The Death of China's Last Strongman: Asian Perspectives on Deng's Death

After Mao Zedong's death in 1973 Deng Xiaoping took the course of Chinese history in his hands and turned it around. He transformed a center of revolution and rebellion into a surging economic superpower at a pace that has astonished the entire world.Teng also presided over an equally dramatic but less visible transformation. In a country whose destiny has long been in the hands of emperors and political strongmen, he inherited the position of "helmsman" and his charisma and will penetrated every nook and cranny of the country. Yet he used that influence to set in motion a radical decentralization of power to the point where the state -- once the master of society -- is well on its way to becoming the servant.Just twenty years ago, in the Mao era, everything from the functioning of the economy to people's everyday lives unfolded within the framework of state ideology. Hundreds of millions of people -- men and women alike -- wore Mao-style clothes and watched the same eight shows on television.Today on the streets of Beijing one can see the fresh imprint of new markets and a thriving civil society. Where once there were only a few kiosks carrying the official newspaper, the People's Daily, today thousands provide stock market quotations, real estate news, financial information, legal advice, sports announcements, astrological charts, and announcements on everything from the care and feeding of caged birds (a passion with Chinese elderly) to rearing children. The People's Daily is hard to find.Beijing people are known for their enthusiasm for politics. In the Mao era, people would see sports events as metaphors for the "rise or fall of the country" -- prompting people at times to rush into the streets to burn clothing, wave bottles around, throw stones, smash cars. Now when people gather on the streets the heated conversations are more apt to be about personal income, kids' educations, Hong Kong and Taiwan movie stars, sports news, electronic gadgets-- even interior decorating -- or to complain about inflation, traffic, crime, official corruption. When China's bid for the Year 2000 Olympics was turned down Beijing people voiced their disappointment on Tiananmen Square for several hours but then quietly went home to bed -- to the surprise of many Western reporters.Economic data underscores the changes in dynamism and direction in China. Just ten years ago state-owned industries were the pillars of China's planned socialist economy. Today they account for less than 30 percent of the country's GNP, while privately owned, foreign capitalized firms and new rural-township industries account for more than half.No doubt there is a continuing strong element of personal rule in China, but as the market economy and civil society expand, they steadily shrink the space within which the state and its strongmen can operate, and in this way weaken the tradition of autocratic rule and peacefully lead China onto a path of democratic politics.Serious problems remain -- like inflation, social corruption, regional and social inequalities, and millions of surplus laborers have produced a lot of tension. And more than seven years after the Tiananmen massacre, the sound of breaking glass can be heard in Beijing University on the nights of its anniversary. But given the vast transformation of China's social outlook, Deng Xiaoping could very well be China's last strongman.Japanese Laud Deng's Asian-Style Economic DiplomacyYoichi Shima Tsu(Yoichi Shimatsu is a free lance journalist based in Tokyo and former editor of the Japan Times Weekly)TOKYO -- Japan's conservative politicians have been streaming to China's embassy here to pay their respects on the death of Deng Xiaoping. The tribute goes beyond recognition of his role in fostering economic reform. It includes that rare kind of admiration reserved for a man who outfoxed his foes at every turn.The broader reaction to Deng's passing is quite subdued, in contrast to the public grief which greeted the deaths of Mao Zedong and Premier Chou En-lai. Mao and Chou were -- and are -- seen in Japan as heroes in the classic mold, both imbued with greatness and tragically flawed, who restored self-esteem to Asia and brought equality to its relationship with the West. Despite his reputation for innovation, Deng was basically viewed as a transitional figure, who continued, implemented and extended the economic and diplomatic policies crafted in the late-1960s and early 1970s, the era of normalization of relations between China, the United States and Japan.Though Deng's widening of economic freedoms has received the lion's share of media attention, for Japan the changes in geopolitical relations he presided over will likely be more significant, specifically the revival of Asian-style economic diplomacy. Western analysts tend to speak of force, with terms such as regional power or superpower, engagement or containment. But the Asian experience offers a different model. which sees trade as a way to stabilize relationships and maintain the peace.This tension between Asian and Western styles of trading may also play a role in the possible struggle between China's new class of managers against the privileged children of the party elite, who have benefited from the economic free for all. If the managers gain the upper hand and can fine-tune the tributary system, Deng's reforms may benefit more than 1 billion Chinese and lead to long-range benefits across Asia and the Pacific. If not, there could be chaos, possibly catastrophe.Deng's Fall and Rise -- A Model of Chinese SurvivalFrank Schurmann(Franz Schurmann is the author of several books on contemporary China and former head of U.C. Berkeley's Center for Chinese Studies)In China, to be General Secretary of the Communist Party was to be at the pinnacle of power.But when General Secretary Deng Xiaoping crossed Mao Zedong in 1967 he was sent to the country side, where he cleaned village latrines. Then, some six years later, he reappeared and was photographed sitting to the right of Chairman Mao.To understand the dramatic fall and rise of Deng Xiaoping it may be best to look at history -- and to remember that people in China, young, old or in between , know an astonishing amount about their country's history. And the most astonishing aspect of that history is the fact that Imperial China lasted, through repeated ups and downs, from 246 B.C. until 1911 A.D. -- 2157 years!It survived for so long