A billboard of Deng Xiaoping in the Shenzen Special Economic Zone

A billboard of Deng Xiaoping in the Shenzen Special Economic Zone

In the early 1960s China was leaving the Great Leap Forward, an intensive push by the new Communist goverment to modernise and industrialise their economy. The promise was clear: to radically improve the Chinese economy by tapping into the enormous population and to create a cohesive communist society. By 1961 the program had failed and resulted in mass starvation, in part driven by a collapse in grain production caused by collectivisation.

At this time, a senior leader in the Communist party, Deng Xiaoping, argued against ideologically-driven economic planning and for pragmatic economic reforms to alleviate the disaster.

“It doesn’t matter whether it is a white cat or a black cat, a cat that catches mice is a good cat.” Deng Xiaoping, 1961.

Fast forward 40 years, and China is indeed transformed. According to a cheeky game on the Economist’s website, China will become the world’s largest economy as soon as 2018. How has China done it? Who thrived in this transformation and how did they do it?

Gu Kailai in happy times

Gu Kailai in happy times

One idea comes from a powerful Chinese woman, Gu Kailai. According to the FT, she “was a successful and glamorous lawyer married to one of the rising starts of China’s Communist party.” To give you an idea of her reach in China at her peak, she lead a high-profile US court case that was dramatised as a soap opera in China. Naturally, she joined the TV show’s cast. Of course now she is in jail, convicted of a murder of a British businessman. But at her peak, what was her philosophy?

“It doesn’t matter whether you are a black rat or a white rat. As long as the cat doesn’t catch you, you are a good rat.” Gu Kailai, in her book Uphold Justice in America c1997. (Quote from FT)

The inversions from Deng’s framing are telling. We aren’t cats, we are rodents. We no longer clean the world, we thrive on its garbage. We no longer bring order, we thrive on chaos. We don’t plan the exercise of power, we plan how to get around power. And according to Gu: to avoid blame, you have to win. This illustrates her downfall- she stopped winning, and so she got the blame.

To western ears, this naked power-worship sounds Machiavellian and crass; to be exercised only by those at the edge of respectability. But we live comfortable lives in comfortable countries, where famine happened 400 years ago, not 40.

What are the lessons of success, business and achievement that Chinese people share with Gu and take from this story? How do these lessons play out in everyday life and everyday decisions?