Deng's Revolution

Five days after the tiananmen massacre, deng xiaoping reappeared in public. As any autocrat in his situation would have,he condemned the student demonstrators and praised the troops who had crushed them. But it was another part of Deng's speech that proved more significant: a vow that China would not again become a ""closed country,'' and an affirmation that his program of economic liberalization would go forward. Government leaders, he declared, would not go ""back to the old days of trampling the economy to death.''

Did Deng himself realize the irony of talking about ""trampling,'' even as the bodies of the Beijing massacre were barely cold? Reformer and despot, a man whose life spanned the reaches of modern Chinese history, he leaves behind a contradictory legacy. ""His mind is round and his actions square,'' Mao Zedong once said. During his decade and a half as China's ""paramount leader,'' his program of radical economic change transformed life for one fifth of the world's population. They live in the fastest-growing economy--while still living under a repressive Leninist regime.

Few major societies have succeeded in making such a significant and yet largely peaceful transformation. It is unthinkable that the country could return to its previous state of Maoist collectivization and isolation. But despite Deng's economic miracle, important aspects of China are increasingly unresolved. The gap between rich and poor yawns ever wider. Official corruption is rampant. The military operates beyond civilian control. The country is awash with migrant labor. Rapid development has created almost terminal environmental problems. The repudiation of traditional and socialist values has left a moral and spiritual vacuum. The Chinese Communist Party is still propped up by a secret police and military. There is no independent judiciary and the state maintains a vast prison system all too often used to silence political opponents.

Handling the rise of a great power swollen with nationalist sentiment is always delicate; China today presents a particular dilemma for Washington. How does the West encourage--and profit from--the country's economic boom, while gently--or not so gently--letting Beijing know what the rules are for civilized global superpowers? ""Containment'' sounds reasonable and is a word that U.S. hard-liners are saying with increasing frequency and volume. But it probably isn't practical, and the mere mention of it only excites the nationalism of China's own hard-liners. The Clinton administration seems to have found a low-key compromise. But in the end, whether China becomes America's friend or foe may depend less on what Washington does than on what happens within China itself.

That Deng left behind a paradox is understandable: the revolutionary commitment he acquired while serving the Communist Party merged with the pragmatism he developed from observing--and suffering from--the political upheaval of Mao's later years. Deng's resistance to pure ideology and his ability to moderate his political ambitions allowed him to survive so long at the center of power. He came to be known as xiao pingzi, or ""the little bottle,'' a pun on his name that alluded both to his ability to bob back up after each of the numerous purges he suffered and to his 4-foot-11-inch height.

So diminutive was Deng that when he sat back in a large chair, his feet dangled off the floor. He had none of the charisma (or sexual adventurism) of Mao. Instead he was an ardent family man, with two sons and three daughters. He was an obsessive--and crafty--bridge player. He chain-smoked Panda-brand cigarettes until his fingers were stained brown, and he had no compunction about spitting in public. He was known for bursts of impatience and anger, but also for his straightforward manner. He had no time for charm. In her biography, ""Deng Xiaoping, My Father,'' his daughter Deng Maomao wrote, ""Father is an introvert and a man of few words . . . Even we, his family, know little of his past.''

HE WAS BORN IN BAI-FANG village, in Sichu-an province, on Aug. 22, 1904, to a well-to-do landowner. At the time, the country was in decline. ""We felt that China was weak, and we wanted to make it strong,'' he later remembered. ""We thought the way to do it was through modernization. So we went to the West to learn.'' It was in Paris that he became permanently enamored of croissants--and communism.

Upon returning home, his resolve was quickly tested. Persecuted by Chiang Kai-shek, Deng and other Marxists went underground, ultimately following Mao to the hills to rally the peasantry. Deng was reborn as a believer in Mao's doctrine of peasant revolution--which brought on his first fall from grace. Pro-Moscow elements in the party denounced him; he was briefly jailed. But in what would foreshadow the pattern of his political life, Deng hung on until allies got him rehabilitated. When Chiang Kai-shek's troops forced the Red Army to set off on the Long March, Deng went with them. Asked by his daughter what he did on this harrowing journey, he modestly replied, ""Just followed.'' By the time the remnants of Mao's forces finally ended their 6,000-mile trek, Deng was exhausted and ill with typhoid. But he had become close to Mao.

