Deng Xiaoping was eulogized by his colleagues as the “chief architect” of China’s reform program and its opening to the outside world.1 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.”‘ 2 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.3 Death rituals matter to Chinese.4 How would his be handled? Deng was unhappy on his return to full power in December 1978 that a Mao masoleum had been built. The preservation of the Chairman’s embalmed body violated the compact signed by Mao and his colleagues in the mid-1950s agreeing that they should all be cremated; there were to be no remains, no tombs, no aping of the Soviet Union.5 But Mao’s immediate successor, Hua Guofeng, needing to bolster his tenuous grip on power, opted for a visible and permanent reminder of the man who had bequeathed it to him.6

Deng wanted nothing of the kind. According to a letter from his family to President and Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin, he

talked many times with us about his own funeral affairs…. There should be no farewell ceremony for his remains. Comrade Xiaoping always believed in simple and frugal funerals…. No ashes should be preserved. It is the wish of Comrade Xiaoping himself that his ashes be cast into the sea.7

Simplicity suits Jiang as Deng’s principal heir.8 Unlike Hua Guofeng, Jiang needs to downplay the passing of the “paramount leader”: undue veneration would only underline that he owes his job solely to Deng. The image has to be business as usual. A well-respected elder statesman has died in the fullness of his years, but after due mourning his experienced successor will continue in command. If Jiang’s colleagues confirm his succession at the Fifteenth Party Congress this fall, then clearly the second blessing he received from Deng was his longevity as godfather: he gave Jiang seven precious years to consolidate his position with deals, appointments, and incumbency.

Any suggestion that a mighty pillar of the regime has been removed could be destabilizing. Jiang and his colleagues in the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) appear to have been particularly sensitive to the memory of the major demonstrations in Tiananmen Square that followed the deaths of Zhou Enlai and Hu Yaobang. Ceremonies that might have attracted unruly mobs were avoided; wreath-layers were to be kept out of the square.9

Yet a moment’s reflection should have reassured Deng’s heirs that, under a proletarian dictatorship, people rally and risk their lives for leaders only if they support the political line they stand for: Zhou Enlai’s in 1976, Hu Yaobang’s in 1989, Yeltsin’s in 1991. The death of Stalin or Mao, godlike personifications of fearsome regimes of which they are still in charge, triggers wailing and worry, but rarely riots. The only instability is among the hitherto cowed elite as its members struggle for power in the vast vacuum left behind: Beria is shot; the Gang of Four is purged.


It is a measure of Deng’s record and a benefit of the retirement which he long sought10 that his death seems to have provoked neither fear nor uncertainty, little interest, and less emotion. A Western academic telephoning his Chinese wife in Beijing from the US found that she had not even heard of Deng’s death twelve hours after it had been announced. Even if the business of China is not exclusively business, politics is no longer ubiquitously in command. Chinese may honor Deng’s memory for that; but spontaneous demonstrations would be unlikely for the man who ordered the troops into Tiananmen Square in 1989.


Deng was a true revolutionary, as he himself recognized: “We too say that what we are doing now is in essence a revolution,” he told Mike Wallace in 1986.11 Deng returned China to the path of seeking wealth and power, but he was not simply another “self-strengthener” like the great mandarins of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Unlike them, he made historic breaks with China’s past in order to set the country on a path of rapid modernization.

History should deal more kindly with Deng than with Mao, who increasingly seems a transitional and traditional figure. Mao won a civil war, reunited the country, rebuilt the strong central state, and restored the respect of foreign powers, but so did many founding emperors to whom Chinese often compared him. Unlike other founders, Mao would not make the transition from revolutionary to ruler. Mao was a rebel with a cause, whose lethal egalitarianism lasted twenty years, cost millions of lives, and fatally crippled the regime he had set up. He sought utopia, but China almost ended up in a state of nature.12

Deng became Mao’s protégé when still in his twenties, and displayed great talent in party organization and on the battlefield. He was a quick study and a decisive leader, a doer not a dreamer like Mao, a pragmatist not a theoretician like Liu Shaoqi. After the revolution, his loyalty and abilities were rewarded when he became General Secretary of the Party. In that role, he energetically supported Mao’s Anti-Rightist Campaign against the intellectuals and the disastrous Great Leap Forward. This catastrophe sobered him into advocating policies that Mao found suspect, and so Deng became a principal victim of the Cultural Revolution. Yet when Zhou Enlai was dying, and Mao needed someone with the self-confident authority to run the state and to discipline the People’s Liberation Army, his only choice was to recall Deng. Deng attempted to stem the Cultural Revolution and was purged again one last time, but this made him the Chairman’s inevitable successor, the only man of his generation admired by Mao and his victims alike.


