Deng Xiaoping was eulogized by his colleagues as the “chief architect” of China’s reform program and its opening to the outside world. This was misleading. Deng was no master builder. Unlike his patron, Mao Zedong, and fortunately for his countrymen, he had no utopian blueprints for the future, except perhaps the century-old dream of Chinese statesmen that China must become rich and powerful. But, like Mao, he was a demolition man. Deng deconstructed the China he took over: not the traditional China of Confucian values and Taoist cults, but the China of Communist principles and practices which he had himself helped Mao to superimpose upon their land.
When Deng took over in December 1978, “China was faced with a very grim situation and extremely arduous tasks. It was imperative to break away from the calamities caused by the ‘Great Cultural Revolution.”’ All agreed on that, but most of Deng’s surviving peers were nostalgic for the “golden age” of the 1950s, the Soviet model redux but reshaped. Deng forced them to go in the opposite direction.
Mao had always talked a good line about “liberating” the people, but insisted they obey his vision. “Liberation” is used by the Chinese Communists to describe the revolution of 1949, after which they put the people in a Leninist straitjacket. During the past seventeen years, Deng did actually liberate the Chinese people from Stalinist economics and Maoist social theory, enabling them to prosper as never before. He shrank from abandoning Leninist politics as well—after the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, he felt it was China’s only guarantee of stability—but his reforms have also undermined that system, as the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989 demonstrated.
Deng’s heirs will doubtless try to prop up the doomed Leninist state to safeguard their own power. China’s next revolutionary, however, will be thinking how best to transform the current polity—before it collapses in a more tumultuous way—into the kind of plural system that the Nationalist Party has now set up on Taiwan. For the only man with the political and military influence to defend the final frontier of the Maoist state with armed might against the forces he unleashed during the reform era is now dead.
Deng Xiaoping worried about his death. Not about the how and the when as far as we know, but about the aftermath—not wherever he might be meeting Marx or even God, but here on Earth. But Mao’s immediate successor, Hua Guofeng, needing to bolster his tenuous grip …