Chinese Pragmatism in Ideology and Policy

Practice is the sole criterion of truth.” (Deng Xiaoping, 1978)

The problem with truth is that it is fundamentally malleable. Truth can be considered as the material present; it can also be considered the desired present; likewise as both the material and the desired past. It is this ambiguity surrounding the concept of truth that has dominated political discourse in China over the last 60 years. Both ideology and policy, namely under Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, have been shaped by ‘truth’ – that is, both the desired and the material forms of truth. Both leaders in that sense have been distinctly pragmatic in their application of theory to ideology and policy, i.e. material experience shaped the philosophy of both leaders. The problem is that, despite their pragmatism, both Mao and Deng completely circled the practice/truth equation, to end up precisely where they began – with failed practice and faulty truth.

Mao Zedong, Marxism and Maoism 

mao_zedong_by_shitalloverhumanity-d5fv5r8Mao’s journey through the theoretical wilderness began in the mid-1920s, when the Republic of China was still youthful. The young communist was a believer in two mutually contradictory concepts: the abstract socio-economic theories of Karl Marx, and the revolutionary capacity of the hundreds of millions of Chinese peasants. Mao’s discontent with pure Marxism led him, over the course of 20 years, to redesign the revolutionary theories to suit the Chinese experience – thus adhering to the concept of practice as the sole criterion of truth. Mao, of course, worked on the assumption that his theories would produce acceptable, concrete truth.

However, this certainly was not the case. As leader of the PRC, Mao instigated long-term policies, such as the Great Leap Forward (GLF, 1958-61), that were fundamentally based on his redesigned theories. This in essence was hypocritical;  the GLF was not an evidence-based policy, but an attempt to harness the potential of China’s huge population and propel the country from semi-socialism/advanced agrarianism into full communism, based on abstract theory: his own interpretations of Marxism. Mao’s 1949 revolution had not produced the ‘truth’, or reality, that he and the CCP had desired, and so, in contradiction of previous discourse, Mao and the political elite manipulated their perception of the ‘truth’ in order to maintain communist dogma. This was a tactic that Mao had expressly stated would not be pursued.

Deng Xiaoping, Socialism and Capitalism

DengIn a similar manner to Mao, Deng’s policies were distinctly pragmatic when he rose to power in 1978. Labelled ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’, his programmes recognised that in order for China to develop appropriately, it must open its economy to the world market and remove the restrictions that Mao had placed upon it. This was a prime, material example of the philosophy contained within Deng’s quote, “Practice is the sole criterion of truth”. China has since been described as fostering a ‘state-capitalist’ economy, although it is still uncertain as to what form it will take in future years.

This latter point is mainly due to the notion that, in true liberal ideology, once economic liberalism takes root, political liberalism will surely follow soon after: that once the population of China had experienced the effects of market liberalisation, their desire for further freedom in politics and society was bound to develop. This is apparent in the rhetoric surrounding the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and indeed the violent retaliation of the Chinese governmental forces. It is interesting to note that it was recently leaked that the CCP maintain that no civilians were killed at the protests. Also, public remembrance of the event is banned in China. Thus, discontented with the reality of the effects of his policies, Deng chose to recreate ‘truth’ in his own image, once again, as Mao had done, contradicting the notion of his famous quote.


Again, the notion of ‘truth’ must be reconsidered. The simultaneous existence of pragmatism and idealism in the ideologies and policies of both Mao and Deng suggests that ‘truth’ for the CCP and ‘truth’ for the common Chinese were, perhaps are, very separate concepts. As the Chinese economy becomes more and more economically liberal, it will be interesting to see how far the CCP will be willing to go to defend its monopoly on political discourse. How many more Tiananmen Square incidents will occur is to be seen. For now, it can be concluded that practice is the sole criterion of truth, until truth does not equal the government ideal; which was much the case in China under both Mao and Deng.


Schram, Stuart, 1969. The Political Thought of Mao Tse-tung. London: Pall Mall

Chan, Adrian, 2003. Chinese Marxism. London: Continuum

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