought her time in power had come, but she was mistaken. Hua Guofeng, Mao’s successor in power, immediately imprisoned her and the rest of the “Gang of Four”. After that Deng could safely return to Beijing, and he was restored all the positions he had lost.
From that point on, the question was how to proceed for the country, because 10 years of Cultural Revolution have retarded the country’s progress, and nobody saw that clearer than Deng. Now unhindered by the Maoist faction, Deng skillfully climbed to the top job in the party, though he never formally was president or prime minister. He led the country through the reforms. The most important part was to “let some get rich first”, as he said it. But I have to say that it would be an exaggeration to claim that he was a pure capitalist. I doubt such a person existed anywhere in the world. Deng still believed in socialism, and he was very critical of some people getting tremendously rich while many were lagging behind in poverty. He made many speeches on that even while the economic reforms he endorsed were carried out. But he still wanted those reforms, because he could not envision socialism if the country remained poor. And going back to Singapore and perhaps Taiwan even, he saw that ethnic Chinese countries have the capacity to become affluent. If you look at the Chinese diaspora anywhere, you will see widespread economic success. The Chinese knew what entrepreneurship and capitalism is. So the ambition of the people were not the problem, but the legal and economic framework. And so that is what he set out to change.
One pillar of his reform program was the privatization of the state-owned enterprises, such that they receive fewer central state subsidies and became more reliant on market forces. Some businesses failed, others prospered. Another part was designating special economic zones, where favorable tax laws and financial incentives for foreign investors should bring in industries and much needed jobs. There are plenty of precedents of that in Japan, Korea or Taiwan. Another part was the mechanization of agriculture, such that with increased productivity they could feed the whole population and focus on industrial development. It was overall much better managed than the transition in the Soviet Union, which had led to pure crony capitalism. Now, you have crony capitalism in China as well. Everyone knows about the pervasiveness of guanxi, or relationships between businessmen and politicians to the detriment of the broader public, but that is only one small element in China’s development, as long as there is significant progress in the overall developmental scheme. You don’t have that in the oil state of Russia, where all of the gains of privatization went to the oligarchs, and no one cared a at all about overall development.
So Deng was overseeing this whole operation, and for the fact that China is a lot richer today than it was before, many political analysts and historians will be grateful for what he had done. But there are no doubt many challenges today that did not exist before the opening, such as enormous inequality, pervasive corruption, and significant environmental degradation.
One of the things for which Deng will be negatively remembered for is his hard-line stance on the Tiananmen protesters in 1989. Deng really thought that you could save the Communist party over the long term only via the economic opening reforms, but he did not anticipate that those same reforms create the very opposition against the regime that he so much feared. Why? Because as the country gets richer, people will demand more rights, and that is precisely what they have done. Some people would say that he had done the right thing in cracking down, because the regime needed stability if it wanted to enact the reforms without interruption. You could have had a more communist party get back to power and reverse the reform efforts or something like that. But I don’t think that stability and reform progress are a trade-off. It is very much possible to have both. In any case, I think there is a political bottleneck that is building up over time, and many young people, who are so cleverly evading the internet firewall and are on the social networking sites all of the time, will want to see some serious political reforms and freedoms, and there is nothing the regime can do about it to stop it.
I: After making a grand survey of Hakka political leaders, is there a grand resume or conclusion that you can make? What role do you see them play in the future?
L: What you can tell is that the Hakkas have produced many capable leaders, and I argued that this is so, because of the institutional and historical constraints that they have faced, which created a desire to make things better for themselves, and certainly for the whole community as well. You can see a great variety of political families that have grown out of the Hakka people, and I don’t see why and how this should change at any time in the future. Sure, political dynasties can be very unstable. The Chiang’s ruled Taiwan for two generations, the Kim’s are in North Korea in the third generation, Park’s are in the second generation in South Korea, though discontinuously, Lee’s are in the second generation in Singapore. Who knows what is going to happen, and who will emerge from the inevitable conflict over the scarce top jobs in the political sphere.