Saturday, June 11, 2011

Reforming US and China: The Case of Obama vs. Deng

Reforming US and China: Obama vs. Deng

President Obama was elected on a platform of radical- economic, political, social, and in time cultural - changes.

Thus far, Obama appears to be serving up much of the same policies as Bush did – protective of the financial industry, aggressive on the anti-terrorism front and dismissive of citizens’ rights, etc.

One of the major complaints with the democratic party base is that Obama has not kept faith with his campaign promise of being ideological pure as a reform leader

A closer look at Obama’s legislative performance and policy actions show that he has been working slowly but methodological, in principle minded and disciplined ways, to advance his agenda; to bring about changes in America, from the bottoms up. The more noteworthy achievements are: the health care reform (much diluted), military withdrawals (much delayed) and legalize anti-terror fights (much compromised).

The question remains, why did President not act in a more resolute, speedy, and radical, or more simply, ideological way to change America in a more fundamental way. As a result, Obama looks weak and indecisive.

The answer is a simple one: as a person Obama holds admirable ideals, as a President Obama is acting pragmatically.

This commentary offers up another way of looking at Obama’s (lack of) performance in office. It argues that before we judge Obama, weak or strong, successful or unsuccessful, we should compare Obama with one of the most successful reformer in the world, i.e., that of Deng Xiaoping of China.

Deng Xiaoping, the putative father of Chinese reform, is credited with transforming China from a primitive economy to a developed one.

In terms of historical background, PRC governance is ideologically anchored, centrally planned, and personality driven. The Chinese modernization reform has effectively destroyed Communist ideology, eroding Party leadership and diminishing personality cult in the process.

The ideology and leadership void left by Mao is filled by Deng Xiaoping’s thought. Deng Xiaoping’s thought provided direction, e.g., securing “people democratic dictatorship” (“renmin minzhu zhuanzheng”), inspiration, e.g., reforming through “liberating the mind” (“jiefang sixiang”), doctrine, e.g., social reconstruction by “progressive policy decision making” (“jian jin juece”), and methods, e.g., hold elected officials accountable to “mass line” (“qunzhong luxian”). Specifically, Deng advocates "building socialism with Chinese characteristics".

Other relevant Deng’s doctrines guiding reform include: “emancipation of the mind” (from old) and “seeks truth from facts” (to new) to liberate new China from the stricture of old ideology in search of new ideas of all kinds, “democratic dictatorship” to put class enemies in check, “crossing the river by touching the stones” in calling for incremental and experimental reform, and “white cat, black cat, and the one that catch the mice is a cat” to conduct reform with pragmatism, i.e., by result.

In pursuing reform, Deng sought radical departure from old way of thinking and doing and preached bold new approaches to established ways and means.

Deng is a doer, not thinker. He is a consummate politician, not a romantic ideologue. He is a practitioner, not theoretician. Deng articulated a number of ideas on how to reform China, but offered no comprehensive theory or master plan to achieved them. In this, Deng is a pragmatist not an ideologue.

Except for insisting on stability and dictatorship, Deng’s theory of reform is open to all kinds of ideas and willing to experiment with anything that might work. Deng’s lack of ideological interest and attachment to pragmatic practices leaves the people in the dark as to what to expect, other than love the Party and money talks.

Deng’s reform policy, justified on pragmatic grounds, is not properly anchored ideologically or clearly explained theoretically. It is difficult to comprehend, still more to apply in practice. This has led a Chinese observer to observe, “In the case of contemporary China, the regime’s ideology is bankrupt. The transition from a socialist to a quasi market economy has created a great deal of social unrest. And the regime relies heavily on coercion to repress political and religious dissent.”

Thus, one of the more challenging problems confronting and confounding Chinese reformers is in seeking an understanding of what “socialism with Chinese Characteristics” portents and entails, in theory and practice. This creates problems in planning and implementing, researching and validating, explaining and understanding, assessing and improving Chinese reform.

As far as bringing about changes to America, Obama acts more like Deng, than Bush (single minded (America right or wrong), narrow perspective (do not read newspaper, I do not discuss invading Iraq with my father on earth, but father in heave), dogmatic personality ("I am the decider", inflexible approach (no precondition to negotiation with Korea).

Obama as with Deng speaks the language of an ideologue but act the role of a pragmatist: making changes incrementally, experimentally, and above all else with stability and continuity in mind. Compromise is the game, concession is the rule, and middle ground is the objective.

As reformers, Deng and Obama understand, people love to dream big (to have hope), thus talking up ideology is as important in China (socialism) as in the United States (democracy).

But Deng and Obama also understand, perhaps more so Deng than Obama, people everywhere need bread and butter (“minsheng” in China or a "good life" in the US ) more so than democracy and rights; what good is having rights when people do not have a job.

If you are a social scientist, seeking to proof “good life” is more important than “right governance” you do not need to go too far:

People in China want to be a Party member less (or not) so because they believe in the socialist cause but because being a Party member provides them with power and with it money (corruption).

Turning to America, people in the street know at heart that all the talk about ideology (democracy and equal rights) does not hold up against the reality of the market economy

People need a job for survival. People rarely need the government to do things for them; nowadays all major functions of government are privatized, from security, to ambulance, to mail etc.

Government can be replaced and lawmakers have term limits, but corporations last and last.

One can talk back to the government but never, ever, against the boos. Yet more people are happy with working for dictatorial corporations than being served by democratic government!


The purpose of this commentary is to provide the readers with a new perspective in understanding President Obama as a reformer; to clear up some misconception. Instead of faulting Obama for not delivering as promised or not doing as much as as he can, one should realize what people (all over the world) really want of their government - ruler.

The truth of the matter is: "Man do not live by words alone." In the ultimate analysis and in the real world, Obama is to be judged by deeds (job growth), and not by words(spreading democracy).

Roses are for dating, bread and butter keep a family going. In China there is a saying: "Firewood and rice makes for a marriage." I concede that they are necessary but not sufficient conditions to keep any marriage going.

Now perhaps you understand why Romeo and Juliet is doomed to fail (and fell out of love), and arranged marriages have a higher success rate (in providing for security). In China, as a male, if you do not have a job, a car and a house, you do not get a date, much less getting married. That simple.

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