Dengist whateverism

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 June, 2009, 12:00am

There is much to fascinate the reader in Prisoner of the State, the memoir of former Chinese party leader Zhao Ziyang. Secretly recorded before his death in 2005, the tapes were painstakingly gathered together by his friends and have now been published with great fanfare in both Chinese and English.

The book provides an authoritative account of what went on within the Communist Party and government 20 years ago as students mounted a massive protest in Tiananmen Square, which culminated in the bloody events of June 3 and June 4, 1989. It confirms that Deng Xiaoping made all key decisions, including the one to call in the tanks to crush the student protest.

Deng was a complicated character. On one hand, he saw the problems created by Mao Zedong, especially during the Cultural Revolution, when China was in chaos and Deng himself was denounced as a 'capitalist roader' and removed from office. He had years in which to think about China's plight and, after Mao's death, Deng decided that the country had to change course.

Now, Maoist China has been eclipsed by Dengist China. Both men are dead but, even though Mao's body still rests in his mausoleum in Tiananmen Square, it is Deng's thoughts and values that guide China's leaders today.

While the outside world saw Deng as a reformer - and he was an economic reformer - within China, he had long been recognised as a hardliner. In fact, when I was based in Beijing in the early 1980s and asked someone in the military how Deng was viewed, the answer was simple: 'He is a rod.'

After the nightmare of the Mao years, Deng was seen by many as a saviour. He oversaw the political rehabilitation of many thousands of cadres, many posthumously, and created the conditions that allowed the deliverance of hundreds of millions from poverty. But, in some ways, Deng was similar to Mao. Both men understood and wielded power. And Deng, like Mao, ended up getting rid of one designated successor after another. The first to go was Hu Yaobang , who was too liberal for Deng's taste, followed by Zhao, who refused to crack down on the students.

Beijing, of course, is studiously ignoring the disclosures in Zhao's memoirs, taking the position that the issue is closed. But it needs to be reopened. It is understandable that Deng should be put on a pedestal. After the turmoil of the Mao years, Deng restored normality to China and focused the country's energies on construction rather than destruction. That alone means his contribution to China will never be forgotten.

But Deng was not just someone who put China on a different course. He was also someone who wanted to perpetuate Communist Party rule. And, to him, this meant there could never be a multiparty political system or separation of powers, or even a judiciary truly independent of the party.

China's leaders today should do what they think is best for the country and not be afraid of doing anything contrary to what Deng may once have said. Unless they have the courage to do this, they will return the country to the position it was in when Hua Guofeng succeeded Mao as party chairman. At that time, there were people, later labelled supporters of 'whateverism', whose position was that whatever instructions Mao issued during his lifetime should be carried out and whatever Mao opposed should never be done.

Deng criticised the proponents of 'whateverism'. After all, China cannot be ruled by a dead man. That is as true today as it was then. Mao was evaluated by the party after his death and it was concluded that his contributions were greater than his errors, grievous though they were.

China and the party have changed. It may not be necessary to make a formal political assessment of Deng. But he would be the first to admit that he was not perfect, that he had made mistakes. The party does not need to act as though everything Deng said or did cannot be questioned. It is time to end this taboo.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator