PUBLIC IMAGE LIMITED

These official portraits show Deng Xiaoping at various stages of his tumultuous life, from the Long March in the 1930s to the bloody repression of the `Beijing spring'" in 1989. He is probably the last totalitari an leader this century to inspire such iconography. By Peter Popham
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Only now that Deng Xiaoping is gone are the iconographers really going to town on him. In Beijing, they've temporarily sold out of holographic Deng watches. The ghost-written essays and speeches, deeply turgid, have been reissued. Instant commemorative volumes have been pouring off the presses, from the hagiographic ("The Great Architect of China") to the salacious ("Deng's Secret Life"). Deng's moon-like features, hidden from view since 1994 and only glimpsed fitfully in the years before that, are suddenly everywhere. And it is appropriate that all this should have been brought about not by diktat of the Communist Party but by the operations of the market economy Deng did so much to unleash.

The case of Mao Zedong was very different. Throughout his decades of supreme power, Mao milked his public image for all it was worth. Huge paintings and colossal statues dominated every Chinese city, all playing their part in shoring up his power; banners and T-shirts and busts and key-rings and cups and plates and mugs and bowls and posters spilled out across the world. After he died, several Mao look-alikes were paid by the state to play the part of the Great Helmsman at important banquets and state occasions. The iconography of supreme leadership was everywhere. Mao's birthplace in Hunan became a national shrine.

Nobody, by contrast, visits the village in Szechuan where Deng was born unless they really have to. Indeed, in 1989, after Tiananmen Square, it was said that when residents of the village had to travel, they would pretend they came from somewhere else, lest they be beaten and abused if the truth got out.

Deng, who spent most of his political life trying to keep his footing in Mao's slipstream, had deep misgivings about Mao's cult of personality as far back as the late 1950s. Although he depended just as heavily as Mao on the structures and the organised paranoia of the Party for his authority, he never gave in to the temptation to have his image plastered around.

Humourless, chillingly unsentimental - "a nasty little man" in Henry Kissinger's characterisation - Deng Xiaoping made a less plausible national father figure than Mao, less able to tug on the patriotic heartstrings. Of course, that in itself would not have prevented him from trying. After his second rehabilitation in 1978, following Mao's death and the vanquishing of the Gang of Four, Deng attained supreme power and held on to it for 18 years. A second cult of personality could easily have happened then. That Deng never tried it on is an indication of his relative political maturity, and of his recognition that Chinese politics had entered a new phase. The saccharine official portraits shown on these pages, which depict his ascent from car factory worker in France to political commissar to "enlightened leader", were as far as he allowed the cult to go.

From the memorabilia industry's perspective, it is a pity that Deng did not have a more benign charisma. The scope for exploitation would have been vast. There would be Deng cigarettes and Deng spittoons, Deng footballs and playing cards (his two passions in life), Deng croissants and milk (tastes he picked up as a young man in France). Enterprising breeders would have announced a new strain of cats, the Deng, available only in black or white (following Deng's axiom that it doesn't matter if a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice), while the new Deng Encyclopedia would be emblazoned with the lapidary Dengism, "seek truth from facts".

All these things capitalism (or "socialism with Chinese characteristics", as Deng preferred to call it) might have achieved - if only he hadn't been such a cold-blooded, small person. As it is there are trinkets and trash, watches and speeches, and the mass of Chinese appear as detached from Deng's death as Deng was from the deaths he caused. In Tiananmen Square, in the solemn days after the announcement, some pretended to wail their grief - then caught the foreign journalist's eye and burst out giggling.

Comments