Sent by his mentor to help run the ""government'' that controlled large parts of north China, Deng saw how abstract policies affected real people. Such programs as his ""great production movement,'' aimed at increasing harvests by rewarding hard work, were a sign of things to come. So was Deng's experience after liberation in 1949, when he set out to enact land reform in Sichuan province. He knew of--and perhaps ordered--the execution of thousands of landlords. It was a firsthand look at the most brutal side of Mao's revolution and the ""class struggle'' on which it fed.

Deng's loyalty soon brought him into the party's inner circle. But his relationship with Mao became uneasy. In the winter of 1956, Deng traveled to Moscow for a Party Congress--where Nikita Khrushchev stunned bloc leaders by attacking Stalin's cult of personality. The problem for Deng was not just that Stalin was still venerated in China, but that Mao himself nurtured a similar cult. Simply put, the next two decades of Chinese politics revolved around a struggle between those who supported Mao's cult of personality and those who feared it.

These were also perilous times for dissent. In 1957, when Mao called on the country's intelligentsia to criticize official policy, letting ""a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend,'' Deng did not embrace the movement. In his view, when official policies needed correction, they should be rectified from within the party, not from below. Deng played a key role when Mao finally decided to crack down.

Mao's next fevered move to push China into socialism was the Great Leap Forward to communize agriculture. Rather than relying on technocrats and intellectuals, whom he now distrusted, Mao turned to the revolutionary enthusiasm of the ""masses.'' Once again, Deng found himself between those who supported and those who resisted Mao's magnificent madness. Although Deng did not dare outwardly oppose Mao, he was learning to distrust ideological extremism. He occupied himself with the nuts-and-bolts work of revitalizing the party organization and the country's battered economy. It was during this period that he first enunciated his pragmatic dictum, ""White cat, black cat: what does it matter as long as it catches mice?'' He returned to the idea of rewarding initiative by reintroducing private plots of land, sideline businesses and the expansion of free markets.

When Deng went back to the U.S.S.R. in 1960, he berated the Russians for their sudden withdrawal of support from China. Mao had warned Khrushchev, ""Don't underestimate that little fellow.'' Deng's Moscow trip gave him a broader world view than the hidebound, anti-cosmopolitan Mao had.

Then came the Cultural Revolution and Mao's increasingly savage attacks on Party moderates. His weaponwas the newly formed Red Guards, young students filled with Maoist ardor, whose murderous spontaneity underscored the Great Helmsman's fascination with ""revolutionary'' upheaval. Deng quietly sought to contain the call for class struggle--and Mao counterattacked. Although Mao had been Deng's main patron since the 1930s, he now allowed Deng to be labeled China's ""No. 2 capitalist roader.'' In October 1966 Deng was forced to make a humiliating self-criticism. ""Now as I sit for the first time before the mirror and behold myself closely, a chill runs down my spine,'' he confessed. He was purged from the leadership circle of the party he had served for more than 40 years.

But it could have been worse. Deng was only shipped off to Jiangxi province, confined in an infantry school and forced to work at a tractor-repair factory. ""Chairman Mao protected me,'' he later said. Such protection was not extended to his eldest son, Deng Pufang, a student at Beijing University. After being brutally beaten by Red Guards, he sought to commit suicide by jumping from the fourth floor of a building and was paralyzed from the waist down.

Deng's experience in the Cultural Revolution left him warier than ever of mass movements and convinced that without stability, China was lost. He was not allowed to return to Beijing until 1973, when even Mao had become concerned about the country's disarray. He was particularly worried about disaffection in the military--where Deng was still held in high esteem. Mao not only made Deng a vice chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission, but also a vice prime minister.

In 1974, when Deng traveled to New York to address the U.N. General Assembly, it was the first time that the outside world got a real look at him. It was also the first time since leaving Paris in 1926 that Deng got a glimpse of the West. (On a stopover in Paris he bought a large box of croissants.) For Deng, the trip highlighted China's backwardness. With renewed vigor, he pursued pragmatic economic development. It was not long, however, before Deng's emphasis on stability and nation-building once again antagonized the increasingly mercurial Mao. The Gang of Four (led by Mao's own wife) denounced Deng as a counterrevolutionary in April 1976. ""I have been deposed before,'' Deng reportedly said. ""Do you think I am afraid of being deposed again?'' His political exile was brief. Mao died on Sept. 9, 1976, and no sooner was former security chief Hua Guofeng instated as president and Party chairman than the Gang of Four was arrested. By the following summer, Deng had managed to get reappointed to all his former positions.

