A trip south worth remembering today

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 January, 2012, 12:00am


This week 20 years ago, the then 88-year-old Deng Xiaoping arrived in Guangzhou on his special train and began what later became known as his famous southern tour.

The trip revived stalled economic reforms and put China on track to become the world's second-biggest economy today.

Apart from a few articles in Guangdong's pro-reform media in the past few days, there are few signs that the national leadership or media plan to hold high-profile events to mark the epoch-making tour. It's in marked contrast to their usual practice of staging elaborate ceremonies to mark anniversaries of political and economic milestones.

More's the pity. Deng's tour is not only of historical significance but also has huge practical implications, because China's development is at a critical point and concerns are growing that without truly meaningful political and economic reforms, the country's economic rise might not be sustained.

While changes in the mainland's leadership are scheduled to take place in October, expectations are already mounting on the new leadership - set to be headed by Vice-President Xi Jinping and Vice-Premier Li Keqiang - for them to muster their political courage and push for breakthroughs in both economic and political reforms.

In a sign of growing frustration over a lack of progress on these issues, the pro-reform China Youth Daily carried an article last week chiding the present leadership for preferring to 'feel the stones' and being unwilling to take the steps to 'cross the river'. It was a reference to one of Deng's most famous sayings, in which he compared the initial stages of reform to feeling the stones in order to cross the river.

The article, which was later deleted from the newspaper's official site, also said bluntly that the existing leadership had stalled reforms in the name of maintaining stability and had allowed the government's agenda to be hijacked by interest groups.

For many reformers, it's essential that leaders take another look at what happened on that tour and learn from Deng's wisdom.

If Deng is credited with putting the country back on the path of reform and opening up in the late 1970s after a long period of self-imposed isolation, he deserves equal, if not greater, praise for making the path irreversible through his southern tour in 1992.

Following the bloody crackdown on Tiananmen student protests in June 1989, Deng retired from top leadership positions. But he was forced to act again after he realised that his economic-reform agenda suffered real risks of being derailed because of the rise of conservative factions within the party.

From January 18 to February 21 in 1992, Deng's train trip took him to Wuhan, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shanghai, where he preached his reform theories to more receptive officials.

He urged local officials to be bolder in making reforms and not dwell on the debate between socialism and capitalism, saying that the market economy should be seen as socialist.

While stressing the importance of economic reforms, he warned that a lack of reform would put the country on the road to ruin. In particular, he reportedly said that the 'left' tendencies within the party were more dangerous than the 'right' tendencies.

There were signs though that Deng's power was waning and of opposition to his agenda. The mainland leadership under newly installed president Jiang Zemin and hardline premier Li Peng banned the national media from covering Deng's remarks, which were extensively reported by local papers in Guangdong.

The national media did start picking up on Deng's remarks several months later after Jiang eventually sided with Deng, and Deng's supporters within the central government regained the upper hand.

In terms of Deng's trip south, it's interesting to note that even though it was unusual it was not unprecedented for a Chinese leader to visit the more traditionally prosperous southern provinces to rally support among local officials if he has differences with other central government leaders.

Mao Zedong was the most skilful at using this approach to push for his policies or get rid of his enemies in Beijing.

In 1971, after a divide developed between Mao and Lin Biao, the People's Liberation Army marshal whom Mao personally anointed as his successor, Mao took his own month-long southern train trip.

On the tour, he met provincial party secretaries and top generals from local military barracks, telling them in very clear terms that Lin and his supporters were trying to split the party and seize power.

According to the official history, Mao repeatedly told local officials to keep his comments on Lin confidential. Lin learned of Mao's remarks and planned to assassinate Mao, but failed.

Other analysts said that was a typical approach by Mao to force his enemy's hand. Afterwards, Lin and some of his family members tried to flee China, only to die in a plane crash in Mongolia.