It matters not what color the cat, Deng Xiaoping famously observed, it matters only whether it catches mice. With that aphorism, Deng launched Communist China on a wholesale retreat from the doctrinaire Marxism of its founding leader, Mao Tse-tung, and set it on a new path towards a free-market economy. And like a cat, Deng seemed blessed with multiple lives: he survived repeated purges during his remarkable career before emerging in 1978 as Mao's clear successor - China's paramount leader. But last week, the durable Deng's lives finally ran out. And with his death at 92 of complications arising from Parkinson's disease and a lung infection, the country that Deng helped set on a new course entered a period of uncertainty unmatched since Mao's own demise.
Thanks largely to the success of Deng's reforms, China is unlikely, at least in the short term, to see the same kind of sharp change of national direction that accompanied Mao's succession. Officially at least, Deng's death changes nothing. He abdicated all his formal party and government positions in 1989 and successors are already in place, led by President Jiang Zemin, 70, and Premier Li Peng, 68. But Li's second five-year term expires next year, and Jiang's performance since he assumed office in 1993 has underwhelmed most political observers. "Down the line, there will be challenges," predicts Nina Halpern, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia's Institute of Asian Research. "By no means is the succession struggle over."
Yet it is a measure of how much China changed under Deng that his passing caused so little turbulence on the surface of Chinese life. When Mao died in 1976, people wept in the street while the country descended into political chaos. The death of former Communist party chairman Hu Yaobang in April, 1989, provided the excuse for pro-democracy students to begin gathering in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, with tragic consequences when Deng's military later cracked down. But there was an almost eerie normality to life in the capital after authorities announced the leader's death early Wednesday morning, nearly six hours after the fact. Although flags flew at half-mast, shops, banks, government agencies and parks remained open. Television stations stuck to their schedules of sports, movies and game shows while adding a film on Deng's early years; Western pop music could still be heard on several radio stations. And there was no sign of an expected police or military buildup on the streets of Beijing - nor of much public grief.
"It's much different than when Mao died and people stopped in the streets and bowed their heads," said Yang Huiming, a Beijing office administrator. "Times are different now. We have a better understanding of what's going on. Deng has not held any position for years, and we have been hearing rumors about his death for a long time. We were prepared for it." The fledgling Shanghai stock exchange took a brief dive but recovered most of the loss by the end of the day. The index in Hong Kong, which Britain will hand back to China on July 1, actually shot up 300 points, buoyed by the calm response in Beijing.
World leaders, many of whom had beaten a path to Deng and his chair-side spittoon in the Great Hall of the People in past years, heaped praise on his achievements. U.S. President Bill Clinton called him "extraordinary." But many were careful to hedge their judgments because of Deng's fierce repression of political dissidents. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien recalled that Deng had played a major role in negotiations for Canada's groundbreaking recognition in 1970 of Communist China in place of Nationalist Taiwan, and described the late leader as a "pivotal" figure in Chinese history. But Chrétien said he had mixed feelings about him because of his human rights record. In any case, world leaders were not invited to Deng's memorial service, set for Tuesday at the close of a six-day mourning period. Authorities said it would be a low-key affair attended by 10,000 people in the Great Hall of the People, with no lying in state. Deng's widow and children sent a letter to Jiang, chairman of the funeral committee, saying Deng wanted to donate his corneas to an eye bank, give his organs to medical research and have his body's ashes scattered at sea.
It would be a fittingly simple and practical end for a man who devoted his life to politics but eschewed the pomp and ceremony of office. Born Deng Xixian in 1904, in the central Chinese province of Sichuan, he was the son of a modestly well-off local factory manager. Like many other founding fathers of Chinese communism, Deng studied abroad, in Paris and Moscow. He returned to his homeland in 1926 as a member of the Communist party and took up the fight against the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek. It was while living underground fomenting revolution in Shanghai that he assumed the name Deng Xiaoping, initially as an alias. A veteran of the 1934-1935 Long March, a touchstone of Chinese revolutionary mythology and political stature, Deng's star rose quickly once the Communists seized power in 1949. By 1955, he was a leading member of the all-powerful Politburo and later became party general secretary.
But in the Cultural Revolution that Mao unleashed on China in 1966, Deng was denounced as a "capitalist roader" and banished from Beijing. He spent the next four years in southern Jiangxi province, serving food to party officials in a mess hall and working in a factory making tractor parts. After the tempest of the Cultural Revolution subsided, Deng returned to influence in 1973 before being purged yet again in 1976. In that same year, however, Mao died, and a coup led by his widow (known along with her associates as the Gang of Four) failed. The following year, Deng returned once more to Beijing and to power - this time successfully outmanoeuvring several rivals to become paramount leader.