Many of Deng’s senior colleagues wanted him to resume the path of development from which Mao had diverted the country twenty years earlier. Why instead did he embark on the radical reform which became the hallmark of his regime, opening up China economically and intellectually to the world, recreating a form of the old foreign concessions in the Special Economic Zones, encouraging private entrepreneurship and bureaucratic capitalism, decentralizing much economic power to the provinces, unleashing the peasantry from the shackles of collectivism, and even seeming to presage political changes through low-level contested elections?

The answer would seem to lie partly in the severity of the internally inflicted defeats and partly in what he saw in the outside world. The party officially characterizes the Cultural Revolution as responsible for “the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the party, the state and the people” since the founding of the People’s Republic of China.13 With Mao’s demise, China was confronted with a turning point as momentous as at the beginning of the twentieth century. As the historian Mary Wright wrote,

Rarely in history has a single year marked as dramatic a watershed as did 1900 in China. The weakness laid bare by the Allied pillage of Peking in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion finally forced on China a polar choice: national extinction or wholesale transformation not only of a state but of a civiliza-tion. Almost overnight Chinese—imperial government, reformers, and revolutionaries—accepted the challenge. 14

Talking to senior Chinese officials in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, one got a sense of near-despair that the People’s Republic had squandered two decades in leftist extremism, and concern that whatever mandate the Chinese Communist Party had acquired in 1949 had almost worn out. The Party had to discard its old ways, or the people would discard the Party. The CCP had come to power implicitly promising to transform China into a united, peaceful, and prosperous nation, respected and equal in the eyes of the outside world; instead, its godlike leader had inflicted probably the greatest rural famine in Chinese history and then proceeded to unleash an orgy of civil strife that brought chaos to the cities, threatened to split the country apart, and left the nation vulnerable to the danger of a preemptive Soviet attack.


The timing of Deng’s return to power at the end of 1978 was also critical. When the Cultural Revolution started in 1966, there were only three models of modernization to choose from: the Western, which was unacceptable, the Soviet, which had been found wanting, and the Maoist, which had proved calamitous. Twelve years later, Japan and the four little dragons—Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong—three of them peopled by Chinese, had transformed East Asia into an economic powerhouse: they had found not only a route to wealth and power, but one that was almost indigenous, certainly within the old Chinese cultural sphere. Deng adopted and adapted the East Asian model.

Deng launched a late Qing-style great leap, unleashing forces rather than mobilizing them.15 From the Hundred Flowers episodes of 1957 and 1961, he had learned that intellectuals, while often critical, were willing to devote their talents to the good of the nation if given the chance. From the Great Leap Forward, he had learned that the more effective the mass mobilization, the more horrendous the disaster. In the early 1960s, he had learned that the way to transform agriculture, the Achilles heel of Chinese development, was not to dragoon the peasants but to liberate them, a measure which no previous reform program, Qing, Nationalist, or Maoist, had envisaged. Deng seems first to have announced his anti-collectivist formula, “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches the mouse it’s a good cat,” at a meeting of the party secretariat in June 1962; but it was plagiarized from the peasants.16 Briefly in the early 1960s, he saw too that Chinese entrepreneurship was not dead, it also just had to be liberated. And the Cultural Revolution had proved to him that an inward-looking China, cut off from the outside world, would never progress.

Deng never formulated a clear vision of China’s future, but once in command he certainly had a clear idea of how to get there, wherever or whatever it was: “It’s the economy, stupid.”17 For Deng, liberation of the economy from the shackles of central planning and the shibboleths of socialism, making “practice the sole criterion of truth,” was the key to the success of what he vaguely called “building socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Deng’s reform program has been lustier than all its predecessors precisely because he was prepared to set people free to improve their lot as they saw fit rather than force them to conform to some grandiose vision of his own.


