The Man Who Lit China's Rising Expectations Deng Xiaoping's Passing Does Not Mean the End of the Legacy He Shares with Free-Marketeers Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher

By Shambaugh, David | The Christian Science Monitor, February 21, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Man Who Lit China's Rising Expectations Deng Xiaoping's Passing Does Not Mean the End of the Legacy He Shares with Free-Marketeers Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher


Shambaugh, David, The Christian Science Monitor


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 system. 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. …

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