Deng Xiaoping, August 22, 1904 - February 19, 1997: Deng's Revolution

By Schell, Orville | Newsweek, March 3, 1997 | Go to article overview
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Deng Xiaoping, August 22, 1904 - February 19, 1997: Deng's Revolution

Schell, Orville, Newsweek

Deng's Revolution

FIVE DAYS AFTER THE TIANANMEN MASSACRE, DENG XIAOPING reappeared in public. As any autocrat in his situation would have, he condemned the student demonstrators and praised the troops who had crushed them. But it was another part of Deng's speech that proved more significant: a vow that china would not again become a "closed country," and an affirmation that his program of economic liberalization would go forward. Government leaders, he declared, would not go "back to the old days of trampling the economy to death."

Did Deng himself realize the irony of talking about "trampling," even as the bodies of the Beijing massacre were barely could? Reformer and despot, a man whose life spanned the reaches of modern Chinese history, he leaves behind a contradictory legacy. "His mind is round and his actions square," Mao Zedong Once Said. During his decade and a half as China's "paramount leader," his program of radical economic change transformed life for one fifth of the world's population. They live in the fastest-growing economy--while still living under a repressive Leninist regime.

Few major societies have succeeded in making such a significant and yet largely peaceful transformation. It is unthinkable that the country could return to its previous state of Maoist collectivization and isolation. But despite Deng's economic miracle, important aspects of China are increasingly unresolved. The gap between rich and poor yawns ever wider. Official corruption is rampant. The military operates beyond civilian control. The country is awash with migrant labor. Rapid development has created almost terminal environmental problems. The repudiation of traditional and socialist values has left a moral and spiritual vacuum. The Chinese Communist Party is still propped up by a secret police and military. There is no independent judiciary and the state maintains a vast prison system all too often used to silence political opponents. Handling the rise of a great power swollen with nationalist sentiment is always delicate; China today presents a particular dilemma for Washington. How does the West encourage--and profit from--the country's economic boom, while gently--or not so gently--letting Beijing know what the rules are for civilized global superpowers? "Containment" sounds reasonable and is a word that U.S. hard-liners are saying with increasing frequency and volume. But it probably isn't practical, and the mere mention of it only excites the nationalism of China's own hard-liners. The Clinton administration seems to have found a low-key compromise. But in the end, whether China becomes America's friend or foe may depend less on what Washington does than on what happens within China itself.

That Deng left behind a paradox is understandable: the revolutionary commitment he acquired while serving the Communist Party merged with the pragmatism he developed from observing--and suffering from--the political upheaval of Mao's later years. Deng's resistance to pure ideology and his ability to moderate his political ambitions allowed him to survive so long at the center of power. He came to be known as xiao pingzi, or "the little bottle," a pun on his name that alluded both to his ability to bob back up after each of the numerous purges he suffered and to his 4-foot-11-inch height.

So diminutive was Deng that when he sat back in a large chair, his feet dangled off the floor. He had none of the charisma (or sexual adventurism) of Mao. Instead he was an ardent family man, with two sons and three daughters. He was an obsessive--and crafty--bridge player. He chain-smoked Panda-brand cigarettes until his fingers were stained brown, and he had no compunction about spitting in public. He was known for bursts of impatience and anger, but also for his straightforward manner. He had no time for charm. In her biography, "Deng Xiaoping, My Father," his daughter Deng Maomao wrote, "Father is an introvert and a man of few words .

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