Deng’s reforms involved historic changes in the conduct of the Chinese state. “To get rich is glorious” sounds crass, but for the first time in Chinese history, profit is not a dirty word. Long before Communist cadres came along, Confucian mandarins sought to constrain private wealth, whose power they distrusted. The commanding heights of the economy had to be in government hands, be it salt and iron under the Han or oil and steel in the PRC.18 But Deng had learned that a command economy would not take off. Government did not know best; China had to grow out of the plan.19 He failed to solve the problem of the money-losing state-owned enterprises (SOEs), whose debts are an ongoing threat to the health of the banking system. Putting hundreds of thousands of angry workers on the street was politically unfeasible. That problem he has left for heirs to solve.

Deng also relaxed the political grip of the central state apparatus. Ever since the Sui dynasty reinstituted the Chinese imperial system in the sixth century AD, after three centuries of disunity, the prime aim of Chinese statecraft has been to keep the country in one piece by strong central control. Under communism, the powers of modern media and organization greatly facilitated the Party’s ability to perform that role. Deng broke with tradition. To allow some regions to get rich first, Deng devolved power in an unprecedented manner which could be described as “economic federalism.”20 This left some regions very poor; but it also made sense for his announced policy of “one country, two systems.” If Hong Kong and Taiwan witnessed devolution working for Guangdong or Shanghai, they might be more reassured of its working for them too.

Thirdly, Deng’s policy of kaifang—“opening up”—has made the country accessible to foreign ideas and influences in a manner unprecedented since the Tang dynasty in the seventh century AD, and to a degree far greater than during the Tang. Deng symbolically reaffirmed the policy on his deathbed. In 1976, Zhou Enlai had asked that his ashes be “scattered in the rivers and on the land of our motherland.”21 Deng chose the sea. Since he apparently talked a lot about his funeral arrangements, his choice was not a casual one. His idea of a last resting place was surely a metaphor for his reform program. In the late 1980s, Deng’s conservative colleagues were incensed by the TV documentary series “River Elegy” (He Shang), in which the Yellow River stood for the inward-looking traditional culture that had kept China backward, while the blue ocean stood for the global culture which China had to join if it wished to modernize. 22 In life, Deng cast the deciding vote for kaifang. In death, he underlined that part of his legacy for his successors.


Despite the revolutionary nature of his program, and the importance of his legacy, Deng’s record is deeply flawed by the massacre in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. So notorious is the suppression of the students’ democracy movement in China that it is commonly referred to simply as “6.4,” liu si, June 4. Only one other date in modern Chinese history could be referred to in this abbreviated manner without confusion: “5.4,” wu si, May 4, the date of an anti-imperialist student demonstration in Beijing in 1919, which thereafter became the name for a widespread movement of national renewal. The Chinese Communist Party, founded in 1921, claims its origins in the womb of the May Fourth Movement, and the two dates serve as convenient bookends of the idealistic promise of the Chinese revolution.

“May Fourth” and “June Fourth” stand for periods of widespread yearning, searches for better futures than the national disunity and warlordism succeeding the 1911 revolution, and the political, economic, and human disasters that were the product of the 1949 one. 23 Both movements were broadly in favor of democracy and against the corrupt political and social systems of the day. The two movements were spearheaded by intellectuals and students—“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive / But to be young was very Heaven!“—with the students bearing the brunt of the struggle during the “incidents” themselves. That the educated elite represented the feelings and aspirations, however inchoate, of large sections of urban China during both movements is shown by the enthusiastic support they generated throughout the country.24

According to his daughter, the fourteen-year-old Deng Xiaoping joined in demonstrations with his fellow students when the nationwide upsurge which followed the May Fourth incident spread to his native Sichuan.

He once recalled that his patriotic ideas of national salvation were enhanced after participating….However, the kind of national salvation they talked about at that time was nothing but the idea of saving the country by means of industry. In his still naive mind, he was anxious only to go to France [in a worker-student program] to study so that he could learn something useful for his country.25

Seventy years later, that formerly naive but patriotic teenager turned the weapons of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on the naive but patriotic teenagers of his grandchildren’s generation. Not an uncommon denouement in the history of revolutionary leaders perhaps, but in Deng’s case an illustration of the limits of his vision.


Deng’s determination to “seek truth from facts,” his pragmatic willingness to do whatever it took to transform China economically, was refreshing when contrasted with the more hidebound attitudes of many of his peers and predecessors. But his neglect of any larger vision endangered his project. Like the late-nineteenth-century mandarins, he was hobbled by an abiding faith in the rightness of the prevailing political system, and in its durability so long as the economy could be developed. Like them, he mistakenly thought he could adopt Western learning for the purposes of modernization while preserving the political essence of the Chinese state. Western technology seemed like something peripheral that could be plugged into any political hardware. Like them, he failed to realize that the intellectual milieu in which such technology can be elaborated is an integral part of an open political operating system. You cannot travel far down the information superhighway in the political equivalent of a Model T.

