The Limits of Reform Deng Xiaoping's Legacy Divides Chinese Leadership

Deng Xiaoping's heirs may rule China, but critics of capitalist socialism are invoking Mao Zedong ahead of next week's Communist Party national congress. Long after their deaths, China's two founding fathers continue to dominate the giant country.

By in Beijing


Deng Xiaoping (right) and Mao Zedong are shown in Beijing in this 1959 photo.
AP

Deng Xiaoping (right) and Mao Zedong are shown in Beijing in this 1959 photo.

Deng Pufang, 63, is an influential man in China. Pufang, who is paralyzed from the waist down, is the chairman of the China Disabled Persons Federation, which he founded. Here in his office in Beijing, he is surrounded by employees who attend to his needs. They are busy making the final preparations for the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party next week, which he plans to attend.

Pufang is also the the son of the former Communist Party General Secretary Deng Xiaoping, the reformer and rival to Mao Zedong. Pufang is a symbol, a living reminder of the atrocities that Mao had his underlings inflict on people like him. But he also symbolizes the modern age into which China has been pulled, thanks to his father, who was almost destroyed several times during this long struggle, but who ultimately prevailed.

Pufang talks about the Cultural Revolution Mao launched in 1966. His father, the deputy prime minister at the time, was banished and forced to work as a laborer in a tractor factory in Nanchang in southeastern China.

Pufang was a physics student, and the Red Guards, the gangs of thugs and murderers Mao had unleashed, hounded him until he became so desperate that he jumped from a fourth-story window at Beijing University. He survived, severely disabled, and vegetated in a nursing home until 1971, when his father was finally permitted to care for him at home.

The father and the son, both deeply depressed, said nothing to each other when they met again. "I couldn't move at all," says Pufang. The great but diminutive Deng, who had once been powerful and would soon return to power, devoted himself to caring for his helpless son. "He would wash my body, quietly and with great seriousness," says Pufang.

Mao died in 1976. Two years later, Deng Xiaoping returned to power and embarked on his reforms, opening up China to the rest of the world and establishing conditions for economic reforms that would eventually turn the country into a market economy. China is now the world's fourth-largest industrialized nation, and it already seems clear that it will be the world's second superpower one day, next to the United States.

Even today, more than 10 years after his death, Deng is omnipresent in China. This is due in part to his successors, who have lacked Deng's charisma and have consistently stood in his shadow.

One of them is Chinese President and Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao, 64, who plans to use the party congress to consolidate his power for another five years. He undoubtedly stands a good chance of succeeding, despite the fact that there is more tension within the Communist Party than there has been for a long time. The party, which places great importance on unity, is currently embroiled in an ideological debate that parallels the old rivalry behind Mao and Deng.

Seventeen former ministers, officials and scholars, who see themselves as the protectors of Mao's legacy, sent a letter to Hu in July. The country is sliding down an "evil path," they wrote. "Party secretaries have become capitalists, and capitalists have become party members." The group of 17 wants to see the Communist Party tighten its controls on the economy once again -- just as Mao did when he humiliated Deng.

But for dedicated Deng followers, the reforms haven't gone far enough. In a letter to the liberal publication Yanhuang Chunqiu, they warned the Communist Party leadership of the dangers of social unrest that they fear could plunge China into a crisis.

Deng Pufang is the son of Deng Xiaoping.
AP

Deng Pufang is the son of Deng Xiaoping.

The deep divisions between the winners and losers in China's changing system have fanned the flames of the old rivalry between Mao and Deng. Even from their graves, the two dead emperors are still wrestling for control of China's soul.

Like Mao, who was born in 1893, Deng, born in 1904, grew up at a time when China was deeply divided. At the time, the country was being humiliated and carved up by the Western powers and Japan. Like Mao, Deng also spent his childhood in the countryside, surrounded by rice fields and oxcarts. But unlike Mao, who never lived abroad, Deng went out into the world at the age of 16, traveling to France, where he also worked in a Renault car assembly plant.

While in France, Deng witnessed both capitalist progress and harsh exploitation. He joined the workers' movement and, six years later, returned to China via Moscow. After arriving in Shanghai, he led an uprising against the Chinese nationalist government of General Chiang Kai-shek.

Deng soon met Comrade Mao, who had quarreled with the Communist Party leadership in Shanghai, which, influenced by Soviet advisors, wanted to advance the revolution by using the urban proletariat as a revolutionary avant-garde. But Mao believed that the poverty-stricken farmers in the countryside were the true driving force behind the revolution.

Deng joined Mao's cause. Mao was the poet and thinker of the revolution, while Deng was its organizational genius. He helped lead the red guerillas in the field, first against Japanese invaders and later against Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang government, which fled to Taiwan in 1949.

Deng was present at Beijing's Tiananmen Square on Oct. 1, 1949, when Mao proclaimed the establishment of the People's Republic, the new China, a country virtually free of foreign dominance for the first time in more than a century. When it came to developing the country, Deng served as the executor of Mao's commands.

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