Hua was no match for Deng; as Deng rapidly gained the upper hand, he called on the Chinese to ""emancipate their minds'' and began rehabilitating tens of thousands who, like himself, had been politically persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. It was at the historic Third Plenum in December 1978 that Deng launched what he named his ""second revolution.'' He called for a radical two-prong movement of reform: a major revamping of China's economic system and a dramatic ""opening up to the outside world.'' He declared that the ""Four Modernizations''--agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology--were to take precedence over class struggle. The Plenum set China on one of the most dramatic courses of economic reform that the world has seen.

HIS OTHER GREAT COUP was the normalization of diplomatic relations with the United States. When Deng arrived in Washington in January 1979 to sign the protocols, his visit created a host of unlikely images: Deng hobnobbing at a cocktail party in the National Gallery with every American capitalist CEO who could wangle an invitation; applauding John Denver and the Harlem Globetrotters at the Kennedy Center, and donning a ten-gallon hat at a Texas rodeo arena.

Unlike Mao, who exaggerated differences, Deng was skilled at coalition and consensus building. And while Mao tended to revel in titles, the unflamboyant Deng did not, refusing to become chairman of the Party, prime minister of the State Council or president. While Deng could be opportunistic, he was also remarkably constant in his beliefs and predictable in his actions, especially when it came to economics. He rarely tormented himself over difficult decisions.

His self-confidence allowed Deng to take enormous gambles. First he dissolved Mao's communes and leased the land back to private households, transforming the face of agriculture. Then he began to reform industry by encouraging private business, upgrading antiquated management and technology, implementing price reforms, encouraging foreign investment and trade, and even approving stock markets. With the new engine of private profit, Chinese private-sector entrepreneurs and nongovernment workers made production figures skyrocket. It did not seem to matter to Deng that there was no clear plan for China's development. It was enough to try new things out, to ""cross the river by feeling the stones,'' as he often said.

But Deng rejected any insinuation that he was making China capitalist. ""I have explained time and time again that our modernization program is a socialist one,'' he insisted in 1986. When it came to maintaining the hegemony of the party system of rule, Deng could be as reactionary as those very conservatives who looked askance at his economic reforms. While he sometimes called for ""political reform,'' what he meant was not democratization in the Western sense, but administrative reforms that would make the Leninist state more efficient. His goal was to make China strong, not democratic.

Deng may have imagined that he could selectivelypick ""the best from the East and West.'' But as his reform program proceeded, disruptive values such as individualism, freedom of expression and democracy began filtering in. By 1989, hard-liners were restive, and the sense of earlier optimism was dampened by soaring inflation, crime and corruption. That spring, Tiananmen Square was occupied for almost two months by hundreds of thousands of students and other citizens peacefully demanding greater dialogue and democracy. Humiliated by their effrontery--and fearing a Cultural Revolution-style chaos--Deng went hard-line. As the world watched, People's Liberation Army troops stormed into Beijing early on the morning of June 4, killing and wounding thousands of unarmed protesters. As arrests and execution followed and China plunged into a dark period of repression, Deng's reputation as a sage of reform seemed damaged beyond repair. His extraordinary balanc-ing act seemed to have come to an ignominious crash landing.

It hadn't. Deng had made his commitment to economic liberalization, and even bloodshed couldn't change his mind. At the age of 88, he popped up in Shenzhen, China's capitalist-style Special Economic Zone, just across the border from Hong Kong. His visit was quickly interpreted as an expression of support for these marketized enclaves and as a repudiation of those who opposed them. The tidal wave of entrepreneurial activity his symbolic appearance engendered encouraged overseas capital to return to China after 1989.

Deng will go down in history either as a sage for his understanding that what authoritarian China required to be rescued from socialist oblivion and chaos was economic reform alone, or as a transitional autocrat who failed to appreciate the crucial role political reform also plays in maintaining stability. The verdict will depend on his successors and whether, without his gravitas, they can keep the antagonistic factions that comprise the heart of the Party in a state of rough equilibrium long enough to create a new political system more dependent on the rules of law and less dependent on the manipulations of a ""great leader.''

Deng's Revolution | News