What the people say about life after Deng

He took them on the first steps to freedom and independence. Hope and fear define the future
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The Independent Online

Wang Li, 35, was a state-employed bus conductor until 1985, when he decided he was fed up with the low salary and jumped instead on the bandwagon of the Deng economic reforms. He now runs a clothes stall near Ritan Park in central Beijing, selling mostly to Russian traders.

"My wife screamed the news of Deng's death at me as I was brushing my teeth in the morning, and I rushed to the radio to listen. It was expected, but I still felt shocked. It is thanks to Deng that I have my position here. If Deng hadn't encouraged free trade and private business, I would have stayed on the bus team all my life, like my father. Now I live better than average.

"I don't think society will change a lot because of his death. He had been out of sight for several years, but our lives still carried on. However, the era of personal worship [of leaders] completely stops with his death."

Mr Wang, who has survived a decade in the imprecisely regulated world of private business in China, is not unduly worried about shifts in policy. "If there are harmful new policies, we can resist or manoeuvre around them. I only worry that the policy of free trade might change. Some day someone might monopolise this clothes trading, destroy the market and scatter the small private vendors. But even in that case, I can shift to other fields, because I have saved enough money."

After a career outside the state system, he is an independent spirit. "I only hope for good health for the family, and that China can become more free and live with a light heart, not harassed by any political instruction or campaigns. I hate those high lofty slogans. It's all so hypocritical. People should live naturally.

"Of course political reform will come some day, but I am afraid we will have to wait for another 20 years until Jiang Zemin and the present leaders die. Change is not easy in China."


Sun Yongan, a 61-year-old party member, spent his working life as a middle- ranking official in a state textile factory. He is now retired. "I did not feel any grief, but I admit that he is a great man who had been purged repeatedly but could always stand up and come back to the throne. If someone else had suffered the same as Deng he would have never come back, but Deng cannot be defeated."

Mr Sun, like others of his generation, has some hankering after a previous era. "In my opinion, Mao Zedong is always the greatest. Without him I would never get my pension. Mao liberated the poor people, giving each of them jobs. In Mao's era we never knew unemployment. Everybody had a job according to his ability, even as a street cleaner. And that is why there was not much crime in society."

Old people on small pensions find it difficult to adjust to the impact of Deng's reforms on the "iron rice bowl", which used to guarantee cradle- to-grave employment, housing and social services. "For myself I don't have many fears; I enjoy medical cover. I only fear that at the end of this century, half my pension will go to pay the house rent, and next century, the rent will keep rising. I fear the wealth gap will grow larger gradually, and really poor people will not get any help from government."

He does not envy the younger generation. "The life of my children will be harder than mine. They have to take care of themselves and pay everything from their own pockets."

The inequalities in China, and the rampant corruption, make Mr Sun gloomy but not alarmist. "Deng's death will not make much difference. We have already been on the capitalist way for a long time. The new corrupted leaders will take us headlong into capitalism, in which we ordinary people cannot have any share in the profits."


Tang Lide, 26, was a student in Beijing in 1989 and, like most people his age, attended some of the pro-democracy protests. He now works in the foreign investment department at the Bank of China. "As a member of the students at that time, I should not say this, but in my heart I think Deng was forced to take those steps if someone really was taking the chance to bring the whole country to riot. Of course he should not have been so harsh. I know he also did it to protect his own interests; on that point he is not a saint. But one should be realistic about China. What could he do then? Dismiss all the corrupted leaders? That is not possible. He would be dismissed first.

"My friends and I used to talk a lot about political reform. It is obvious that without political reform the economic reform will come to a halt some day. Nepotism is very serious, both in the bank and in society, and really harms people's working enthusiasm and restricts able people."

Mr Tang sees Deng's death as making little difference in the near future. "I doubt the present bunch of leaders' ability to carry on a real political reform, because their own interests will be among the first to be affected. But at the same time, I won't lose heart. I'll work to see the dawning of a real liberal era.

"Our generation and the generation before us can change China. The generation who are now in their thirties and forties experienced much harder lives than us, and some of them are also very open-minded and able. Our generation received good education; we spent our senior school years and the first part of university in the most liberal period in recent Chinese history. We can get in touch with the Western world now and learn from them. Our only deficiency is the lack of facts and patience while dealing with our own Chinese people."


Xue Mei, 54, is a retired primary school teacher who lives on a pension of 574 yuan (pounds 47) a month after stopping work three years ago because of breast cancer. "I felt a bit heavy-hearted when I heard about Deng's death. He is the last old Chinese leader whom I can respect. I never had such a good life before Deng's reforms. I never worry about food and clothes, and there are so many things to choose in the market.

"Of course there will be changes within the party leaders' inner circle, and also in society. But I believe that our country will keep developing. The only thing that I am a little concerned about now is the social security in the future."

Despite coming from a very traditional working background as a government- employed teacher, Mrs Xue has little respect for people who can't be bothered to help themselves. But she can see that the government faces many difficulties dealing with excess staff in its bloated bureaucracy and the huge number of near-bankrupt state enterprises.

"I know nothing about political reform. I only know that there will be problems and pains for people who still expect to live in an old-style [planned] economic system. I know some textile workers who were made redundant. It seems to me they are not very eager to create their own opportunities. If I were in their shoes, I would try my best to think what I could do to live better, no matter how hard it is. I am sure all the changes in the future will not benefit the lazy ones who don't want to spend more time thinking for themselves."

Like most people of her age who remember the Cultural Revolution, she has a horror of chaos in society. "I only hope that there won't be a lot of turbulence and violence," she said.

Names have been changed.

Additional reporting by Ma Xianghong