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China: Deng Xiaoping, Father Of Market Reforms, Dies

  • Lisa McAdams

Prague, 20 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - China's paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, a communist who introduced sweeping market reforms in China that catapulted the country into an economic power, spent a tumultuous political career spanning some 60 years. He died Wednesday.

In a career often described as "winding," Deng lived through war and revolution, exhilarating political triumphs and personal achievements, and equally humiliating downfalls and family tragedies. The tenacious Deng managed to not only endure all this, but to prevail.

Though Deng made few public appearances since resigning late in 1989 from his last official post, he will be remembered as the leader who introduced capitalism to the world's most populous nation, creating what he proudly called its "second revolution."

The eldest son of a well-to-do landowner, Deng grew up in a period of violent unrest in China's southwestern province of Sichuan and left home at an early age.

At 16, he entered a work-study program in France, where he joined the French Communist Party and learned basic Marxist theory. One of Deng's duties for the party was to mimeograph its journal "Red Light," a task he performed with such zeal his fellow activists nicknamed him "Doctor of Mimeography."

He joined the Chinese Communist party in 1924, shortly after its founding. After some months studying in Moscow, Deng returned to China to join the fledgling Red Army in the remote countryside as a political commissar.

He made the Long March with Mao Zedong in 1934-35 as deputy political commissar of the First Army Corps, and in 1938 impressed a visiting U.S. army observer as "short, chunky, and physically tough, with a mind as keen as mustard." Mao described Deng as "a needle wrapped in cotton," which meant, he said, that Deng was sharp but also delicate.

During World War II and the ensuing civil war between the Nationalists and Communists, Deng took part in many key battles, rising to become one of the Red Army's senior commanders. In 1952, three years after the Communist triumph, he was transferred to work in the government and in the Communist Party in Beijing, and in 1954 was made Secretary General of the Party. But the contacts he formed in the Army would help cement his political power for years to come.

Deng first fell from grace in the Communist Party in 1933. He was purged from the Party's top leadership again in 1966 during the Cultural Revolution and once again in 1976, just before the death of Mao and the arrest of the Gang of Four.

In the years that followed, the Communist Party under Deng laid down the fundamental policies it has followed ever since. That policy is summed up in the slogan, "One center, two basic points," with the "center" being economic development as the country's main task.

The "two basic points" viewed as the means to achieve this goal, according to China watchers, are market-oriented reforms and opening to the outside world on the one hand and unyielding dictatorship by the Party on the other.

Deng referred to his vision as "Building Socialism with Chinese Characteristics," a phrase that later graced the cover of a book compiling his noted speeches.

In 1986, the U.S. news magazine "Time" named Deng its "Man of the Year," for leading what it called "a far-reaching, audacious but risky second revolution."

In its article, "Time" said Deng's reforms attempted on a monumental scale to blend seemingly irreconcilable elements: state ownership and private property, central planning and competitive markets, political dictatorship and limited economic and cultural freedom.

As "Time" put it, Deng sought nothing less than "an attempt to combine communism and capitalism." Many enterprising Chinese took to heart his famous dictum, "To get rich is glorious." Deng himself even experimented with stock and bond markets.

But Deng showed himself to be more uncompromising in political affairs. He is widely accused of ordering the bloody crackdown on the student-led pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989. Deng's family has long-maintained he had no knowledge of the events until after the killings started. The Chinese government has carried out a tough policy of intimidation and detention of dissidents since the Tiananmen Square demonstrations.

In recent years, Deng referred increasingly to his own mortality, describing himself as a "setting sun." Deng, who lived into his nineties, took three wives, and fathered five children, attributed his longevity to a daily cold shower. He claimed the cool waters offset his indulgence in strong Chinese liquor and cigarettes. Deng's health had long been a source of frequent speculation and reports of his death were commonplace.

Deng was clearly not involved in daily decision-making in his later years, but his influence was so pervasive, most declined insulting him for fear of reprisals following his death. Most people believe the years following his death will be a merry-go-round of leadership changes and instability, as China seeks to replace the founder of "Modern Marxism."

Deng was also referred to as "The last emperor" of China, a title one of his four daughters said he would never embrace, as he always maintained a strong disdain for "The cult of personality."

Deng Rong said her father's primary wish in life was "to live the life of a genuine ordinary citizen, or even simpler than the way most people live." This, from the man who for nearly two decades held the destiny of at least one-quarter of humanity in his hands.