The manner of the Qing dynasty collapse should have instructed Deng in the peril of simultaneously launching radical economic, intellectual, and social reform programs with serious political implications—especially if those programs effectively abandon their overall ideological justification, thus undermining the legitimacy and status of the bureaucratic class that has been the regime’s strongest supporter. Deng did not even need a knowledge of history, for his conservative colleagues were constantly warning him of the danger, and in April-June 1989 they proved prophetic.

Deng saved the day then with the help of the military, but the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 underlined the Qing lesson by demonstrating that once-powerful regimes based on total control could disappear overnight, even without defeat in major war. Deng went off early in 1992 on a southern tour to show his support for the booming new economic zones and to reinvigorate the reforms; but he could not restore the world Communist movement, the system of which China had once proudly been a part, the future that had not worked. The once-legitimizing creed of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought is styled a cardinal principle in Beijing, but it has few Chinese adherents, probably not even Deng in his last years. Since the disappearance of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, question marks have hovered over China’s political future for Deng’s heirs to try to answer.


For foreigners the salient China issues are Taiwan and the dangers of conflict in the region, trade and human rights, and the takeover of Hong Kong. Deng’s death won’t radically change the handling of these issues by Beijing’s leaders. They will be more concerned with the myriad domestic problems that China’s success story has spawned. In roughly ascending order of urgency they include:

Decentralization: So long as the central leadership can maintain its unity and authority, provincial autonomy and unrest among non-Han peoples like Tibetans and Uighurs can doubtless be held in check. But a new wave of mainland books that celebrate localism or provincial chauvinism and the recent riot of members of Muslim ethnic minorities against Chinese officials in Xinjiang show the kinds of latent pressures that could erupt.

Cultural anarchy: Deng’s heirs can continue to put dissidents in labor camps or jails, and they are trying to tighten their control over publishing. But China’s writers, artists, pop singers, and film-makers are difficult to rein in. They are creating alien worlds of the imagination light years away from planet Party, and, more significantly, they make up an intellectual milieu which in 1989 proved corrosive of Party authority.26 On another front, Christianity and indigenous cults are making increasing inroads on the regime’s official atheism, notwithstanding continuing persecution by the authorities. The Party is in danger of being caught in a pincer movement by the sacred and the profane. “Socialist spiritual civilization,” a formula devised under Deng and pushed by Jiang Zemin as part of his effort to put together a body of “thought,” is not an adequate response, mainly because no one seems to know what it means. The depth of the Party’s spiritual vacuum was highlighted when Jiang Zemin visited the celebrations of Confucius’ birth.

Crime and migrant labor: In spite of draconian measures, the crime wave continues at levels that earlier Communist governments would have found unacceptable. In urban areas, much of the crime is associated in the popular imagination with the bidonvilles of migrant workers, usually living with others from their native places; such workers now amount to perhaps a staggering 10 percent of the Chinese population. Police occasionally clear a whole area, but the migrants return. Indeed, if they were not working in Beijing or Canton and sending remittances home, they would likely be back in Hunan or Sichuan, out of work and ready to cause trouble.

Unemployment and unrest: While politics keeps huge state-owned enterprises like the Anshan Iron and Steel Works in business, economics has already led to layoffs, with token wages, of up to one half of the 100 million workers in state enterprises. This device keeps official unemployment figures below 5 percent, but the generally accepted figure is over 20 percent; in Shanghai it is probably 30 percent, in Tianjin, 40 percent. Underground workers’ groups have sprung up in protest and are believed to have links with other dissident movements. Protection of state-owned enterprises from the competition of profitable township and village enterprises, which are collectively or privately owned, will increase the rate of bankruptcy and unemployment in that vital sector for China’s growth. State-owned enterprises absorb 60 percent of national investment and they receive subsidies totalling one third of the budget. Most worryingly for the regime, perhaps up to three quarters of the funds of China’s much-vaunted savers are tied up in loss-making SOEs via the investments of state banks. That is a financial and political disaster in the making.27

Corruption: This was a major reason for citizen support for the students in 1989 and it is still probably the number-one issue for most Chinese. Corruption is now prevalent at all levels, and to an extraordinary degree. Communist Party veterans old enough to have marched into the cities with the victorious armies that ousted the Nationalists in 1949 say that corruption today is infinitely worse now than then—and at that time, corruption was credited as being a significant factor in Chiang Kai-shek’s loss of middle-class support. So endemic is official corruption that the regime appears paralyzed, uncertain of how many senior heads would have to roll if it were exposed. Most of those indicted (and often executed) for corrupt practices are small fry. In 1995, the party boss of Beijing, Chen Xitong, was removed from the Politburo in a corruption case reportedly involving $2 billion, but Jiang Zemin has so far not been able to bring this onetime rival to trial.

