Deng Xiao-ping, the second paramount leader of the People’s Republic of China, died on 19 February at the age of 92. He had reached an advanced stage of Parkinson’s Disease and eventually suffered respiratory and circulation failure.
His last published photograph, in a wheelchair, was in October 1994. For at least the past two years he has been too ill to assert his political power as the regime’s final arbiter. All the various political factions and tendencies within the Chinese Communist Party had long been jockeying for position in preparation for this eventuality. At this time of writing two weeks after his death, there have been no coups, strikes, demonstrations, stock market crashes. China and the world seem to have taken his passing away very calmly.
Deng was born in 1904 into a landlord family. He left home aged 15 for further study and never returned. Instead he was drawn, like most students of his generation, into China’s genuine cultural revolution, the May 4th movement of 1919. The 1911 republican revolution led by Dr Sun Yat Sen overthrew the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty, but the new republic was hijacked by army generals who fought each other but did little to break the stranglehold of imperialist powers over various regions of China. China’s students and intellectuals protested against the outcomes of the 1st world war, particularly the annexing of territories to Japan. They demanded that the country must embrace new political ideas, science and technology from outside China in order to become strong and truly independent. They insisted on replacing Confucian feudalism and classical literature with a contemporary living literature empathetic and accessible to the masses. Chinese workers in the concession areas under imperialist control began to take sustained and political strike action. This revolutionary wave of intellectuals and worker militants eventually became the nucleus of the newborn Chinese Communist Party, led by its first secretary general Chen Du-xiu.
Deng went in 1920 to study in Paris. The radicalisation begun by the May 4th movement spread to overseas Chinese students. He went to work in a French car factory. He and a whole group of Chinese students in France joined the new Chinese Communist movement. In 1926, the Party called its members home and Deng went, via Moscow. The Chinese communists in the Soviet Union had been uniquely exposed to the sharp faction fight between the Stalinists and the Left Opposition around Trotsky, and a great many had become Left Oppositionists. (For a detailed witness account of this period in the USSR, read Memoirs of a Chinese Revolutionary by Wang Fan Hsi, Columbia University Press, New York — ISBN 0-231-07453-0.) Somehow Deng did not become a Trotskyist and he returned to China in 1927. He was sent to work in Shanghai by the Communist Party in 1928. By this time, the back of the second Chinese revolution had already been broken as a result of the Communist Party’s adherence to the Stalin faction’s line of uncritically supporting the Kuomintang. This politically impotent stance enabled Kuomintang general Chiang Kai Shek to break the alliance with the communists and unleash a massacre of worker militants in Shanghai and Canton in 1927, thus decimating the communists’ base in China’s new industrial working class. The communists soon lost the remnants of their influence in the cities through further political misadventures dictated by the ultra left turn of Stalin’s faction. Deng and the surviving communists were forced into political retreat in the countryside.
In the 30s and 40s Deng was a political commissar to the Red Army, and was part of the Mao-led Long March. After the Communist victory in 1949, Deng continued to progress quickly up the party and state apparatus, becoming vice-premier in 1952 and minister of finance in 1953. By 1956 he was party general secretary, one of a handful of party leaders second only to Mao, including Zhou En-lai, Liu Shao Qi, and Marshall Peng De-hua.
Deng has often been characterised by bourgeois commentators as a political conservative and a pragmatic economist. His record would seem to confirm this. He had no disagreement with Mao over supporting Stalin’s suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, or with Mao’s purge of intellectuals and party dissidents during Mao’s “Hundred Flowers” campaign in 1957. His first known major clash with Mao was over the Great Leap Forward of 1957/8, Mao’s voluntarist attempt to catapult China into catching up with the industrialised West. This had led to massive waste of industrial and natural resources in futile efforts to make steel in backyard furnaces, resulting in massive neglect of agriculture and subsequent starvation of millions in 1959-62. Deng’s pragmatic economic policies of limited free market reforms within an orthodox framework of Stalinist-style state planning helped to slowly drag China back from the brink of collapse (although Deng was not alone in this rescue operation — almost certainly Zhou En-lai and Liu Shao-qi were involved as well). “A donkey is certainly slow, but it rarely has an accident”, said Deng at the time.
However, Deng’s success had angered the marginalised and discredited Mao, who counter-attacked three years later when he launched the Cultural Revolution. Mao’s ultra-left impatience led him to a faction fight with those who tried to develop China along orthodox Stalinist state planning lines, as in Eastern Europe.
Deng was labelled as a capitalist roader, and was one of the two principal targets of the Maoists (the other was President Liu Shao-qi, labelled as China’s Krushchev). He was paraded in public and humiliated by red guards, made to sign a confession, held in solitary confinement for two years and sent to work in a tractor factory where he was not allowed any political freedoms. Deng’s son was forced off the balcony of a building and ended up paralysed from the waist down. Deng’s life was spared, possibly through the intervention of premier Zhou En-lai. Liu Shao-qi suffered a worse fate and was eventually persecuted to death.
In 1973, one year after China ended its political isolation by inviting US President Nixon to play ping-pong and to meet Mao in Beijing, Deng was rehabilitated on Zhou En-lai’s recommendation, later re-entering the Politburo and delivering China’s foreign policy address at the UN. Deng was in a hurry to rebuild a powerbase against the ultra-left Maoists but was not secure enough to fend off a second purge when Zhou En-lai died in January 1976. Mourning for Zhou turned into a riot against the Maoists, who blamed Deng for orchestrating the protests and stripped him of all his posts. However, Mao died in September that year, and during a period of political faction fighting, Deng made his second comeback, eventually winning through against the Maoists and imposing his brand of reforms decisively on China whilst kicking the dead Mao upstairs as a icon of the 1949 revolution.
