Obituary: Deng Xiaoping

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The Achilles' heel of all authoritarian systems - the difficulty of handing over power unless a dynasty is firmly in place - put the fate of China once again in the hands of an enfeebled old man over the last six years. While Deng Xiaoping shrank into senility, power-seeking factions circled hungrily round his throne and the country lacked the firm leadership it needed during a period of chaotic change.

The years of Deng's dotage carried painful memories of the early half of the 1970s when Mao Tse-tung took an infernally long time to die in his pavilion in the Zhongnanhai, the imperial compound alongside Peking's Forbidden City, while his chosen heir and successor, Hua Guofeng, scrabbled for power in competition with Mao's wife and the radical Gang of Four. With Mao dead, the race was eventually won by Deng, the twice-disgraced dark horse.

If history repeats itself, Deng's designated heir, President Jiang Zemin and his faction, which has amassed considerable power in recent years, will form a collective leadership until another strong man emerges from the ruck.

If Jiang does remain in power, it will be a welcome indication that his reforms and measures to institutionalise the power pyramid (as well as placating the military) have matured the system sufficiently to free China from the threat of personality cults and one-man rule. Nevertheless, palace politics are deeply ingrained. Jiang's succession could be challenged by either of his two main lieutenants: Prime Minister Li Peng, a colourless apparatchik who gained strength with other hard-liners in the crackdown which followed the Tiananmen tragedy in 1989 and who, with the ageing "Soviet faction", have always deprecated Dengist revisionism, and Zhu Rongji, a technocrat who tries to identify himself with reforms, modernisation and China's recent economic progress. Neither can the army's intervention be discounted. Last year's threatening manoeuvres as Taiwan prepared to go to the polls revealed its readiness to play the nationalistic card in shaping policies.

Had Deng died in early 1989, most historians would have praised him as the pragmatic liberal who steered China back to a commonsense middle course after three decades of disastrous excesses. While his apologists can claim that his abandonment of a command economy put China, however belatedly, on the road to prosperity, the loss of so many state controls has complicated the task of his proteges in dealing with problems caused by the growth he triggered: an overburdened infrastructure, an overheated economy, inflation and an outflow of capital, plus a massive growth of corruption and criminal gangs.

Deng will also be remembered as the man who imposed martial law on China in May 1989, who gave his blessing to the troops who shot down the dissidents in and around Tiananmen Square and who subsequently ordained the imprisonment, purge and exiling of his critics. As a moderniser, he was willing to open up China to inflows of foreign technology, management techniques and investment, but not to the accompanying winds of change and flows of ideas. He was thus the architect of ``market Marxism'' but in the final analysis he had only Stalinist answers to the very forces his policies had reinvigorated. His refusal to contemplate political liberalisation has placed his ghost among those of dozens of East Asian dictators who have clung on to power at any cost.

During the 1980s ``Mr Pragmatism'' was the pin-up boy of Hong Kong and others who wished China and its future well, and his anti-dogma aphorisms ``Learn truth from facts'' and ``It does not matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice'' were widely quoted with enthusiasm. Nevertheless, the 1989 crackdown should not have come as a surprise: Deng's career was remarkable not only for an elastic capacity to survive but a ruthless readiness to take any steps to ensure that survival.

The son of an educated minor landowner in the Western province of Sichuan, Deng sailed for France at the age of 16 as a worker-student. There, between 1920 and 1926 (his years in France overlapping with those of Chou En-lai), he imbibed Marxism and became a professional revolutionary. He received training in the arts of the underground during 11 months in Moscow on his way home, where he immediately plunged into secret Communist Party work, chiefly among the workers of Shanghai.

By 1930 he had joined Mao Tse-tung's army fighting the Kuomintang in Guangxi province, later taking part in the heroic Long March in which Mao's forces escaped from the encircling Kuomintang armies to traverse much of China in 1934 and 1935, before establishing a stronghold in the north-west province of Yanan. Deng's military service was recognised after the defeat of Japan when he became a member of the party's Central Committee, and he played an important role in the campaigns which finally ejected the Kuomintang to Taiwan and established the People's Republic in 1949.

Deng, always a practical man, had proved an energetic and capable implementer of Mao's orders. After serving as his political and economic commissar responsible for south-west China, Deng moved swiftly up the Party and government hierarchies, becoming Secretary General of the Central Committee and Minister of Finance in 1953, Vice-Chairman of the National Defence Council and Vice-Premier in 1954 and a Politburo member in 1955.