The military: Corruption also involves the delicate issue of the military, whose vast business activities are far from clean. But the PLA chiefs could be decisive in a succession struggle, and no contender would want to offend them in advance. Jiang Zemin has assumed the chairmanship of the Party’s Military Affairs Commission and he has taken advantage of that position to try to bind the PLA to him. He has increased its budget and presided over the replacement of most generals during his seven-year tenure. The PLA may wish to stay out of politics, but if the Politburo splits, Jiang’s position as its nominal commander-in-chief will not guarantee him its support any more than it did Hua Guofeng.

The succession: The difficult issues facing the government can be dealt with satisfactorily only if there is unity at the top. If Jiang’s right to be Deng’s ultimate successor is to be contested, it will have to be in the months before the Fifteenth Party Congress scheduled for this fall. Jiang is said to harbor the ambition of giving himself another title, Party Chairman, the office abolished by Deng because of its association with Mao and his follies. This move in itself could alarm Jiang’s contemporaries; but that and vulgar ambition aside, the key reason for a challenge to him would be that he is not sufficiently committed to economic reform.

Deng himself was never fully satisfied with his choice of Jiang. If Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang failed him by being soft on “bourgeois liberalization,” they had at least supported his economic policies. 28 Jiang Zemin might be tough on dissidents, intellectuals, and students; but as an engineer trained in the Soviet Union in the heyday of the command economy, he has found it difficult to adjust to the freewheeling capitalism of Deng’s project of reform. Now, if ever, will be the time for the PSC reform faction—led by Zhu Rongji, the economic czar, and Qiao Shi, head of the National People’s Congress—to make their move.29


Whoever comes out on top in the months ahead faces a still greater challenge: defining China’s ethos, what the nation is about. Chinese leaders gingerly stoke fires of nationalism over issues like Taiwan, alleged American “containment,” and revived Japanese “militarism.” Journalists earn a quick yuan with books proclaiming that China can say no. But to arouse genuine patriotic fervor outside the think tanks and cab ranks of Beijing, China’s leaders must explain the nature of the state to which they demand allegiance.

China still claims to be part of a gravely truncated world Communist movement; but that is unlikely to arouse any cheers. China has a government which has abandoned the cause (socialism) and the ideological justification with which it came to power. Tiananmen showed that a mandate based on competence was no substitute. Ultimately, one of China’s leaders will have to grasp the democratic nettle and give Chinese the genuine citizenship which Sun Yat-sen realized was the best way for governments to mobilize citizens. Jiang Zemin seems an unlikely candidate for such a task, but stranger things have happened.

Deng’s death prompts one to ask: Is the People’s Republic a dinosaur—large, powerful, but destined for extinction in some enormous catastrophe? Or can its leaders surf the democratic “third wave,” bypass the “end of history,” and avert the “grand failure”?30 Is there something invincible about a twenty-century-old “oriental despotism” which transformed itself into arguably the most thoroughly totalitarian system of the twentieth century, the nation of so-called “blue ants”?Or was the Tiananmen massacre only a Pyrrhic victory as China’s convulsive process of modernization lurches toward the democratic denouement sought by Sun Yat-sen?

Deng was never much given to angst or brooding, and may never have thought about such questions. In retrospect, he seems a Janus figure, with one face looking forward, smiling upon the brilliant economic future which he opened up for China, but the other grimly set upon the past, looking back to authoritarian political control by a bureaucratic elite characteristic of the Empress Dowager, Chiang Kai-shek, and Mao Zedong. But Janus was also the god of doorways and of all beginnings, and the “paramount leader” will surely be viewed as the man who finally opened the right door for the journey to begin, even if he refused to go on to the end. China is ready for its next revolutionary and its last revolution. With Deng gone, it will probably be soon.

February 27, 1997

This Issue

March 27, 1997