cat theory: contextualizing deng xiaoping’s pragmatism

The historical background to each of the three guiding theories of early reform —  feel theory, cat theory, and don’t debate theory — illuminate the dialectic of political debate and economic reform in and through China more generally and Shenzhen specifically. Importantly, the moral rhetoric of the debate reminds us that the Chinese revolution and its subsequent transmutations has taken place within the ongoing cultural context of feeding the Chinese people.

Previously, I noted that “feel theory (摸论)” had been part of an early reform debate between more conservative Chen Yun and Deng Xiaoping. Today, a brief history of “cat theory (猫论)”, which appeared in an earlier Party scuffle over the same question: should China integrate capitalist means into socialist production? And, if so, how so and to what extent?

The Great Leap Forward(大跃进) aimed to simultaneously accelerate Chinese agricultural and industrial growth through mass mobilization of rural and urban areas. In rural areas, this meant meeting grain quotas and building “backyard furnaces”.  The goal had been to deploy China’s population to compensate for its lack of industrial infrastructure, but the means were coercion and terror and the result was catastrophic famine.

The Great Leap Forward had been scheduled to run from 1958 through 1963, but was discontinued in 1961, when Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, and Chen Yun presented an 8 character guidelines to rectify the mistakes of the Great Leap: adjustment, consolidate, enrich, and improve (调整、巩固、充实、提高). The debate over how to organize rural production continued through 1962, when Deng Xiaoping advocated the household responsibility system (包产到户) in contrast to Maoist Communes. On July 2, 1962, Deng Xiaoping responded to the question of whether the household responsibility system was capitalist or communist with a Sichuan proverb, “It doesn’t matter what color the mouse as long as it catches rats (不管黄猫黑猫,只要捉住老鼠就是好猫)”.

18 years later, after seizing power from Hua Guofeng and the Gang of Four, Deng Xiaoping returned to the ideas and inspirations of this earlier debate, reasserting economic pragmatism over and against political ideology. One of the key results, of course, was the establishment of Shenzhen and the three other Special Economic Zones. What also remains clear is that Mao asked the right questions, even if his answers often justified brutal inequality and unfreedom.

Economic decisions are political decisions and thus the question facing political leaders is always already moral: what kind of society do we want to build?

reforming rhetoric 1: 摸论

“Feeling stones to cross the river” is one of the more famous sayings of early reform. Western pundits often interpret this phrase as a straight forward description of the uncertainties inherent in reforming the Maoist system and concomitant trepidation about moving toward – what? – xiaokang with capitalist features? However, this expression belongs to a rhetorical form called 歇后语 or two-part analogy, in which the first part is spoken and the speaker’s intended – and often critical – meaning is left unspoken. Paying attention to the unspoken response highlights how conflict and disagreement was handled within Party debate over the direction and scope of reform.

Chen Yun first raised “Feel theory (摸论)” as it became known during a Central Working Conference in December 1980. Importantly, Chen Yun used the two-part analogy to conclude an opinion on how to reform the Maoist apparatus, “…[I]n other words, we need to ‘Feel stones to cross the river’ (也就是要‘摸着石头过河《陈云文选》第3卷第279页)”. In conventional Mandarin, the unspoken critique in this analogy is “tread carefully (步步稳当)”. Later during the Conference, although Deng Xiaoping agreed with Chen’s unvoiced but present call for a more conservative approach to reform and opening, nevertheless, he shifted the discussion by emphasizing pragmatic action.

With “Cat theory (猫论)” and “Don’t debate theory (不争论)”, “Feel theory” became one of the three main principles guiding early reform.