Deng Xiaoping has been one of the world's preeminent leaders of
the late 20th century. His impact will be felt well into the next
century as China looms as the world's next superpower.
Deng's life spanned the century, involving him in many of the
major events of modern China's revolutionary development, although
his activities were primarily noticeable during the 1980s and early
1990s. Deng was born during the waning years of the last imperial
dynasty. He had a fairly typical peasant upbringing in rural
Sichuan before being dispatched for study to Europe, where he met
other would-be revolutionaries. Deng experienced the proletarian
life of Paris and received Comintern training in Moscow.
From his return to China in 1927 until the Chinese Communist
Party (CCP) seized power in 1949, Deng's exploits were the militant
revolutionary activities of the time: urban underground
organization; peasant uprisings; public propaganda and political
indoctrination among Red Army troops; the Long March; and numerous
battle campaigns during the anti-Japanese and civil wars.
After 1949 Deng served initially as a regional administrator in
his native southwest, before moving on to a succession of key
party, government, and military posts in Beijing prior to the
Cultural Revolution (1966-76). By 1954 he was one of the inner
circle of CCP leaders and as such had a hand in virtually every key
policy and event from 1954 to 1966. Like so many other CCP elites,
he came under vicious attack during the Cultural Revolution and
endured six years in internal exile.
The mid-1970s saw him rise again to the pinnacle of power only
(again) to fall suddenly just before Chairman Mao Zedong's death.
With the fourth political "rehabilitation" of his career in 1977,
Deng set about deconstructing the Maoist state and constructing his
comprehensive program to reform China and bring it into the front
ranks of world powers.
Deng's career was certainly not without its blemishes, the
Tiananmen massacre of 1989 being the most noteworthy. His legacy
will be complex and his historical verdict no doubt mixed. Yet
there is no denying that Deng was responsible for a monumental
transformation of one-fifth of humanity, awakening China from its
socialist slumber with the prospect of an unprecedented future.
Deng Xiaoping pursued many goals during his lifetime, but none
more persistently than strengthening the Chinese nation-state. Deng
was a staunch nationalist who sought to restore China's wealth and
power. This quest of Deng's was not unlike that of previous Chinese
reformers during the 19th and 20th centuries: creation of a modern
industrial base; transformation of China's agrarian social
structure; attainment of a materially comfortable standard of
living for the populace; reclaimed national independence, dignity,
and freedom of maneuver in foreign relations; a strong national
defense and maintenance of territorial integrity around China's
borderlands; and attainment of great-power status. In these
respects, Deng's vision for China shares an essential continuity
along a historical spectrum of Chinese reformers dating from the
late Qing reformers Li Hongzhang and Kang Youwei.
Deng Xiaoping was not the first Chinese leader with these goals
during this century, but he was the most successful in realizing
them. He inherited from Mao Zedong a stagnant economy, alienated
society, and paralyzed polity. He bequeaths to his successors a
robust economy and rejuvenated society but an antiquated political
China's political system is antiquated partly for reasons common
to Leninist party-states but also because of Deng's steadfast
refusal to create meaningful channels of political participation
for China's citizenry. …