'Capitalist roader' has last laugh: Enfeebled Deng, at 90, still keeps his iron grip

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The Independent Online
DENG XIAOPING, paramount leader of one-fifth of the world's population, plans to celebrate his 90th birthday quietly tomorrow, according to the customary unsourced reports. So quietly, in fact, that no one knows for certain where he is, or whether to give credence to the latest bout of rumours that for many hours a day he is not even conscious.

This year, Deng is exactly twice the age of the People's Republic of China (PRC), which will mark its 45th birthday in October. To Western eyes, it seems remarkable that an ailing nonagenarian who resigned his last official position in 1990 can still be regarded as the most powerful figure in the world's largest country.

Even more remarkable is the apprehension in China and abroad regarding the political uncertainties that will follow this frail man's death.

In his prime, Deng possessed all the toughness required to survive a lifetime in the service of the Chinese Communist Party. Chairman Mao Tse-tung approvingly described him as 'a needle wrapped in cotton'.

Foreigners have been more disparaging: Henry Kissinger called him 'a nasty little man', and according to Sir Percy Cradock, former British ambassador to China, Margaret Thatcher found Deng 'cruel'. The sinologist Lucian Pye, writing in the China Quarterly, said: 'He does not bother to communicate any emotion. Even when he throws back his head for a ritualised, cackled laugh, there is no sign of real feelings. As a host he makes a feeble pass at being jovial, but he is not warm; indeed, he seems oblivious to the uses of charm.'

History, not charm, is the key to his stature. Deng's life is so inextricably tied to the course of China's turbulent century that, even in his declining years, no one can rival his political authority.

The first half of his life, before the founding of the PRC in 1949, was remarkable enough. He survived the Long March, led military campaigns against the Chinese Nationalists, and played a central role in the evolution of the Chinese Communist Party.

After the revolution, he rose to be general secretary of the party, before being banished to the countryside as the 'No 2 Capitalist Roader' during the Cultural Revolution. In all, he has been purged three times, and three times made a comeback.

The verdict on Deng's career will depend most on the past 15 years. In 1978 he set China on its path of economic reform and opening up to the outside world. After the ideological frenzy and chaos of Chairman Mao's last years, Deng reintroduced commonsense policies of industrial reconstruction. 'It does not matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice,' he said pragmatically.

But he is also remembered, particularly in the West, as the man who set the People's Liberation Army on the Tiananmen Square student demonstrators in June 1989.

There is a traditional Chinese adage: 'Speak no ill of the elders - until after they die.' While he lives, Deng's status in China is unassailable. The consensus among diplomats in Peking is that no major policy decision can go through without his say-so.

The official propaganda machine assiduously bolsters the legend, even though the man remains hidden from public view. Last month, the Peking Youth newspaper claimed that a poll of 10,000 people found that 97.4 per cent held Deng in great esteem.

The little that is reliably known about Deng these days hardly suggests a man with his eye on the political ball. He lives with his family in a well- guarded traditional courtyard house in Peking, about a mile north of the Zhongnanhai leadership compound.

According to Wan Li, a retired senior cadre and long- standing bridge-partner of Deng, the paramount leader's major internal organs are all 'functioning normally'. He has a 'clear mind' and 'very good memory'.

In February, however, Chinese people were shocked by Deng's first public sighting for a year. Appearing on television to mark the Lunar New Year holiday, the 'architect of China's reforms' was propped up by his daughters, stared vacantly into the middle distance, and did not understand what was said to him. The Deng family is now the conduit of all information to and from the paramount leader, who is deaf and speaks in heavily accented grunts that are translated by his daughter Deng Rong.

In a eulogy to the family, an official news agency recently said: 'Deng Rong is most tactful and sagacious when she acts as Deng Xiaoping's hearing aid . . . often she has an exquisite way of arousing her father's interest.'

This year, Deng Rong published a best-selling hagiography of her father's early life. For most of his career, Deng, in contrast to Chairman Mao, scorned the cult of personality. But he, too, is now seeking to position himself in the pantheon of Chinese Communism. An exhibition of 500 Deng photographs 'showing the role he has played in building Socialism with Chinese characteristics' is due to leave China for a world tour this autumn. Deng souvenirs are in the shops; a commemoration plaque of 'Our General Designer' could be bought last week in Peking bookshops.

Across China, Deng Xiaoping 'thought study' centres have been opened to further promote the myth. The judgement of history may prove more ambivalent. Deng has never had scruples about repressing any challenge - real or imagined - to the Chinese Communist Party. He spearheaded the anti-rightist campaign of 1957 and closed Democracy Wall in the late Seventies.

During the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, he delivered the 'Three Don't Be Afraids' speech to the Politburo: don't be afraid of foreign opinion, public reaction, or bloodshed.

Deng's invention, 'Socialism with Chinese characteristics', allowed no political reform but, in just 15 years, it has transformed the economy and the standard of living. In scrapping a moribund centrally planned system, Deng released the Chinese entrepreneurial flair. In early 1992, when the shift to a market economy looked like faltering because of opposition from hardliners, the old man journeyed to southern China, thus signalling to the nation that fast-paced economic growth was to have a free rein.

Yet this breakneck transformation has also created a set of overwhelming social and economic challenges: half the country's state enterprises are losing money, official forecasts are of 268 million unemployed by the year 2000, and a huge wealth gap has opened up between China's booming coastal cities and rural inland regions. Inflation, which the government said should average 10 per cent this year, is running at more than twice that figure. The crime rate has soared and corruption is endemic.

The verdict on Deng will ultimately depend on how the succession is managed. The heir apparent, President Jiang Zemin, was installed by Deng and has gathered an impressive portfolio of positions, including head of the party and chairman of the Central Military Commission.

Westerners who have met Jiang have been less impressed by the man and say he is likely only to be a transitional figure. If Deng's death is followed by years of political in-fighting, the bold policies necessary to tackle China's economic and social ills may fall off the agenda. Deng's inability to groom a credible successor could prove his enduring failure.

(Photograph omitted)