In the following year he went with China's delegation to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, where he was affronted by Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin. A frequent visitor to Moscow, he played a leading role as polemicist in the developing Sino- Soviet dispute which led to an open breach in 1960. Thereafter Deng was responsible for the most bitter attacks on Moscow's desire that the socialist world should avoid a nuclear showdown with the West, pushing the Maoist theory that the revolutionary forces of the Third World were in effect peasant armies surrounding the bourgeois ``cities'' of the industrialised nations. The future pragmatist who was to be dismissed by Mao as ``knowing nothing of Marxism-Leninism'', had proved himself a radical ideologue as well as a capable revolutionary, a commissar and soldier.

Nevertheless, as Mao's Cultural Revolution began to get rolling on its chaotic and destructive course, Deng distanced himself from the Chairman's worst excesses. The main target of the Red Guards' virulence was the head of state, Liu Shaoqi, but Deng (who with Liu had been running the economy) was denounced as the ``No 2 Capitalist Roader''. The Red Guards permanently crippled one of his sons by throwing him out of a window, but Deng himself made a grovelling self-criticism (showing the talents for survival which always served him well) and, thanks largely to the intervention of the prime minister, Chou En-lai (his former companion in France), called in debts of friendship from the military and with the rest of his family sat out the years of violence with his stepmother and his third wife in the southern province of Jianxi. Liu died miserably on the floor of a prison cell.

It was not until 1973, as Chou En-lai was repairing the damage done to China's economy and its international relations, that Deng returned to public life, as Vice-Premier and Vice-Chairman of the Party - a rehabilitation which infuriated the ailing Mao's wife and the Gang of Four. Chou died in January 1976 and Deng's obvious qualifications for the premiership were ignored. Public disturbances which broke out in April 1976 by crowds resentful of deliberate insults to the memory of the popular Chou gave the leftists their chance. Once again Deng was dis-missed from all his posts under a barrage of radical propaganda accusing him of attempting to push Party policies to the right.

Mao's death in September and the arrest and imprisonment of his widow and the Gang of Four cleared the way for another comeback in 1977 when Deng became Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, Vice-Chairman of the Party and Vice-Premier. From these positions Deng launched a series of wide- ranging reforms, beginning with the countryside. Massive decentralisation swept away the communes set up during Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s: allowing peasants to grow and harvest the crops of their choice. As the peasants' incomes rose, Deng broadened his political base, eroding that of the colourless Hua Guofeng, who was eventually removed from power in 1981.

Deng had encouraged intellectual debate. Peking's Democracy Wall, on which dissidents wrote long complaints about the Party and the bureaucracy, was one of his chief weapons against Hua. Once Hua was defeated, however, criticism was stilled and the wall was closed down. Deng's main aim was economic growth, but first he had to impose the political stability on which he could build. He ended China's role as an exporter of revolution and people's wars, his numerous foreign visits convincing him that China had to make up for the lost years of Mao and catch up with its increasingly prosperous neighbours.

His two main viceroys were the party secretary, General Hu Yaobang, who played a double public-relations role as ``Mr Internationalism'' abroad and ``Mr Bourgeois Liberalism'' at home, while the economy was in the hands of a fellow Sichuanese, the prime minister Zhao Ziyang. This pair became the target of the hard-liners and old Marxists who were unwilling to defy Deng himself but who deeply suspected his downgrading of ideology in favour of getting results accompanied by vague assurances of ``socialism with Chinese characteristics''. Hu came under fire in 1987 after an outbreak of student demonstrations, and meekly resigned. Later that year at the 13th Party congress, Deng required another scapegoat and Zhao gave up his premiership to the hard-liner Li Peng. Dogmas and principles were easily sacrificed by the great pragmatic revivalist; so were friends and close allies.

The same Congress brought some compensation, in the form of a resolution providing Deng with retrospective ideological justification; it ordained that China was only at ``a preliminary stage of socialism'', thus conferring the Party's imprimatur for non-collective farming, private enterprise, material incentives, profits, privatisation and even for stock exchanges and golf courses.

