How Deng Transformed World's Largest Nation


Deng Xiaoping, supreme leader of China for nearly two decades, unleashed massive changes that will reverberate into the next century.

Deng introduced wide-ranging reforms that helped raise living standards among 1.2 billion Chinese - one-fifth of humanity. He brought the world's most populous country out of its international isolation and propelled its emergence as a great power on the world stage.

Deng took charge of a country that for thousands of years attempted to close itself off from the world and left behind one that saw the rise of foreign investment, stock markets, and Internet cafes - a China in which hundreds of millions could watch Western TV programs and that will become the world's biggest economy by 2000.

He is likely to go down in history as one of the most important world figures of the 20th century. Deng marshaled the Chinese masses behind his sweeping plans to modernize the country and impressed world leaders as a pragmatist who aimed to lower ideological barricades.

Deng also helped draft proposals to end Western colonization of Hong Kong and Macao and may have laid the groundwork for a "Greater China" political confederation that one day will embrace the mainland, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao.

Yet some analysts say that while Deng's autocratic style of leadership bound China together during painful reforms, the combined effects of economic decentralization and political stagnation could tear at the fabric of national unity after his death.

After struggling to the top of the Communist Party's pyramid of power following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, Deng began dismantling Mao's personality cult, rural communes, and some Soviet-style tools of repressive rule, including restrictions on religion and art.

While his loosening of the state's grip on the economy and society ushered in a new era of prosperity and rising expectations, it also sparked popular calls for democracy and basic human rights.

Deng responded to student-led demands for political liberalization in 1989 by approving the use of force into Beijing, purging party reformers, and jailing protest leaders. The strategy preserved his monopoly on power, but also caused deep splits within the party, military, and people.

Deng can be compared to Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of China who unified the country 2,000 years ago. But the comparison bodes ill for China, if history repeats itself. Emperor Qin relied on force to cement his reign, and his death triggered struggles for power within the court and among conquered territories. The kingdom broke up shortly after he died.

Some Western scholars say Deng's refusal to follow up economic reforms with political change - culminating in the military's assault on Tiananmen Square in June 1989 - may have laid the seeds of another popular uprising.

But most China analysts in the United States, along with many Chinese intellectuals, now agree that the benefits Deng brought in economics, national strength, and foreign affairs far outweigh his use of force to oppose political change.

Deng was born in southwestern Sichuan Province in 1904, into a crumbling Chinese empire ruled by a weak, corrupt empress who held power through palace intrigue. The overthrow of imperial rule saw regional warlords compete to set up personal fiefdoms as Britain, Germany, France, and later Japan carved up China.

His landowner father sent 16-year-old Deng to France on a work-study program, where he came into contact with other Chinese expatriates who wanted to rescue China from widespread poverty and foreign domination. Deng joined the fledgling French Communist Party in 1924, and then studied under a Comintern program in Moscow before returning to China.

When he joined a ragtag band of Communist revolutionaries and peasant soldiers in eastern China in the 1930s, the group seemed to stand little chance of success in defeating Chiang Kai-shek's much larger and better armed Nationalist Army.

It was on the Long March of 1934, the retreat of the Communist forces, that Deng came to know and back Mao.

Mao emerged at the end of the march as the unquestioned leader of the Communist Party, and Deng rose with him, becoming vice premier in 1952 and general secretary of the Communist Party in 1956.

Deng orchestrated Mao's earliest attacks on intellectuals, and few dared to question Mao's "Great Leap Forward" in 1958, when workers and peasants were asked to labor for the glory of socialism rather than for individual reward.

It was only after three years of famine and tens of millions of deaths that Mao moved to the sidelines as Deng and President Liu Shaoqi experimented with private farm plots, individual worker incentives, and free markets for food.

While the strategy saved many from starvation, it also had a dangerous side-effect: It greatly increased the popularity of Liu and Deng. Enraged, Mao branded Liu's and Deng's efforts to halt the famine as a plot to steer China onto the capitalist road, and he formed a new army of radical young Red Guards to wage war on the party that had seemed to turn against him.

Liu was tortured and died in prison, and Deng was sent into internal exile in 1967.

For the next 10 years of the Cultural Revolution, Mao and his Red Guards destroyed countless individuals, families, social bonds, the economy, religion, and traditional culture. His death in 1976, and the arrest of his radical cohorts, marked the beginning of a great debate within the party on the future of Chinese socialism.

Deng, the pragmatist who had helped save China from Mao's famine, regained positions of power in the government and Army in July 1977 through promises of economic reform and political change. He moved forward with his transformation of China's Soviet-model economy and a broad opening to the rest of the world.

After normalizing relations with Washington, Deng made a triumphal tour of the US in 1979 to celebrate a rapprochement between the two countries.

Deng held onto his supreme position by balancing conservatives in the party and Army who aimed to freeze in place China's Leninist structure against moderates who pushed for rapid liberalization. In 1984, he played a significant role in negotiating an agreement to return Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule in 1997. Deng's support for open markets - but not a free marketplace of ideas - created fissures in the party that only became visible during student protests in the winter of 1986-87.

University students again flocked to Tiananmen Square, the symbolic heart of China, in 1989 to push for greater democracy. Deng responded to initially modest demands for public supervision of the party by branding the demonstrations a plot to wreak turmoil on China's socialist system, a capital offense. Deng's tactic, rather than intimidating protesters, infuriated them, increased their ranks, and brought radical student leaders to the fore.

The military's subsequent march on Tiananmen on June 4, 1989, quashed open dissent, but also alienated reform-minded Army and government officials, as well as huge swaths of the populace.

As Deng later watched his communist counterparts from Warsaw to Prague swept from power and the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the USSR, some of his aides urged him to publicly atone for the 1989 crackdown. Instead, in 1992 he launched the final campaign of his life: He toured southern China to break a stalemate between feuding factions of the party and regain support for high-speed growth and modernization.

Deng's statements "poverty is not socialism" and "to get rich is glorious" have come to epitomize the aspirations of modern-day China. The massive forces of change that he set in motion virtually guarantee that he will be recorded not only as one of China's greatest reformers, but likely also its last socialist emperor.

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