From `Little Red Book' To `Thought of Deng' - China's New Personal Cult

WITH China's week-long Communist Party congress, frail Deng Xiaoping is starting to look like the new superman chairman of Chinese politics.

For years, Mr. Deng decried the personality cult of Great Helmsman Mao Zedong. Twice purged and reinstated to power, Deng suffered at Mao's hands and cautioned that leaders are human beings, not gods.

Now, as the ruling Communists embrace his free-market reforms that would have been anathema to Mao, the aged Deng seems to have ascended to a higher plane.

As yet, there is no Little Red Book. But there are billboards of Deng around Beijing, a documentary on the diminutive leader, a special portrait, books, tapes, and there will soon be an annotated compilation of Deng's speeches, known as the "Thought of Deng."

In the Zhuhai special economic zone in southern Guangdong province near Hong Kong, officials have sunk $200,000 into an entertainment extravaganza, "How Are You, Xiaoping?," featuring 500 performers, that premieres this month.

"This is Deng Xiaoping's last hurrah," says a Western diplomat.

Recognizing that the aura of personal leadership means power in China, Deng is throwing his name and personal influence behind rapid economic changes, particularly in southern provinces. The south is fueling an economic boom that Deng hopes will keep the Chinese Communists in power.

Last week, the party hailed Deng's economic restructuring as China's new "magic weapon." That contrasts with Mao's exhortations for class warfare as the "magic weapon" against capitalism during the Cultural Revolution.

Joining the Deng hoopla is one sure-fire road to political survival in China. Take a souvenir photo album, for instance. There can be a lot of Chinese politics in a photo album.

Entitled "Deng Xiaoping and the Leaders of the World," the hefty volume depicts the man who ordered the Army against pro-democracy protesters three years ago as a wise statesman. And much of the book is devoted to Deng as the kindly old grandfather, relaxing with his family and kissing his grandchildren. The album is the work of photographer Yang Shaoming, deputy director of the Central Party Literature Research Center and the son of president and military chief Yang Shangkun, a close Deng ally.

Foreign governments and businessmen see the so-called princelings - the privileged and pampered offspring of senior leaders - as conduits to their parents and possibly even future leaders. Others say they are passe. Yang, who declined to be interviewed, denied on a recent visit to Hong Kong that there is any such thing as a "party of princelings."

Japanese businessmen, however, don't buy it. Yang's photo album was underwritten and printed in Japan. The introduction, signed by former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, calls Deng "the person who built modern China." The book was released just two weeks before the historic visit to China of Japanese Emperor Akihito, which begins tomorrow.

DENG'S thought centers on the theme of building "socialism with Chinese characteristics," a euphemism for capitalist reform and rigid political controls. The vague phrase is aimed at placating hard-line party elders who have spent lifetimes condemning capitalism. To prevail, Deng had to cut deals with the hard-liners, analysts say.

In contrast to the new lingo, the congress still had the communist trappings of the past: the hammer-and-sickle emblem, the Internationale anthem, and elderly revolutionaries tottering into the Great Hall of the People with the support of young female attendants. Even journalists, in a touch of old-style Kremlinology, watched the proceedings through binoculars for signs of fading health or political divide.

Despite his political triumph, Deng can never be another Mao in the long run, analysts say. He lacks the prestige of Mao, who is remembered with nostalgia by many who see economic changes spinning out of Beijing's control and creating a wide gap between rich and poor. While Beijing residents hang Mao pictures in their cars and at home, few people took much notice of the congress or Deng this week.

Indeed, for many Chinese, Deng will leave a mixed legacy. "Even though we hate him for June 4, we hope he'll live a few more years until the reformers can solidify," says a university lecturer who participated in 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations but now expects only gradual change.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.