Mao Zedong used to point him out to foreign visitors. ‘That little man,’ said the Chairman, ‘will go a long way.’ Such praise was belittling in more than one sense and Mao made sure during the Cultural Revolution that Deng went nowhere. Yet Deng Xiaoping bounced back, once while Mao was still alive and then definitively after his death. The image of someone small but determined, refusing to be crushed by criticism, is very strong. In 1978, when Deng swept away Mao’s immediate successors, his admirers in Beijing compared him to the immortal Monkey of the classic Ming Dynasty novel Journey to the West who whirls his staff and vanquishes demons ten times his size. Affectionately they called him His Excellency Deng – literally, Big Man Deng.
‘Short, chunky and physically tough’ but with a mind ‘as keen as mustard’ was the verdict of an American who met him in 1938. Deng was always around, getting things done – the election agent of the Revolution. A radical student in the early Twenties in France, he was famously described – by the man who would become Premier Zhou Enlai – as Doctor Mimeograph. A decade later, in the ‘Jiangxi Soviet’ in central China, he was buffeted by the violent factional struggles within the Communist Party but survived as editor of the party journal, penning the headlines by hand. He attended the famous Zunyi Conference in 1935 during the Long March when Mao seized control, but somehow he never spoke. He managed to miss the 1959 Lushan Plenum, when Mao turned on his critics in the Great Leap Forward: he was supposed to be recovering from a broken leg sustained a year before – while playing billiards. Yet from 1956 till his disgrace ten years later, Deng was the Doctor Mimeograph of the entire Communist Party in the crucial (but vulnerable) role of General Secretary. He knew how to keep his head down, though in the end his caution only encouraged Mao’s suspicions. ‘Deng treated me like a dead emperor,’ Mao complained.
All this was essential for survival but has hardly helped Deng’s biographers. We know he is a man of forceful argument, but for most of his speeches of the Fifties and Sixties we must still rely on snippets quoted (probably out of context) by the Red Guards, who labelled him ‘China’s No 2 Party Person in Power Taking the Capitalist Road’. His Selected Works are heavily edited and much less quirky than those of Mao. Travelling in China in 1976, as the battle raged between Deng and the Gang of Four, I was handed a sheaf of unpublished speeches copied from the Beijing walls. These were passionate appeals to put China back on its feet after the Cultural Revolution, to revive the education system and get the scientists back to the laboratories. Deng was particularly incensed by the inertia of the new revolutionaries, often old bureaucrats in disguise. ‘These people are real heroes,’ he wrote: ‘they sit on the lavatory and don’t even know how to shit.’ Needless to say, this speech does not appear in the Selected Works either.
Deng Mao Mao, or Deng Rong as she should properly be called, is the author of the most recent biography and starts out, on the face of it, with a sharp advantage: she is his daughter. In recent months she has been in the China-watchers’ sights. Promoting the English edition in a New York Times interview she appeared to say that her father was fading fast. Later she caused another stir when a visit by her to Japan was cancelled. It is Deng Rong who has steered the doddering Deng on his rare public appearances (the last in February 1994). Her book was keenly awaited, ‘causing a sensation’, said the Times, ‘even before it [was] published’. Various China experts have rallied to say it ‘fills a blank’ in our knowledge of the man.
In reality Ms Deng (Mao Mao or ‘Fluffy’ to her dad) tells us hardly anything new at all. Any illusions should be cast aside by page four, where we learn that Father is ‘an introvert and a man of few words’. Throughout nearly five hundred pages – covering Deng’s life up to 1949 – there is no evidence that she has questioned him for the purpose of the book. The few recollections which she does quote come from published material or from chance remarks to his family. Father, she explains later on, ‘is reluctant to talk about his past’. Perhaps Ms Deng is simply following an entrepreneurial instinct of which Deng himself should approve. Most of the narrative appears to come from recent memoirs and other historical accounts, together with some detail from local histories. A chapter on her mother, a ‘bright and lively’ student revolutionary who is Deng’s third wife, stands out vividly by contrast. Ms Deng has visited her father’s native home in the red earth hills of Sichuan province. Even then she describes it misleadingly as a ‘mountain area’, places it too close to Chengdu, the provincial capital, and claims wrongly that there is no railway there.
There are a few anecdotal snippets to remind us of the hard slog of revolution. In France Deng developed a taste for coffee and football, pulled steel bars and ‘learnt about capitalism’. Back in China he once disguised himself as an antique dealer, wore a long gown and hat, and escaped arrest by seconds. He was saved from paratyphoid on the Long March by being fed condensed milk. We have a brief glimpse of him executing an army looter, then visiting Shanghai when it is liberated and losing his Parker pen to a pickpocket. We may wonder about the more serious effect of losing his first two wives. One was a ‘rare beauty’ who died of puerperal fever, another abandoned him when he was attacked in an early factional struggle. Were these also occasions when the little man suffered in silence? Briefly, Ms Deng winds the clock forward to 9 November 1989, after a decade of immense Chinese change, nearly all attributable personally to her father. The Central Committee has just decided to accept his resignation. That evening there is a family party. His four grandchildren give him a congratulatory card with four butterflies on it. The youngest one plants a very wet kiss on Grandpa’s cheek. Everyone laughs heartily. Deng says that from now on he just wants to live the life of a common man and walk freely in the streets.
It is a touching sketch of a great – little – man retiring in the twilight of life after a job well done. There are only two problems about it. First, the job went horribly wrong six months before in Tiananmen Square. Second, he has not retired. Deng was to make a very impressive tactical recovery three years later by launching a new wave of economic reform: without him, China might still be cloaked in gloom. His regular appearances at Chinese New Year calmed nerves at home and abroad till last year. Since then there have been nothing but official statements that he is in ‘good health’ and rumours about teams of doctors and treatment by qigong masters who can infuse health-giving energy into a patient without physical contact.
When the news comes, we will still have to make up our minds about Deng. The Beijing intellectuals who owed their post-Mao liberation to His Excellency were sharply disenchanted in 1989. Western business people and diplomats have been more indulgent, though not everyone shares the glorious certainty of Sir Richard Evans, British Ambassador in Beijing from 1984 to 1988. He concludes that for most Chinese the Beijing massacre is a ‘blemish’ on a record that is ‘much more white than black’. Western governments were obliged to put Chinese human rights on their agenda – and Britain increased the pace of democratic reform in Hong Kong – but it went against the diplomatic grain. Secret missions from London and Washington were creeping to Beijing within months of the massacre. When in 1992 Deng blew the whistle for China’s new race to a sort of capitalism, he became Man of the Year in half a dozen international weeklies.
It was an inspired move. The well-connected Hong Kong China-watcher Willy Lam writes that Deng’s ‘imperial tour of the south’ was a gigantic triumph of will over the conservatives in Beijing and the grey national mood. Almost single-handedly, Deng managed to blot out the disgrace of 4 June. ‘With a bold stroke, Deng predicated the legitimacy of the Party not on a heavenly mandate or prophecy from Marx but on solid, measurable economic performance.’ Lam says that it has turned out to be an illusion. The business craze encouraged by Deng has led to a new scourge of corruption and an insoluble ‘crisis of morality’ within the Party. His conclusion is unshaded: ‘For all his commitment to reform, Deng did not pursue it for its own sake, but as a means to preserve the Party – and to protect a clique of holders of special privileges. For all the high marks he earned in the West as a Master Reformer, Deng’s Maoist roots were obvious.’ When the dust finally settles on the Party, Lam predicts. Deng will be remembered as ‘the fool on the hill who tried to force the earth to spin the other way’.
Richard Baum points to a deeper historical irony. Deng’s challenge to the Gang of Four in the last months of Mao and his subsequent return to power were based on an implied popular mandate. This had been dramatically manifested in April 1976, when Tiananmen Square was packed in an earlier demonstration with mourners for Deng’s patron, the late Premier Zhou Enlai. Deng watched the demo from an upper-story window of the Great Hall of the People in the company of his rivals. They exclaimed that counter-revolutionaries were staging a rebellion: he kept silent, but fled soon afterwards to friends in the south. (Baum tells the story well, though he omits to mention that all the leaders were equipped with binoculars, the better to read the subversive banners and posters.)