because the Chinese -- then and now -- are survivors.Mao brought Deng back from the country because Mao had become completely disillusioned with those through whom he had launched his Cultural Revolution -- and because Deng had shown, above all else, that he was a survivor.Mao has often been photographed sitting in a study lined with classic books. Chinese did not care whether he studied these books or not. What matters was that those books spoke of China's long survival.In 1979, three years after Mao's death, Deng made two bold moves. He concluded what was in effect an alliance with the United States aimed at a hostile Soviet Union. And he began a program of agricultural reforms -- in effect bringing back family farming. The result was a dramatic upswing in food production which led to a third bold move as Deng opened the way for a market economy in cities and opened the doors to foreign investment and presence.The result has been an era of astonishing prosperity, stability and hope.Deng's image is tainted for many in the West by his role in the June, 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square. Deng himself declared he gave the order to crush the protest. But this act reflected a confidence which is again best explained by looking at history.Deng comes from Sichuan, a province overwhelmingly rural and poor. The Chinese Army is still drawn mainly from such people, and Deng knew that they saw him -- as they saw Mao and before him Chiang Kai Shek -- as the emperor. For them, Imperial China did not end in 1911.On June 4, 1989, China's modernizing economy was still very shaky. Many Chinese -- in China and elsewhere, of all political persuasions -- believe the country did not collapse because Deng crushed the protest and cite the country's present condition as proof.The course of history is always unpredictable. But there is one rock hard fact about Deng Xiaoping and the China he helped fashion. After more than a century of degradation, China now radiates an allure of greatness that recalls the beginnings of its great dynasties of the past.Deng's Model Rests on Vulnerable BaseSanjoy Banerjee(Sanjoy Banerjee is a professor of international relations at San Francisco State University, and an expert on east and south Asia)The passing of Deng Xiaoping provides an occasion to reflect on the system he created. The Chinese now hope to follow the trajectory of South Korea, Taiwan, or better still Singapore. They have developed an authoritarian capitalist society under the leadership of a Leninist party and hope that it endures at least long enough to raise the living standards of Chinese to those enjoyed by their eastern neighbors. Yet the Chinese experiment is on many times the scale -- 25 to 400 times -- of the countries they are emulating. That is likely to make a difference.Countries react in particular ways when the balance of world power is at stake -- and the East Asian authoritarian capitalist model depends critically on how the rest of the world reacts. William Safire's recent suggestion that the US cut trade with China in order to keep it weak is a chilling reminder of the possibilities. China is forced to perform a very delicate balancing act between attracting and provoking the United States and other major powers.China's economic achievement is much celebrated. However, recent revisions of World Bank estimates suggest that China's living standard is one-and-a-half times that of India's, not double as previously thought. The revision will do little to affect the world's assessment of China's power, which depends more on exports, imports, and military strength, estimates of which are unchanged. But it may tell us something about the viability of the Chinese political system.China's party dictatorship justifies itself by its economic performance alone -- the Maoist ideological justification for Communist Party rule has been abandoned. If Chinese economic growth slows down, or if popular perceptions of that growth sour, a post-Deng regime will have no base of legitimacy. East Asian capitalist dictatorship-states were able to remain stable in their early stages by maintaining high rates of growth and with a guarantee of US support, as demonstrated in Korea and Vietnam. China is very much on its own politically, and for a fifth of humanity it could not be otherwise.Deng Xiaoping transformed China from a self-destructive totalitarian state into a more open regime that has gained a dominant position in global light manufacturing. It may well be able to climb the technological ladder as its wealthier neighbors have. But current regime's narrow basis of justification is itself a source of instability.Deng -- Prophet of Myth of Science and MaterialismCobie Kwasi Harris(Cobie Kwasi Harris is a political scientist and chair of African American Studies at San Jose State)In the African-American community, character is measured not in terms of possessions but in terms of what one has overcome.By this measure, Deng Xiaoping was a great man. He reached the top echelon of power in China, he walked and talked with kings, queens, presidents, and prime ministers.Yet not once, but twice he was sent to his village and forced to clean toilets -- purged from the party because his vision that ideology could not increase material prosperity, nor satisfy the ordinary peasants' desire to provide a decent life for themselves or their children, created conflict between himself and Chairman Mao. Moreover, during the storm of the Cultural Revolution he also lost a son.Nevertheless, Deng never changed his conviction that once must "seek truth from facts," and not ideologies.Deng possessed one trait that all great leaders have. He never allowed himself to be consumed by pity or bitterness. This allowed him to keep his eyes on the prize -- and for him the prize was to transform China into a prosperous, industrial country.Ultimately, Deng's legacy will be judged in terms of the myth of science and materialism, which was the founding principle of his revolution -- a principle that also demystified Mao's myth that a heroic people can do anything.The question is not only whether Deng's work will lead to not only economic prosperity but also greater social cohesion. If his principles lead only to a soulless or alienated prosperity, characterized by inequality, massive corruption, social dislocation and indifference to calls for social justice, he will be judged unkindly by history.


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