The last red titan dies

The end for Deng Xiaoping, China's Long March veteran
Click to follow
The Independent Online
"See that little man there," Mao Tse-tung told Nikita Khrushchev, 40 years ago. "He's highly intelligent, and has a great future ahead of him."

That little man was Deng Xiaoping. Last night, aged 92, three years since he was last seen in public, China's modern-day emperor finally passed away after a life which had reflected all the turbulence of China's 20th- century history. Three times purged, he had three times returned from the political grave, the last occasion in 1978 when he set about creating a modern China which threw off much of Mao's communist dogma in favour of economic reform and opening to the outside world. "To get rich is glorious," he told China's eager population, and under his policies the country has been transformed into an emerging economic superpower.

The historical verdict on Mr Deng will nevertheless be complex. In the 1950s he played a zealous role in the anti-Rightist movement in which thousands of people were persecuted. By the early Sixties, he was one of the few of China's leaders to argue for pragmatic economic policies so that the country could recover from Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward; but it was two decades before he was allowed to impose his image of China. Pragmatism rather than ideological dogmatism was the hallmark of his approach: "It does not matter if a cat is white or black, so long as it catches mice," he famously declared, when arguing for economic reform.

After the death of Mao in 1976, Deng was the only tenable candidate to emerge to lead China into a modern era. The Western world looked on in admiration until June 1989, when Deng sent in the army against the student pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. Although, unlike most Chinese leaders, he knew how to charm a crowd, he did not delight everyone: a "nasty little man" was Henry Kissinger's verdict.

The question now is what impact Deng's death could have on government policy and the position of China's present leadership. His passing, announced in the middle of the night in Peking, represents a final shift for China away from the generation of Long March veteran leaders whose status was derived more from personal clout than any job description. Mr Deng had held no important posts since 1990, and at his death the only job title he could claim was honorary president of the Chinese Bridge Association.

Nevertheless, while he lived, even as his health sharply deteriorated, his anointed heir, President Jiang Zemin, was safe in his position and government policy stuck close to the Deng programme of economic liberalisation combined with firm political control by the Chinese Communist Party.

In the turbulent decades since the Communist victory in 1949, China has had no experience of smooth political succession. Chairman Mao's death was swiftly followed by the arrest of the Gang of Four, and a power struggle between the old guard and the reformists. Mr Deng's attempts to choose an heir apparent also proved difficult; his two previous choices, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, both reformists, fell by the wayside during the Eighties. The latter was sacked after the 4 June massacre, and replaced as head of the party by a dark-horse candidate - Mr Jiang. In a culture which reveres the elderly, it became clear that true authority could not be transferred until the Emperor was actually dead.

Had Deng died a few years earlier, his death might well have meant a destabilising power struggle between Leftist hardliners and more progressive reformers about the direction of policy. As it is, a political succession to a new generation of leaders has had time to establish itself, and the likelihood now is that Mr Jiang will for the time being remain at the helm of a collective senior leadership after engaging in a spate of backroom power-broking to secure that no rival can challenge him.

The Communist Party's priority will be not to let intra- party rivalry bring down one-party rule. "The Politburo represents a certain sort of stability and I think their instinct will be to stick together. Of course, in time, there is bound to be some shifting and readjustment," said one diplomat. It remains unclear whether the Chinese political system can develop to a stage where it does not revolve around an Emperor figure.

The official announcement of his death came after a flurry of rumours and reports in the middle of the night, in Peking. Deng died just after 9pm.

Some analysts believe that Deng's death early in the Chinese New Year may be seen as a bad omen, and could even jeopardise the smooth handover of Hong Kong in July. Paradoxically, there is such widespread consensus among China's contend-ers for power that they might agree to postpone their jockeying until after the transfer.

Despite China's record on human rights, world leaders paid tribute to Deng Xiaoping last night. John Major said he played "a key role in the process which led to the Joint Declaration on Hong Kong in 1984, embodying his visionary concept of one country, two systems".

Hong Kong's Governor, Chris Patten, described him simply as "an historic figure", and President Clinton said he was "extraordinary".

The Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, voiced regret that Deng died without resolving questions over Tibet.

Comments