When Deng ousted Hua Guofeng in 1979, he relied heavily on the popular movement at Democracy Wall, which called for the removal of the ‘counter-revolutionary’ label from the Tiananmen Square demonstrators. Yet 13 years later he would denounce the students in a new Tiananmen Square demonstration as agents of national chaos. ‘We must take a clear-cut stand and forceful measures to oppose and stop the turmoil.’ Baum quotes him as saying when briefed at an early stage by the odious premier-to-be Li Peng: ‘Don’t be afraid of students, because we still have several million troops.’ After the slaughter, he would congratulate those troops on their suppression of the ‘counter-revolutionary rebellion’. Having ascended to power on the strength of his own belated vindication in the first Tiananmen verdict. Baum writes. Deng now stood ‘to have his reputation tarnished for ever through a similar reversal’.
Baum tells, exhaustively, and sometime exhaustingly, story of the cycles of reform and reaction over which Deng presided for more than fifteen years. ‘Letting go (fang) with one hand, they instinctively tightened up (shou) on the other.’ But the question of what drives these swings between ‘left’and ‘right’, or ‘conservative’ and ‘reformist’ (we quickly get gummed up in labels) is harder. He writes of the impact of events, of crises in leadership succession and change, and of the perturbations caused by shifting factional alignments. This is not far from the cynical view among many Chinese intellectuals that the Party changes its policy ‘as frequently as the moon waxes and wanes’.
Ruan Ming offers a more ideological view, based on his position within the Party’s Central School before he left China in 1988. There is a passion for ideas here which is lacking in Baum’s analysis of ascendancies and reversals within the political élite. Ruan helped to write Deng’s power-challenging speeches in 1978; he was at first convinced that Deng would help establish a ‘new democratic republic’ but soon became disillusioned. ‘Developments after 1979 made apparent how complex a character Deng was. Sometimes he acted with a clear mind; at other times he appeared befuddled, driving both forward and backward in the huge cart of China’s reform and opening up to the outside world. This changeableness has made people both hopeful and desperate.’ Unusually among Chinese dissidents abroad Ruan still has faith in the ability of the Chinese people to secure their own democratic future. After Deng goes, he insists, ‘the pace of change will certainly accelerate.’
The logic of history elsewhere suggests this may be right, although it will be a messy business. A new civil society is emerging in China but it is formed in the image of Asian consumerism – not the most attractive model and not accessible, either, to millions of underemployed peasants. In its disorderly way, this uneven revolution may even bring more authentic possibilities of democracy. But Deng’s insistence on party dictatorship in 1989 halted the slower track of political reform which might have eased this difficult transition. There is still a chance of it all coming unstuck, of another (perhaps symbolic) Tiananmen Square.
The stifling of political experiment has also destroyed any possibility of preserving or recreating genuine forms of socialist co-operation which could offset the capitalist model now being aggressively sold not just to the Chinese but worldwide. There was a brief moment in the early Eighties when Deng tried to combine both policy strands. Today, the meaning of socialism in China’s ‘socialist market economy’, say Chinese friends, is merely that ‘the Party stays in charge.’ What matters to most Chinese is the word ‘market’: 68 per cent of Chinese recently polled by Gallup said that their aim in life was to get on and get rich. That, say the same friends, is what people now mean by ‘ideology’.
By the time Mao died there were two available images of the Great Helmsman, one saintly and the other (more recently amplified by lurid tales of his sex life) demonic. There also survived an ideology of socialist revolution in which more people still believed, in spite of its perversions, than it is now permissible to admit. Deng leaves behind a much fuzzier image. If Mao was larger than life, Deng seems smaller. In the end this may be more healthy but we are a long way yet from appreciating his real stature, and none of these books brings us much closer to him. Unlike Mao, Deng has never returned to his home village, which he left as a young man – almost as if he were unwilling to expose himself to the peasants who might understand him best. The only passion he has ever revealed is for playing bridge. In his final moments, he still keeps his cards very well concealed.