Chinese vice premier Deng Xiaoping applauds as President Jimmy Carter stands behind a podium at the White House, Washington, D.C. 29 January 1979. U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT MAGAZINE PHOTOGRAPH COLLECTION, LIBRARY OF CONGRESS PRINTS AND PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION WASHINGTON, D.C.

Deng Xiaoping survived upheavals in the Chinese Communist Party and in his own career to become the paramount leader of China during the 1980s. He helped China become one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, and kickstarted the process of Opening Up and Reform, from 1978 which continues to the present day. After years of autocratic rule under Mao Zedong, Deng moved China in a new economic direction while avoiding a complete rupture with the past.

Deng Xiaoping, eldest son of a prosperous landlord, was born in Paifang village, Sichuan Province in 1904. But by 16, he had already left home. He joined the Communist Party soon after its formal founding in China, in 1923, and, like many of his contemporaries, used a work-study program to go to France, living there for six years, and working, for a period, at the Renault Factory on the outskirts of Paris. He was to spend most of his time here, however, preoccupied with political activism, becoming familiar with many future leaders of the CCP when it came to power. After his stay in France Deng went to Moscow, where he trained further as a political activist and organizer, though he only spent a brief period there.

After working as a Communist Party organizer in southwestern China, Deng moved to the Jiangsi Soviet (1931–1934) to be with Mao Zedong. (The Jiangsi Soviet was an independent government established by Mao and Zhu De, one of the early Red Army military rulers, in Jiangxi Province in southeastern China, after the Guomindang [GMD] led purge of Communist activists in Shanghai in 1927.) During the war against the Japanese from 1937 to 1945, Deng occupied a number of positions as political commissar in the Eight Route Army, one of the Communist’s main forces. He continued his military career during the Civil War against the GMD from 1946 to 1949.

After the civil war Deng’s loyalty to the party was rewarded when he was appointed vice premier. He primarily worked in the ministry of finance, where he formulated economic policy. During a period in the 1950s now widely regarded as one of reconstruction and consolidation, he proved himself as a capable administrator. He worked, in particular, with Liu Shaoqi, and Zhou Enlai, the Chinese Premier from 1949, to improve productivity in the countryside, still the home to the vast majority of Chinese people. But a more assertive role by Mao Zedong in economic policy making from 1957 onwards, followed by a fall out with the USSR, and a purge of intellectuals and rightists, led to the disastrous period of the Great Leap Forward. Deng was to be one of the main leaders, after this policy was admitted to be a mistake, in 1962–1963 in clearing up the mess that had been created, instigating, under President Liu Shaoqi, a series of reforms that looked remarkably like those which reappeared from 1978, a system of farmers having more freedom to grow different kinds of crops; something approaching a primitive agricultural produce free market even made a brief appearance. But by 1965, Mao’s unease at what he regarded as capitalist tendencies in Liu, and by association in Deng, meant that they were already under a cloud. Deng was one of highest ranking victims of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 onwards, condemned for being a revisionist and capitalist roader, and removed from his position as General Secretary of the Party in 1967. While spared Liu Shaoqi’s grim fate of literally being deprived of medical treatment till he died of cancer, Deng’s son, Deng Pufang, at that time a student at Qinghua University, was thrown from the third story of a building and disabled for life. Deng himself was sent down to the countryside, spending much of the early 1970s in a tractor factory in Jiangsu. But in 1973, after the Tenth Party Congress, and the fall of Mao’s own chosen successor Lin Biao in 1971, Deng was rehabilitated. The Party needed his administrative skills too much, and his great mentor, Zhou Enlai, who was already ill with the cancer that would finally kill him in 1975, needed Deng at his side.

One of the most remarkable features of Deng’s career was his being unique in returning from the political graveyard not once, but twice. Savagely attacked by the group of extreme leftist leaders around Mao during his final days, the Gang of Four, he was removed from office again in 1975. But the death of Mao in 1976, and the decision by the then Chairman of the Party, and Mao’s chosen successor Hua Guofeng to arrest the radical leaders, meant that once more Deng was returned to power, this time making a reappearance during a football match in 1977. He was appointed a Vice Premier the same year, a position he served in until 1982. But despite his lacking the formal titles of leadership, he was, from the 1978 Third Plenum of the Tenth Party Congress, to all intents and purposes the paramount leader of China. He worked, within a group of senior leaders, to steer China away from the ideological and economic excesses of Maoism, dismantling in the early 1980s most of the apparatus of Maoist rule, and centralized economic control, and ushering in a period of bold reform. Such moves had him on the front page of Time Magazine twice as Man of the Year. His influence in causing China to liberalize its economy while remaining a Communist Party controlled state are still being worked through to this day, with China, as a direct result of his reforms, becoming one of the world’s major economies.

This era was to end in June 1989 with the Tiananmen Square Incident. Deng was many things, but he remained a faithful Communist Party servant to the last, and he saw the attempts to topple the Party from power as akin to treason. Even though he had ostensibly retired from all formal positions of power by 1989, including Chair of the Central Military Commission, it is clear from papers reportedly showing the deliberations of the Central Leaders during the period, and subsequently smuggled out of China and published in the West, that Deng’s say was decisive in ordering the put down of the demonstrators, many of them students, by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). It was a role for which he was to be internationally condemned, and which changed the rest of the world’s attitude towards him.

Deng’s final political contribution was to undertake the Southern Tour in 1992, at a time when the liberalization of China’s economy, and its openness to foreign investment, looked under threat. His defense of the need to continue and deepen the reforms, which were to culminate in China’s entry to the World Trade Organization in 2001, saved China slipping back into a more introspective, isolated position. From 1992 to 1997, Deng was largely invisible, making one final brief public appearance at a Party meeting in 1994, and dying in 1997, only a few months before one of his other major contributions, the successful return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty to the PRC, occurred in June that year. Deng is now called the “chief architect of China’s economic reforms” and although his historic contribution is not as dramatic as that of Mao Zedong’s, it may well prove to be both more profound in its historic effects, and a great deal longer lived.

Further Reading

MacFarquhar, R. (Ed.). (1997). The politics of China: The eras of Mao and Deng. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Yung, Benjamin. (1998). Deng: A political biography. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Zhang Wei-Wei. (1996). Ideology and economic reform under Deng Xiaoping, 1978–1993. New York: Columbia University Press.

Source: Brown, Kerry. (2009). DENG Xiaoping. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 602–604. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Professor Winberg Chai and Deng Xiaoping in 1986.

DENG Xiaoping (Dèng Xi?opíng ???)|Dèng Xi?opíng ??? (DENG Xiaoping)

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