Deng’s reforms in 1977/8 included a new constitution and legal code, formal separation of the state apparatus from the party apparatus, cutting back on the size of the bureaucracy swollen with Cultural Revolution careerists, rehabilitated technical experts, academics and party cadres purged by the Maoists, and starting off free enterprise in agriculture and light industry — replacing the commune system with family-sized plots, permitting the growth of cash crops. He reached out to the West for support, and in December 1978 China established full diplomatic relations with the USA. Deng visited the USA amidst great fanfare and being named Man of the Year by Time magazine. A year or so later in 1979/80, he clamped down heavily on the Chinese Spring — the dissident movement of 1976 — once their campaigns had helped him to mobilise sufficient forces to finally defeat his factional opponents, the Maoists. Dozens of dissidents were imprisoned, including Wei Jing-shen, who was given a show trial under the new criminal code and a 15 year sentence. (Wei was released a few months before his full sentence was up, in China’s bid to win the contest for the 2004 Olympics — he has since been re-imprisoned.)
The economic reforms were later extended to the cities around 1983/4. Rigid central planning was loosened — autonomy was given to industrial managers, private enterprise encouraged, and price controls on thousands of commodities were relaxed. Special economic zones were created in several southern coastal areas, the largest being in Shenzhen, across the border from Hong Kong, which held incentives for overseas investment. A Joint Declaration was struck with Margaret Thatcher’s government to take back Hong Kong but with a guarantee of “50 years of no changes” under the slogan of “one country, two systems”. This set the climate for the rapid transfer of Hong Kong’s manufacturing base across the border. “Patriotic” Hong Kong Chinese-capitalists were financing new factories in a new round of super-exploitation of their fellow countrymen and women, paying wages a fraction of a fraction of what can be earned in Hong Kong. (Today a typical unskilled factory job in this area would earn 16$ a day for a 12 hour day and 28 day month — $12 to one pound sterling). The rush of multinational companies into China had begun, and Deng was for the second time named as Time Magazine’s Man of the Year in 1986.
However true to type, during this period Deng simultaneously allowed periodic campaigns against “decadent Western influences”, “spiritual pollution” etc, to enforce the party’s stranglehold on the political front.
By the late 80’s, the breakneck pace of changes had created an overheated economy, with peasants unsettled by price rises for commodities wiping out their recent increases of income from cash crops, while industrial wages were failing to keep up with inflation, especially in state-run enterprises which have in effect become bankrupt. Deng’s key protégés spearheading the economic reforms, Hu Yao-bang and Zhao Ziyang (party secretary and prime minister respectively) encountered increasing resistance from conservative state planners and Maoist remnants. Just as the reformers were losing ground inside the faction fight inside the party, students and democracy activists mobilised to demand political reforms, rallying from all over the country to Beijing and gathering around Tiananmen Square. The world’s media was there to report on Gorbachev’s visit in spring ‘89, and stayed on to report on the astounding growth of the democracy movement in Tiananmen, whilst the party and state apparatus appeared to be rendered impotent by factional deadlock up to the highest level.
Deng’s true colours were revealed, as he ditched his protégé Zhao Ziyang along with the economic reforms, in order to make peace with the state planners to ensure the regime’s survival.
The People’s Liberation Army was sent in to crush the unarmed democracy activists on June 3/4, killing thousands in and around Tiananmen Square. There can be no doubt that Deng, as the regime’s supreme decision maker, gave the orders to shoot.
Aware of the rebellious mood in Beijing against those directly involved in the massacre decision, Deng brought in Jiang Zemin, party boss in Shanghai, to fill the party leadership void. Those in favour of central planning, like Li Peng, were authorised to rein in the runaway economy to kill off inflation. A nationwide campaign netted hundreds of political dissidents, while hundreds more fled overseas, mainly via Hong Kong.
After a couple of years Deng began to become impatient for rapid economic changes once more. He launched his last campaign for reforms in his tour of the southern coastal provinces in 1992. This had put his nominated successor Jiang onto the defensive. However, old age and disease finally caught up, and Deng passed away without fulfilling his last publicly stated ambition, to visit Hong Kong after July 1st 1997. Only a handful who have lived through these same decades of turbulent Chinese revolution are alive today, and two of them are veterans of Chinese Trotskyism.
Deng leaves the regime with essentially the same problem it has had for decades — how to achieve industrial strength and keep itself in power without the support of the masses. Mao’s voluntarist brainwashing experiment had failed, and so has orthodox Stalinist central planning. Deng’s project of economic reforms has bought more time for a dying monster of a system dedicated to enslaving its citizens in the mother of all labour camps. However, this wonder drug leaves his successors with the problem of how to survive without killing off the unproductive state-owned enterprises, through which the Party exercises its political control of workers, and without allowing a new exploiting class to grow to the point of challenging the Party’s monopoly on power. Also, their problem is how to make use of the technology and investment of the multinational companies without letting these wolves right through the front door.
One thing is sure. Any remaining will to survive as a political system is being sapped by the corruption which is eating its way like a cancer through the body of party cadres, accelerated by each phase of economic opening which presents ever increasing opportunities for cadres to enrich themselves.
The various factions — economic reformers, Maoists, Stalinist state planners — coexist in the aftermath of Deng’s death for the sake of the regime’s immediate survival, but for how long?