Gerald and Betty Ford meet with Deng Xiaoping, 1975 (David Hume Kennerly [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

On February 25 Chinese state media announced a list of proposed amendments to China’s Constitution that will in all likelihood be adopted at the National People’s Congress (NPC) starting on March 5. One of the the 21 proposed amendments is the abolition of the current limit of two five-year terms for the office of the President and Vice-President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

The controversial move would allow incumbent President Xi Jinping to remain President indefinitely, thus consolidating his position as the most powerful Chinese leader after Mao Zedong. Office terms were introduced in the 1980s as an attempt to institutionalize political succession.

Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s reform and opening up era, opposed the notion of lifelong terms and of personality cult, tendencies which he called “feudal”. He believed that Mao Zedong’s one-man rule was reminiscent of the country’s imperial past. In hindsight, as we shall see in a future article, Deng’s attempts at institutionalizing leadership transition failed because of the very nature of one-party rule.

In 1980 Deng gave an interview to Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci at a time when he was striving to overcome the painful legacy of the Cultural Revolution and of Mao’s absolute rule. Below are some excerpts from the interview which highlight Deng’s desire to prevent the emergence of a Mao-like strongman. They also show the contradictions of Deng’s thought as well as the tension between the need to institutionalize political power and the hierarchical, top-to-bottom structure of the Communist political model.

We must make a clear distinction between the nature of Chairman Mao’s mistakes and the crimes of Lin Biao and the Gang of Four. For most of his life, Chairman Mao did very good things. Many times he saved the Party and the state from crises. Without him the Chinese people would, at the very least, have spent much more time groping in the dark. Chairman Mao’s greatest contribution was that he applied the principles of Marxism-Leninism to the concrete practice of the Chinese revolution, pointing the way to victory.

It should be said that before the 1960s or the late 1950s many of his ideas brought us victories, and the fundamental principles he advanced were quite correct. He creatively applied Marxism-Leninism to every aspect of the Chinese revolution, and he had creative views on philosophy, political science, military science, literature and art, and so on. Unfortunately, in the evening of his life, particularly during the “Cultural Revolution,” he made mistakes – and they were not minor ones – which brought many misfortunes upon our Party, our state, and our people …

[V]ictoy made him less prudent, so that in his later years some unsound features and unsound ideas, chiefly “Left” ones, began to emerge. In quite a number of instances he went counter to his own ideas, counter to the fine and correct propositions he had previously put forward, and counter to the style of work he himself had advocated. At this time he increasingly lost touch with reality. He didn’t maintain a good style of work. He did not consistently practice democratic centralism and the mass line, for instance, he failed to institutionalize them during his lifetime … 

Some abnormalities appeared in the political life of our party and state – patriarchal ways or styles of work developed, and glorification of the individual was rife

So far as Chairman Mao’s own hopes were concerned, he initiated the “Cultural Revolution” in order to avert the restoration of capitalism, but he had made an erroneous assessment of China’s actual situation. In the first place the targets of the revolution were wrongly defined, which led to the effort to ferret out “capitalist roaders in power in the Party.”

Blows were dealt at leading cadres at all levels who had made contributions to the revolution and had political experience … On the other hand [the Cultural Revolution] was taken advantage of by the two counterrevolutionary cliques headed by Lin Biao and the Gang of Four … 

For a leader to pick his own successor is a feudal practice. It is an illustration of the imperfections in our institutions…

We will make an objective assessment of Chairman Mao’s contributions and his mistakes. We will reaffirm that his contributions are primary and his mistakes secondary … 

Not only did Mao Zedong Thought lead us to victory in the revolution in the past; it is – and will continue to be – a treasured possession of the Chinese Communist Party and of our country … and we will always remember him as a founder of our Party and state. Moreover, we will adhere to Mao Zedong Thought. We will not do to Chairman Mao what Krushchev did to Stalin.

[Mao’s unwillingness to listen to other Party members reflects] patriarchal ways which are feudal in nature. He did not really listen to differing opinions. We can’t say that all his criticisms were wrong. But neither was he ready to listen to many correct opinions put forward not only by me but by other comrades. 

Democratic centralism was impaired, and so was collective leadership. Otherwise, it would be hard to explain how the “Cultural Revolution” broke out. 

Asked how terrible things like the Cultural Revolution could be avoided in the future, Deng Xiaoping replied:

This issue has to be addressed by tackling the problems in our institutions. Some of those we established in the past were, in fact, tainted by feudalism, as manifested in such things as the personality cult, the patriarchal ways or styles of work and the life tenure of cadres in leading posts.

We are now looking into ways to prevent such things from recurring and are preparing to start with the restructuring of our institutions.

Our country has a history of thousands of years of feudalism and is still lacking in socialist democracy and socialist legality. here were previously no relevant rules. In fact, however, there was life tenure in leading posts. This does not facilitate the renewal of leadership or the promotion of younger people. 

(Deng Xiaoping, Answers to the Italian Journalist Oriana Fallaci, 1980, quoted in: The China Reader – The Reform Era, eds. Orville Schell, David Shambaugh, 1999, pp. 30-35).

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