Deng Zhenglai was a political scientist and a scholar of jurisprudence and political philosophy.
Shortly after Deng Zhenglai’s death on 24 January 2013, his friend, the legal scholar He Weifang 贺卫方 wrote on his microblog ‘May Wu Liang Ye and Hayek be waiting for Deng Zhenglai in heaven’ (但愿天堂里有哈耶克和五粮液陪着邓正来), which summed up the Chinese sociologist’s two passions: expensive Chinese liquor and radical liberalism. While there has been speculation that the former contributed to Deng’s succumbing to stomach cancer at the age of fifty-six, the latter is generally recognized as his claim to fame in Chinese academia.
Often credited with introducing the fundamentalist capitalist thinking of Friedrich Hayek to China, Deng is best known for devoting over a decade translating the collected works of the Austrian thinker, whose ideas reshaped the Chinese intellectual mind in the post-Cultural Revolution era. In the 1980s, when China dithered at the historical crossroads, Hayek offered a refreshing perspective for those who were seeking an alternative to the country’s sclerotic Marx-Leninism (see Qiu Feng 秋风, 懂哈耶克的人走了——纪念邓正来).
Born in Shanghai, Deng’s earlier life was a tale of Dickensian misery. At the age of ten, his family was expelled from the metropolis and moved to Sichuan where at fourteen he started working at a local factory. Over the following years, Deng operated lathes while educating himself largely by reading pilfered books. Against all odds he went to college for postgraduate study, yet upon graduation he gave up his degree to tread the uncharted path that led to his independent scholarship. At a time when all college graduates were allocated assigned state jobs, such a move was nothing less than social suicide. Over the following decade, Deng shunned government institutions to retain his intellectual independence. And what a cost he had to pay for it: he often had to shop around among Beijing basements for cheaper rents, and even slept at subway stations. Reflecting on his early life, he said that the experience of being a fourteen-year-old lathe operator planted the first seeds of doubt about communist propaganda in his mind: at school, he was told that child labor only existed in pre-1949 China. Such ironies forged the skepticism that he would use to dissect and thoroughly examine China’s social sciences (see 邓正来：学术与人生).
Independence being his life philosophy, Deng also expanded this approach into his academic work. An advocate of academic nativism, he urged Chinese scholars to shed the Western-centric worldview resulting from ‘Westernization’ 西化 in an effort to recover and rediscover ‘China’ creating thereby their own vision of the ideal social order. This, he would argue, was a necessity to raise the profile and quality of social sciences in China as well as to enable Chinese scholars to converse with their Western counterparts on equal terms. The big challenge, as he pointed out in his ‘Rethinking the Autonomy of Chinese Social Sciences’ 关于中国社会科学自主性的再思考, is that Chinese social sciences studies are never a spontaneous and purely intellectual endeavor, but are rather mass-produced and dictated from the top down, reflective more of the government’s own taste and will than of scholars’ individual interests or the demands of real issues. In this sense, he argued, most Chinese scholars are c-conspirators who have traded their independence for material gain.
Deng prescribed ‘civilian scholarship’ 学在民间 (see 邓正来:“学在民间”与中国社会科学的发展). After establishing China’s first non-governmental social sciences journal in 1987, he steadfastly promoted the cause of encouraging more non-governmental scholars to participate in social sciences studies. In the same vein, he also hosted a social sciences study group of interested volunteers who met regularly to read and critique Western social sciences classics. Deng also established a social sciences website to give expression to his vision that China needs a civil society that is both independent of and counters its all-powerful government.
Despite being deeply influenced by Western liberalism, Deng disappointed some Chinese liberals as not being far enough to the right. He refused to accept the Western democratic political system as the ultimate arrangement for China, suggesting that the promise of China’s future was embedded in its own rich experience (‘我们必须在西方自由民主模式之外拓展中国民主转型的想象空间‘). Deng’s interpretation of Hayek has also been criticised for his selective neglect of the thinker’s defense of liberalism, to which he retorted that one should not mix Hayek the ideologist with Hayek the original thinker. While the majority of Chinese readers tend to focus on the latter, Deng argued that the former is far more valuable for the wellbeing Chinese social sciences. He even claimed that he was not a Hayekian in the sense that he was not interested in Hayek’s cause as much as discovering and applying Hayek’s way of thinking to illuminate the issues of contemporary China. That, as well as his frequent dismissals of Western cultural hegemony, drew criticism from the right. Xue Yong 薛涌, a Chinese scholar living in the US, criticized Deng for hypocrisy in his criticism of the West culture hegemony. The very concept of West culture hegemony, Xue argued, is itself an invention of the very Western culture that Deng criticized (see 曹保印：邓正来先生访谈记).
Deng’s death triggered a deluge of praise for his integrity and contributions to Chinese social sciences. But these beg the question: What is his legacy? Deng’s efforts to popularise social sciences studies bore little real fruit – the dream to build an independent social sciences institute on a par with the official China Academy of Social Sciences remained but a dream, and the social sciences journal he founded has been long defunct. Even his cherished spirit of independence was compromised (see 驳张文显《邓正来其人其事》). After two decades opting out of the government-controlled system, in 2003 Deng took a teaching job at Jilin University (on the condition that the university would not bother him with administrative chores). He died as the dean of Fudan University’s Social Sciences Advanced Study Institute (see 邓正来告别学术江湖).