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China: Deng Dies Before Seeing His Dream--Reunification

  • Stuart Parrott



Hong Kong, 24 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - China's paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, once said: "I wish only to live until 1997, that's enough for me." The remark summed up one of his life's ambitions -- to see the reunification later this year of Hong Kong with China.

Deng, who died last week aged 92, succumbed just 18 weeks before Hong Kong hauls down the Union Jack and hoists China's five-star flag, marking the end of a century of British colonial rule.

His death bought a mixed response in this affluent colony of 6.4 million mostly Cantonese Chinese on the small granite territory at the mouth of China's Pearl River in the South China Sea.

Flags flew at half-staff, radio stations played solemn music and some schools observed a moment of silence. Scores of floral wreaths are piled outside Xinhua news agency, China's de facto embassy, while workers tore down Lunar New Year decorations at the Bank of China.

However, many in Hong Kong still do not forgive Deng for his reported personal involvement in the decision to order the 1989 Tiananmen Square suppression of pro-democracy students.

That event, which caused hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers to take to the streets in protest, still casts a shadow over the colony, due to revert to Chinese sovereignty at midnight on June 30. Many felt a sense of betrayal over the Tiananmen Square crackdown, and said it called into doubt Deng's promise to let Hong Kong retain its capitalist system and freedoms for 50 years after the handover.

However, even his sternest critics acknowledge that Hong Kong owes Deng a debt for creating the conditions under which the territory has enjoyed a sustained period of economic prosperity, in which growth in this "Asian Tiger" economy exceeded all previous records.

Deng made it a priority as long ago as 1978 to realize his dream of recovering sovereignty over Hong Kong this year.

The year 1997 marks the expiration of what Chinese see as the disgraceful treaty which ceded a part of the Chinese mainland for a period of 99 years. Hong Kong island itself had been ceded to the British colonial rulers in perpetuity in 1842 (although it, too, will be handed back).

Deeply aware of Chinese history and his place in it, Deng made it a priority to wipe out the humiliation of foreign occupation. He told then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1982 that no Chinese leader would be able to justify himself for failing to regain Hong Kong.

Stephen Vines, a respected commentator for the "Asia Times" newspaper says: "The wily Deng knew that not only would Chinese national pride have to be satisfied but the fears of the Hong Kong people and, in his view, more importantly, the people of Taiwan -- which he also wanted returned -- needed to be allayed."

To do so, he developed the "one country, two systems" under which, according to Deng, "the main part of China must maintain socialism, but a capitalist system will be allowed to exist in certain areas, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan." At the same time, capitalist influences would be allowed to "help supplement the socialist economy."

This was the origin of the idea under which Hong Kong could remain capitalist, albeit under the sovereignty of a communist state, while other cities in southern China would be allowed to develop along capitalist lines, spurring the rest of the economy.

The remarkable economic development of southern China, aided by Hong Kong and Taiwainese entrepreneurs, succeeded beyond Deng's expectations and took on a life of their own. Today, cities that were dimly-lit museums during the Mao years are now bustling and alive, packed with cars and shops, and China is the site of what one analyst calls "the biggest construction boom the world has ever seen."

Hong Kong was the main beneficiary of this boom. Firmly connected to the powerhouse of economic growth in China, it entered an era of double-digit growth and enhanced prosperity.

"Hong Kong businessmen were ready to almost deify the name of Deng Xiaoping," says Vines. "Although Hong Kong people had every reason to distrust the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, the majority of the population being refugees or children of refugees from China, Deng was seen as a beacon of hope, the pragmatist who had helped make the territory prosperous, and had shown he understood the dynamics of capitalism."

However, Deng and the British government jointly settled the fate of Hong Kong in secret negotiations without communicating their intentions to the people most affected, the people of Hong Kong, until late in the day. Deng indicated he did not favor any form of full-scale democracy for Hong Kong, and even spoke of the need for the Chinese government to intervene in the territory if instability broke out.

Disenchantment with Deng set in after the Tiananmen massacre, which was greeted with shock and anger in Hong Kong. In the days after the crushing of China's democracy movement, a rash of T-shirts were seen across the territory with Chinese slogans critical of Deng.

According to Vines, these slogans summed up the betrayal among people who thought "they had found the acceptable face of Chinese communism." But it was no longer possible to hold this view.

As Deng grew older and reports about his health filled the pages of Hong Kong's dynamic Chinese-language press, there was much talk about how the territory would manage after the "great man's" death.

What will be the verdict of history on his contribution? An editorial in the "Asia Times" said 18 years ago, Deng did not plan vast economic or political changes for China. It says he aimed low: to give more food to the Chinese people, save them from starvation, and save Communist Party rule. But, intentional or not, the editorial says, his pragmatic approach "defined a major break with communist ideology".

The editorial says that Deng pulled China away from impending catastrophe, and in just 18 years, has created a world economic and strategic power that is on course to become the world's largest economy in the first half of the 21st century. The challenge of the new leaders who replace him "will be to understand and sensibly channel the social and political forces economic success has unleashed."

Where does this leave Hong Kong? How the new leadership in Beijing treats this free-wheeling capitalist enclave after reunification may well provide the clearest guide to their long-term intentions towards the rest of China.
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