A diminutive (four feet, 11 inches) dynamo, Deng possessed a wide-ranging curiosity and open-mindedness unusual among his revolutionary peers. "His eyes were always sparkling," recalls Earl Drake, Canada's ambassador to China in the 1980s, who met Deng on several occasions. "He had such a lively intellectual curiosity. He was very quick on the uptake, very quick in response." He also possessed a sly sense of humor. When former prime minister Brian Mulroney paid Deng a state visit in 1986, he remarked to the Chinese leader that Canada had too much space and not enough people, while China had the opposite problem. Replied Deng: "You're absolutely right. One way to solve the problem would be for us to send you people. How many would you like? Ten million? Twenty million?"
In what he sometimes called China's "Second Revolution," Deng in late 1978 unveiled economic reforms that within a decade had transformed Chinese living standards. Embracing the aphorism "To get rich is glorious," Deng dismantled central state control over most production and pricing decisions, encouraged enterprise by allowing companies to keep profits they earned, and opened China to foreign investment for the first time since 1949. But the lifelong Communist "certainly was no democrat," notes Drake. Deng saw nothing incompatible between free markets and repressive politics. He steadfastly opposed democratic political reforms and ordered the bloody 1989 crackdown on the protesters in Tiananmen Square, in which an estimated 3,000 died. In Hong Kong last week, demonstrators unfurled a banner labelling Deng "the butcher of democracy" as mourners gathered outside the local office of China's Xinhua news agency.
His death leaves power in the People's Republic in the hands of a collective leadership, headed by Jiang, which is committed to maintaining the course of economic reform. Few observers doubt that the commitment is sincere - at least in terms of overall direction. For China's 1.2-billion people, Deng's reforms have produced the country's longest period of sustained stability and economic growth this century. Per capita income has doubled to more than $700 by traditional measures, and has soared to $4,000 when purchasing power is taken into account (Canada: $30,000). The social regimentation of blaring loudspeakers and uniform blue "Mao suits" is long gone. Against that track record, it would be a brave leader who undertook to return to doctrinaire socialism.
With that in mind, some analysts downplay the likelihood of a post-Deng power struggle inside Zhongnanhai - Beijing's version of the Kremlin. "This is not about the transfer of power from one supreme leader to the next," Howard Balloch, Canada's current ambassador to China, observed in a recent speech. "It is about rearrangement in a largely collective leadership where there is a very large consensus about the broad directions in which China is headed."
But that broad consensus masks strong differences among senior Chinese leaders on particular policies. While few China-watchers expect Deng's death to spark any immediate instability, many believe it will unleash a new debate about the many problematic side effects that have accompanied market reform. "There are certain things," notes University of British Columbia sinologist and legal scholar Pitman Potter, "that could not really happen while Deng was still alive." For example, Potter says, Deng's successors may be prepared to allow a critical re-examination of the political events leading to the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
But more bread-and-butter issues also loom over the Chinese leadership. While some Chinese entrepreneurs have gotten rich gloriously, many more (including Deng's own offspring) have done so thanks to family connections with influential members of the Communist party hierarchy. The perception of widespread nepotism and corruption, as well as increasing disparities of income, have fuelled growing resentment among the poor. At the same time, many Chinese cities, especially the booming industrial centres along its Pacific coastline, are struggling to accommodate a flood of unskilled rural migrants seeking a share of the new wealth.
Other challenges threaten the leadership's ability to maintain the pace of reform. Money-losing state-owned enterprises, many of them in capital-intensive heavy industry, continue to drain cash from the economy while ill-trained managers resist restructuring measures. Their reluctance is shared by central planners, who are acutely aware that such measures would put millions out of work, creating a huge potential backlash. China offers its unemployed no social safety net to buffer the effects of sudden economic dislocation. Meanwhile, the breakneck pace of development since 1979 has produced such appalling pollution that in some centres further growth may be restrained by shortages of clean water - to say nothing of the rising toll of health problems associated with environmental decay. "After Deng, these issues can be talked about," says Potter. "And there are going to be differences of opinion."
