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.

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.

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.

'We Always Felt Father's Deep Respect for Mao'

Mao pressed ahead with China's development into an industrial and military power, eventually dispensing with the help of the Soviet Union, which he felt had abandoned him. The details were unimportant to the poetic visionary, as he dispatched his enormous country on his "Great Leap Forward" in 1958.

Throughout the country, the Chinese built backyard furnaces to melt down their kitchen pots and tools, cutting down one-tenth of the country's forests for timber and fuel. By the end of the ludicrous campaign, millions of people had starved to death. It was left up to Deng and older associates like Liu Shaoqi to alleviate the misery and revive the economy. It was then that Deng first made his oft-quoted remark: "It doesn't matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice."

Mao, the great ideologue, retreated resentfully to Zhongnanhai, his seat of government in the western section of the Forbidden City. He despised the new normalcy in which party officials and bureaucrats alike had ensconced themselves. Mao was convinced that he could only win the ideological battle through permanent class struggle and the extreme circumstances of revolution.

Together with his fourth wife, the actress Jiang Qing, and with the support of Defense Minister Lin Biao, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966. From his base in Shanghai, he ordered his underlings to attack "freaks and monsters" -- the intellectuals who had dared to mock him, the red emperor. In truth, his campaign was directed against his adversaries in Beijing, fellow travelers who had become rivals, including Deng. Mao's "little devils" drove established bureaucrats and high-ranking party officials to commit suicide, devastated temples and burned books.

The former tractor factory where Deng worked at the time, wearing a blue Mao uniform and simple rubber shoes, is a museum today. The workbench where he assembled and filed parts is still intact. Deng owed his survival to the other workers, who protected him against the Red Guards.

The long-awaited turning point and Deng's chance to return to power finally came in 1971. In September of that year, Lin Biao, Mao's anointed successor, died in a mysterious plane crash over Mongolia after an alleged coup attempt. Betrayed by his crown prince, the aging Mao needed someone to serve as a counterweight to his wife and her radical Gang of Four, who were hungry for power. He needed Deng.

The once-ostracized Deng suddenly reappeared at a state banquet in the Great Hall of the People in 1973. He immediately began to boost industrial production, which had declined considerably. He removed radical ideologues from power, released seasoned factory managers and experts from prison and reinstated them in their former positions. Deng quickly introduced reforms of the agricultural economy, industry, the scientific community and defense.

But his approach to reform was so hurried and abrasive that he aroused the dictator's suspicion once again. Mao placed him under house arrest. Deng would not be released until his outsized rival was dead.

In a legendary plenary session of the Central Committee in December 1978, Deng had his new policy of reforms and opening the country to the rest of the world formally ratified. Those who had expected him to use the opportunity to settle old scores with Mao -- perhaps with a dramatic gesture like the toppling of Russian dictator Josef Stalin's statue in Moscow after his death in 1956 -- were disappointed. He allowed the Chinese to continue their pilgrimages to Mao's crystal coffin. Deng, ever the pragmatist, needed the founder of communist China to hold the country together during his enormous reform experiment.

It was more than just tactics. Deng, China's new red emperor, must have felt connected to Mao -- the man who had inflicted so much suffering on him and his family -- in a kind of love-hate relationship. According to his daughter, Deng Rong, now 57, he never even complained about Mao to his family. "We always felt father's deep respect for Mao," she says.

Nevertheless, Deng was determined to prevent another Mao from coming to power. He imposed limits on the cult of the leader, prompting students and intellectuals to feel sufficiently confident to post flyers demanding democracy. But what they failed to recognize was that their idol was dead-set against any attempts to shake the party's monopoly on power. This conflict eventually led to the June 1989 massacre on Tiananmen Square, which ended in the deaths of up to 3,000 people and countless injuries.

Deng's life calmed down after this bloodbath. Officially retired, the patriarch spent his days playing with his grandchildren in his Beijing villa. But he soon realized that the party's old guard was not only watering down his reforms, but was also thwarting his efforts to open up the country economically. In January 1992, the 82-year-old Deng boarded a train for Guangdong, a special economic zone in the south. What seemingly began as a private excursion developed into the reformer's final comeback.

Chen Kaizhi, 67, remembers his meeting with Deng in Shenzhen. A photo in his study depicts a smiling Chen taking the guest from Beijing on a tour of the booming city. Within the space of a decade, the former fishing village near the Hong Kong border had been transformed into a modern city of skyscrapers. Deng was eager to see the city again, which he believed symbolized his life's work.

Whenever his car passed yet another modern factory, Deng ordered the driver to stop. The octogenarian in his beige leisure suit wanted to make sure that he had been right, and that the opponents of reform in Beijing had been wrong. He was convinced that China had to open itself up to even more experiments, including publicly traded companies, more foreign capital and more foreign technology.

Deng staged the high point of his trip in a restaurant on the 53rd floor of the Guomao Building with a view of nearby capitalist Hong Kong. The small old man delivered a 30-minute speech. "Reforms are the only solution," he said, warning the party against tiptoeing along "as slowly as women with bound feet."

Deng had won. It seems hard to believe today that a Communist Party leader could seriously reverse the country's embrace of a market economy. But the new old Maoists in the Communist Party are in fact right when they say, in their letter to President Hu, that functionaries and their children are turning into capitalists who often dispose of privatized state assets as if they were family property.

The true test for Deng's China is still ahead. According to the Asian Development Bank, income inequality is greater in China than in any other Asian country except Nepal. Millions of Chinese remain bitterly poor. Prompted by concerns over unrest throughout the country, the Beijing leadership is reluctant to allow democratic reforms, which could in fact lessen the pressure.

On the whole, says Deng Pufang, the party has not exceeded the limits his father imposed on it.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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