One of Deng's main achievements during these years was to retain the loyalty of the military. Deng's ``Four Modernisations'' programme was aimed at agriculture, industry, technology and defence - in very much that order. The People's Liberation Army was still facing 50 well-equipped Soviet divisions across a long border, and had forfeited much status since the days when it was the proud standard-bearer of Mao Tse-tungism. Deng, who had divested himself of all party and government posts except the chairmanship of the Military Commission, managed to keep his generals sweet, while at the same time eroding them as a force in the political equation. But his successful manoeuvring was defeated in the end when he had to summon them back to central power.

Ironically, the disgraced Hu Yaobang was to have his revenge by dying in April 1989. A huge crowd gathered in Peking to mourn a man who had become a symbol of public anger against party arrogance, bureaucratic inefficiency and high-level corruption. At the time, intellectuals were preparing to celebrate on 4 May the 70th anniversary of the great 1919 scholar/student revolt against dictatorship and corruption. In this emotional atmosphere, Deng made two gross errors, by agreeing that on 4 May Peking should host the annual meeting of the Asian Development Bank and that Mikhail Gorbachev should arrive for the first Sino-Soviet summit talks since the 1960 split. The ensuing tragedy of Tiananmen was to play itself out in front of an international audience and force Deng's hand.

Parenthetically, the massive demonstrations in Hong Kong supporting the Tiananmen demonstrators triggered fears in Peking about the possible political impact of the re- absorption of the free-booting city into the Chinese body politic - fears which caused China to break its promises of an elected Hong Kong legislature and to adumbrate other measures to restrict freedoms and human rights there. Death has prevented Deng from realising his ambition of going to Hong Kong to witness the hand-over.

After the killings, Deng thanked the soldiers who had saved his skin, brought more generals and hardliners into top posts and finally sacked his economic overlord, Zhao Ziyang (who had expressed sympathy with the demonstrators). His Open Door policies had imported destabilising ideas as well as money and expertise, and he spent the remaining years of his life trying to embargo the former while maximising the latter in the cause of economic growth.

Perhaps because his underlings were busily manoeuvring to succeed him, perhaps because he was no longer capable of exercising hands-on control, the grip of government loosened and the long-suppressed entrepreneurial talents of the Chinese began to blossom in the relaxed atmosphere. Bereft of any titles or constitutional authority, Deng was still the strong man, the patriarch whose wishes were law by virtue of his Long March provenance, his extreme old age and his undeniable right to the throne.

Foreign capital from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and elsewhere triggered double-digit growth in coastal cities and southern provinces, which became the world's fastest- growing region. Nevertheless, the weakening of central controls has left Deng's successors with huge problems: an over-heated economy, over-strained infrastructure and unequal development which has fanned resentment in the provinces which have not shared in the growing prosperity, experiencing only falling agricultural prices, over-taxation and the demands of increasingly corrupt party cadres.

His successors will also have to face the problems which the inevitable death of Chinese Marxism will bring and which Deng put off in his determination both to cling on to power and to save China from the chaos reigning in Russia and the rest of the formerly socialist world. He provided his country with a transitional breathing space between the megalomaniac years of Mao and the future, which will see the eventual opening of China and the collapse of party authority.

By living so long and presiding over the belated but undisciplined release of China's pent-up entrepreneurial energies, Deng has probably condemned China to one of two tragic courses: a harsh reimposition of controls, either by the party or an emergent strong man, or the very chaos he, like all Chinese, feared most. Either way, in the longer term, the energies Deng released will inevitably re-assert themselves, in the form of both economic and political activity.

Deng Xiaoping, politician: born Guangan, Sichuan, China 22 August 1904; Political Commissar, 2nd Field Army, People's Liberation Army 1948-54, Chief of General Staff 1975-76, 1977-80; First Secretary, East China Bureau, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) 1949-54, Secretary-General, Central Committee, CCP 1953-56; member, Politburo 1955-67, 1974-76, 1977-87; Secretary of Central Committee 1956-67; Vice- Chairman, Military Affairs Committee 1975-76; Vice-Chairman, Standing Committee 1977-87; Chairman, National Committee 1978-87; Chairman, Military Commission 1981-89; Chairman, Central Advisory Commission 1982-87; Minister of Finance, People's Republic of China 1953-54; Vice-Premier, State Council 1954; Vice-Chairman, National Defence Council 1954-67; Vice-Premier, State Council 1975-76, 1977-80; married 1928 Zhang-Qianyuan (deceased), 1932 JinWeiying (marriage dissolved), 1939 PuZhuolin (two sons, three daughters); died Peking 19 February 1997.