Washington, 20 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - Top U.S. officials have reacted to the death Wednesday of China's elder statesman Deng Xiaoping with high words of praise but are carefully avoiding public speculation about the political future of the country.
President Bill Clinton said Wednesday he was saddened by Deng's death and called him an "extraordinary figure on the world stage over the past two decades and the driving force behind China's decision to normalize relations with the United States."
Clinton said Deng's long life spanned a century of turmoil and remarkable change in China. Under his leadership, China began an historic economic reform program, modernizing much of the nation, Clinton said.
An official announcement in Beijing said Deng died Wednesday, aged 92 (93 years old by Chinese reckoning which adds a year to a person's age) of a lung infection.
Deng ruled China since 1978, officially retiring in 1990 when he grew weak and frail. He was last seen in public in 1994 but his economic legacy has endured.
Clinton said that "China today plays an important role in world affairs in no small part because of Mr. Deng's decision to open his country to the outside world."
He said Deng's historic visit to the United States in 1979 laid the foundation for a rapid expansion of ties between China and the United States.
Former U.S. President George Bush, who met Deng on a visit to China in 1989 and was U.S. ambassador there in the 1970s, said Deng made a powerful contribution to peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region although his ideas were not always in accord with U.S. views.
In London, visiting U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Deng was a historical figure who would be remembered with mixed feelings. She noted that he did open up China to the rest of the world but also presided over the brutal crushing of pro-democracy demonstrators on Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Albright said this must be "troublesome to everybody following human rights."
She will become the first high-ranking U.S. official to visit China after Deng's death. Albright, currently on a previously planned 10-day tour of Europe and Asia is in Moscow today. She is scheduled to be in Beijing next Monday and fly home from there to Washington on Tuesday. U.S. officials said they expect her visit to China to go ahead unchanged.
U.S. officials have not commented publicly on what they expect to happen next in China.
In his formal statement Wednesday, Clinton said what the United States would like to see -- China as a stable political power that respects human rights and the rule of law, promotes an open economy and "becomes a full partner in building a secure international order."
Albright, looking more pragmatically to the immediate future, said only that it would be to everyone's advantage if there were a smooth transition of power in Beijing. And unofficially, that appears to be the general expectation in Washington.
A White House official, who did not wish to be identified, told reporters "there will be no political convulsions in China...because the transition has already happened."
A senior State Department official said Deng had, in recent years, detached himself from the levers of power and clearly had not been making decisions for some time. "So as regards the functioning of China this will likely not have a great effect," the official said.
American China scholars and analysts pointed out that power is already held firmly by Deng's successor -- Communist party chief and state President Jiang Zemin, who is also head of the armed forces. His position is buttressed by a collective leadership that includes Premier Li-Peng and others who have been in their posts for several years.
Nevertheless, they agree that the passing of Deng is an important milestone for the Chinese who esteem him as the architect of the country's economic reforms and as one of the leaders of China's communist revolution half a century ago.
A lengthy obituary issued by the official Xinhua news agency in Beijing called Deng among other things "a great Marxist, a great proletarian revolutionary, statesman, military strategist and diplomat and a long-tested Communist fighter, the chief architect of China's socialist reforms...and the founder of the theory of building socialism with Chinese characteristics."
In Washington, analysts said the effusive praise indicates Deng will be buried with full honors by the Communist party. But only his countrymen will be there to see it. The Xinhua announcement said no foreign dignitaries will be invited to the funeral.
Jiang has been appointed chairman of a funeral committee which Xinhua said has 459 members, including all 18 members of the Politburo.
If the predictions of Washington analysts are correct, this Chinese leadership will not break much new ground in the months ahead and will postpone important decisions at least until the party Congress scheduled to take place in the fall.
That also means little change in Washington's China policy that is focused on engaging China in a pragmatic trading relationship and at the same time getting Beijing to improve a dismal human rights record.