An early victim of those differences could be Jiang. Despite an impressive array of titles, including president and general secretary of the Communist party, Jiang is widely viewed as having relied for his authority more on Deng's endorsement than on his personal talents. Since assuming the presidency in 1993, the former mayor of Shanghai has salted the senior ranks of the Chinese military as well as its civilian bureaucracy with his supporters. Jiang has also attempted to demonstrate control by launching anti-corruption campaigns that have targeted political rivals. Even so, notes Drake, "Jiang Zemin is not very impressive to many people."
One possible, but unlikely, challenger is Li. The pugnacious premier has aligned himself with Deng's economic reform and "open-door policy" towards the rest of the world. But he is a political hardliner who signed the martial law order that authorized the Tiananmen massacre. In addition, Li's second five-year term expires in 1998, and he has told others, including some Canadian contacts, that he plans to retire after completing the mandate.
Other rivals for Deng's mantle may come from outside the immediate circle of the collective leadership. Beijing governor Jia Qinglin, a former party secretary in the booming southeastern province of Fujian, represents a younger generation of technocrats with growing political ambitions. People's Liberation Army Chief Liu Huaqing is believed to share the military rank and file's lack of enthusiasm for Jiang, but he may prefer the role of backroom power broker to becoming a high-profile civilian leader.
The most potent challenge to Jiang's rule may come from Qiao Shi, the 72-year-old chairman of the National People's Congress. Under Qiao, the traditionally compliant rubber-stamp body has shown a greater willingness to exert its constitutional powers as the highest organ of the Communist state. Qiao is also one of the few influential leaders who opposed the Tiananmen action. And as a former head of the regime's internal security apparatus, he is in a position to be well acquainted with his rivals' weaknesses.
The jockeying for position is likely to break into the open when the politically supreme Communist party congress convenes in Beijing, probably in October. But whoever emerges as the eventual victor, the very nature of the struggle to succeed Deng may reveal much about his legacy. On the one hand, the self-effacing pragmatist dismantled the personality cult deifying Mao and discouraged attempts to develop a similar cult around himself. On the other, notes Drake, "he failed to find a truly worthy successor." Similarly, Deng overturned a disastrous ideology that for three decades delivered mainly turmoil and famine, but was unable to offer any more compelling alternative than personal greed. The unimaginative men who have ruled during his retirement have relied largely on nationalism to counter growing strains between China's increasingly wealthy "haves" and its still-legion "have-nots." The result, notes Potter, has been "a huge perceived moral vacuum in China."
Now, Potter adds, "the person likely to get the gold ring will be the person who is able to articulate a vision for China." Or in words that Deng Xiaoping might have used, it is no longer enough that the cat catches mice - it has to have a purpose.
China's future leader is born Deng Xixian on Aug. 22 in Paifang, a village in the province of Sichuan where his parents run a silk factory.
China's future leader is born Deng Xixian on Aug. 22 in Paifang, a village in the province of Sichuan where his parents run a silk factory.
Deng is sent on a work-study program to Paris, and spends time in a Renault factory. He soon joins the Chinese Communist youth movement in France.
He moves to Moscow to attend Sun Yat-sen University, which the Soviets have established to train Chinese Communists.
Deng returns to China, joins the Communist party and adopts the nom de guerre Deng Xiaoping. He is told to organize a peasant army.
Now editor of the Communist Red Star newspaper, Deng takes part in the Long March, a 10,000-km trek that the Red Army undertakes to escape rival Nationalist forces. He becomes a key ally of Mao Tse-tung, who has emerged as the Communist chief.
Mao finally defeats the Nationalists and assumes power. Deng is placed in charge of the Third Line Project, an ambitious plan to build roads, factories and railways across China.
Deng is named vice-premier.
Mao launches the Great Leap Forward, under which China's rural population is organized into communes. Deng criticizes the program.
Amid the fervor of the Cultural Revolution, Mao attacks Deng's pragmatism, strips him of power and banishes him to the provincial capital Nanchang.
Deng apologizes to Mao and world leaders are shocked when Deng is introduced at a state dinner as vice-premier.
Under pressure from the leftist Gang of Four, Deng is again stripped of power. But following Mao's death in September, all four are arrested.
Deng is renamed vice-premier.
He emerges as China's paramount leader and launches the Four Modernizations, liberal economic reforms that will transform the country.
Deng assumes the chairmanship of the Communist party military commission, a key lever of his power.
He supports the use of troops to crush a rebellion of students in Tiananmen Square.
Deng begins to drop from sight, resigning posts including head of the military commission.
Rumors circulate that he is gravely ill.
A frail-looking Deng makes his last public appearance at a party function in February.
Maclean's March 3, 1997