Marxian economics and Deng Xiaoping: Transforming China to an Industrial Powerhouse


China’s industrial revolution is perhaps the most remarkable economic and political trajectory that was taken by a nation. At the heart of such a dramatic growth lies Deng Xiaoping, a central figure who pioneered China’s transition from Maoist ideologies to his own political ideology (“Deng Xiaoping Theory”). His body of work is most notably characterized by a socialist ideology with free enterprise, which intrinsically presents Marxism-Leninism qualities. The origins of such thought can be traced back to Deng’s early education as an overseas student, ranging from France to the Soviet Union. In this paper, Deng’s remarkable transformation of modern China into an industrial powerhouse will be explored through the lens of his early experiences in overseas studies, specifically on how they informed his bottom-up proletariat-first approach, private ownership and responsibility, and the open-door policy for globalization.

Deng’s early experiences in France and his exposure to the communist movement inspired his policy to center economic planning with the bottom-up proletariat-first approach. Although Deng and other overseas students in France at the time were mostly from affluent families in China, they were placed in the working class with often humiliating treatments. Not yet seventeen and just five feet tall, Deng was assigned to a job in the Schneider ordnance factory that involved using large metal pincers and “pull[ing] large mass of molten steel out of blast furnaces with flames pouring out” (Vogel, 20). The strenuous nature of the factory job made Deng quit after three weeks and go through a series of other jobs to accumulate funds to enroll at the local college Chatillon-sur-Seine. Yet, his funds were insufficient to enroll at the college, which led to Deng’s realization of the struggles of the proletariat working class.

From experiencing the role of the proletariat first-hand, Deng devoted himself to improving the economic conditions of the working class. During the fourth industrial revolution, Deng adopted a humble and gradualist approach to the economic reforms, employing a bottom-up approach that started from the low-capital agriculture industry instead of in the high-capital financial sector. This approach included moving up the industrial ladder, from “labor-intensive to capital-intensive production with massive government support for infrastructure buildup” (Wen). This sequential buildup from the proletariat class reflects that of Deng’s experience as a proletariat himself, notably shown by the self-criticism he wrote as he arrived in Moscow: “In his self-criticism, he vowed to give up his class origin and to dedicate his life to being a disciplined, obedient member of the proletariat class” (Vogel, 23).

After escaping France due to the government’s oppression of his propaganda, Deng in the Soviet Union continued his communist learning influenced by the National Economic Policy (NEP). Under the NEP, “independent farmers, as well as business entities, were encouraged to prosper while the socialist economy was beginning to develop” (Vogel, 25). For Deng, such an economic structure where private enterprise was allowed to flourish rather than being restrained by the central government was appealing. The sense of ownership and independent financial interests that the non-bourgeois class had allowed the market economy to form, all under Communist leadership. Such ideas were reinforced by his time at the Sun Yat-sen University, where Deng took a full schedule of courses including the works of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, with classes on historical materialism, economic geography, and more.

The influence of NEP’s economic structure on Deng’s policy is later shown through the idea of private ownership in the Deng Xiaoping theory. Rooted in classical Marxism, private ownership was adopted to “promote commodity production for the market, the existence of a private sector, and the reliance of the profit motive in enterprise management” (Hsu). These economic forces improved productivity and modernized the means of production. This idea appropriately stems from Marx’s “Theory of the productive forces”, where the productive forces such as technology and enterprise are the precondition for effective socialism. In China’s context, Deng sought to promote manufacturing and agriculture as the productive forces to drive free-market competition under communist control. Through this, a delicate balance between capitalism and socialism is achieved, wherein capitalism is a means to accelerate economic production but the distribution of goods is ultimately governed by the central Communist Party.

Not only Deng’s domestic policy but also his vision for China’s international involvement was shaped through his early experiences abroad. During his time in France, Deng was quick to rise up the ranks of the European Communist organization under the tutelage of Zhou Enlai. Zhou, six years his senior, met radicals in Japan and England and had an exceptional “sense of strategy and ability to get diverse people to work together” across the globe (Vogel, 22). Through him, Deng was able to acquire a broad understanding of the Communist movement and the role of international dynamics in building a nation. His friendly attitude towards other nations was shown later during his time at Sun Yat-sen University, where Deng was “praised for his strong sense of discipline and acknowledging the need to obey the leaders” from the Soviet Communist Party, “[acting] like a comrade in his relations with others” (Vogel, 24).

The strong sense of obedience towards authority and an affinity towards globalization led to Deng’s principle of the open door policy. Before the introduction of the open-door policy in late 1978, the incomes of ordinary Chinese were noticeably low in comparison to that of other Asian countries, calling for significant economic growth. Deng acknowledged the importance of international involvement in accelerating economic growth and sought the active introduction of foreign capital and technology while maintaining its commitment to socialism. The government subsequently established a number of areas for foreign investment, including the “special economic zones, open coastal cities, the economic and technology development zones” (Kobayashi). By simultaneously promoting its socialist market economy, it instigated an entrepreneurial boom and massive inflows of foreign capital that translated its vast pre-existing labor resources into rapid economic growth and venture businesses. Evidently, the socialist spirit coupled with the globalization effort is aptly described as a consequence of Deng’s training under Zhou Enlai and his Marxist studies.

Deng Xiaoping was undoubtedly the prominent figure that led the economic transformation of modern China. His early experiences in France and the Soviet Union formulated his political philosophy largely reflected by Marxist ideas, where Deng’s policies illustrated through the Deng Xiaoping Theory streamlined China’s fast economic growth. Through a combination of a bottom-up proletariat-first approach, private ownership through controlled capitalism, and the open-door policy for globalization, Deng’s legacy in his nation is indeed the central bastion that secures China as of today’s industrial powerhouse.

Works Cited:

Hsu, Robert, “Economic theories in China, 1979–1988”, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Kobayashi, S., Baobab, J., Sano, J., “The Three Reforms in China: Progress and Outlook”, Sakura Institute of Research, Inc., №45, September 1999.

Vogel, Ezra F. Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013.

Wen, Yi., “China’s Rapid Rise: From Backward Agrarian Society to Industrial Powerhouse in Just 35 Years”, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, April 11, 2016.