The Times Blog posts an excerpt from a speech to the United Nations by Deng Xiaoping in April 1974:
If capitalism is restored in a big socialist country, it will inevitably become a superpower. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which has been carried out in China in recent years, and the campaign of criticizing Lin Piao and Confucius now under way throughout China, are both aimed at preventing capitalist restoration and ensuring that socialist China will never change her colour and will always stand by the oppressed peoples and oppressed nations. If one day China should change her colour and turn into a superpower, if she too should play the tyrant in the world, and everywhere subject others to her bullying, aggression and exploitation, the people of the world should identify her as social-imperialism, expose it, oppose it and work together with the Chinese people to overthrow it.
Simon Elegant labels this excerpt as “a(n) amazingly prescient look at the future from the man himself”.
I must admit that I find such an approach to history stupid. It would be OK to quote from Deng’s speech, and try to find a perspective to look at it. That’s what it takes if you want to portray the man and the moment.
Thomas Nipperdey, probably not a very progressive historian, but a historian anyway, said this about how historians should view and try to understand the past:
Wir müssen den vergangenen Generationen das zurückgeben, was sie einmal besaßen, so wie jede Gegenwart es besitzt: die Fülle der möglichen Zukunft, die Ungewißheit, die Freiheit, die Endlichkeit, die Widersprüchlichkeit (…)
We must restitute to past generations what they once possessed, just as every present tense is in its possession: the abundance of a possible future, the uncertainty, the freedom, the finiteness, the inconsistency (…)
This kind of restitution – anyway, that’s my understanding of it – refers to how to assess our ancestors’, and older generation’s choices, hopes and fears. As for the days when they made their decisions (and speeches), they spoke in frameworks of their own where they tried to foresee the future, where they tried to avoid bad choices (whatever they considered bad at the time). And when talking about freedom, we should also think of how their freedom’s were limited. We should remember that Deng Xiaoping in 1974 was his master’s voice rather than an independent voice, and that his master was Mao Zedong (we don’t usually credit Mao with a lot of good judgment in his later years, do we?). Deng was there, not here.
No doubt – what Deng said then, pretty much in contrast to the process he helped to start about half a decade later or to China as it is today, is fascinating. China – democratic or not – may actually become the kind of superpower which this excerpt from Deng’s 1970s speech would suggest.
But neither Hu Jintao’s speeches now (suggesting a happy future and friendly relations with developing countries) nor Deng Xiaoping’s speech back then should be taken as reliable forecasts. Frankly, to take a somewhat more telling look into the future, it takes much more than just a glimpse into the United Nations’ archives. It’s too early to tell if what we have seen of China in developing countries so far will lead to an era of ”bullying, aggression and exploitation”. Granted - China’s role in Africa or southern neighboring countries doesn’t look particularly auspicious, but has hardly been big enough so far for such a damning verdict yet. We should be prepared for good and bad scenarios concerning China, but voodoo science isn’t good enough for that.
If a blog post referred to Taiwan (Tibet, too) to predict the future, I believe it could make a more convincing point than this.
A video with much of Deng’s speech on April 10, 1974 can be found at mofile.com*) (it may take more than two minutes to load, but there is no need at the moment to click anything to register there). A (maybe accurate and complete) written English version is here.
*) Update [Mar 22, 2010]: no longer available – the link used to be http://tv.mofile.com/FQ6ZDZGW/