Deng: the man and his image

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 August, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 August, 1994, 12:00am

OUTSIDE China there are two radically different images of Deng Xiaoping. One is as a communist moderniser acceptable to the capitalist world: an image that first emerged during the late 70s and early 80s, and surfaced again during the early 90s when the motivation for reform seemed to be flagging inside China itself.

Well before the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the CCP under his leadership abandoned the political strait-jacket Mao had imposed on the PRC during the Cultural Revolution, and decided on a programme of reform and modernisation which was based to a large extent on foreign economic involvement in China.

There was an urgent need for China to improve its image abroad and its foreign relations. Deng Xiaoping was a key player in those efforts, speaking at the United Nations and touring the world, visiting the United States, Japan, Western Europe and Southeast Asia at the head of government delegations.

Appearing on television in a ten-gallon hat when in Houston did his and China's cause no harm at all. A short man with a round face, he projected a comfortable image like everyone's favourite uncle.

The second image of Deng is less comfortable to the West. In 1989 the CCP under Deng's leadership suppressed popular demonstrations throughout China, often quite brutally.

This confrontation between the population on the one hand, and the CCP and the Government of China, on the other, came to a head on June 4 with the forced clearing of demonstrators from Tiananmen Square by armed troops of the PLA and the subsequent considerable loss of life.

Deng Xiaoping's responsibility was not something attributed to him by an outraged Western public opinion, it was a responsibility he publicly welcomed in order to ensure, in his view, that modernisation could and would continue: turmoil had been developing into a ''counter-revolutionary rebellion'' which had to be brought into line.

In Deng's own words, ''This was the storm that was bound to happen . . . it was just a matter of time and scale. It has turned out in our favour . . .'' Once again television has undoubtedly had a role to play, for the events unfolded under the eyes of the international media whose reporters had gathered in Beijing, originally for the historic visit of President Gorbachev.

The explanation of the relationship between those two images of Deng is not hard to find. Deng Xiaoping has been a committed communist, moderniser and nationalist for all his adult life, who believes that only the CCP can ensure China's development and that it takes its rightful place in the world.

However, Deng's commitment to the CCP is as much organisational and social as ideological.

From the age of 16 when in France he became socialised into the communist movement and thereafter the CCP not only organised his life, it was his life.

It took him to Moscow and back to China. At its direction, he travelled all over the country before the CCP came to power in 1949, working and fighting for the communist cause.

Though the CCP may not have formally decided whom he was to marry, it certainly determined his marriage choices and his divorce, and there is more than a suggestion in his daughter Deng Rong's biography that CCP colleagues acted as match-maker for all three of his marriages.

After 1949, Deng's commitment led to persecution and vilification as well as high office.

At the start of the Cultural Revolution, he was dismissed and castigated as China's ''Number Two Person in Authority Taking the Capitalist Road''; and in Mao's last days when opposed by the Gang of Four, he was again criticised and removed from the leadership.

On both occasions, as when he had been disciplined in 1933, Deng accepted the need for party discipline to be maintained through the process of criticism and self-criticism - though not necessarily the conclusions of that criticism. He accepted party discipline as stoically as possible and waited for the opportunity to re-present his case.

Deng Xiaoping has also been a committed moderniser and nationalist, determined to make China both economically strong and politically powerful in international terms. In that endeavour he has often been misleadingly characterised as a pragmatist.

It is certainly true that he has been no slave to dogma, and he clearly does not believe that all the truths of the successful road to socialist development are to be found in the works of Marx, Lenin or Mao.

Though he has always, including into the 90s, urged China to follow Mao Zedong and Mao Zedong Thought, he has not been the communist equivalent of a ''black-letter lawyer''; it is the spirit of what Mao said that Deng regards as important, the direction in which Mao wanted to see China go, not the written word.

One of his more famous comments is ''It doesn't matter whether a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.'' Despite its immediacy any deeper meaning is not clear.

TO some this phrase has been taken as a manifestation of Deng's inherent pragmatism and it has been the subject of some enquiry even within China. However, when asked by fellow senior party leader Bo Yibo what he had meant by it, Deng provided two separate explanations on separate occasions.

One was that he could not recall exactly what he had meant; the other that it did not matter since it was a statement suited to the conditions at that time (1962) and not transferable.

Some commentators have suggested in consequence that Deng has never had any principles or political vision at all, and by extension that this was one major reason why he was unlikely to have opposed Mao before the Cultural Revolution in the ways that were claimed at that time.

In this interpretation of Deng's political behaviour, he is an ''organisation man'' who sees his duty as one of serving the party and its leader, and to implement the ideas of others within the leadership.

However, the case can also be made that Deng does have a relatively clear vision - if neither very structured nor particularly sophisticated - of the ways in which China's modernisation should proceed, and particularly of the ways the CCP should operate in that process.

It was those ideas which provided the opportunities and excuses for his opponents within the CCP to remove him from office on each of the occasions when he was disciplined.

Deng has been pragmatic, rather than a pragmatist: a committed revolutionary throughout his political career, attempting to ensure that the CCP achieved power and China's modernisation. For Deng Xiaoping communism is an organisational as much if not more than an intellectual response to the problems China has faced in the 20th century.

What is required is a united China, strong leadership, and the energy of the Chinese people, all of which can only be provided, in Deng's opinion, by the CCP. It may well be that this vision was, and indeed remains fatally flawed: nonetheless, it remains Deng's vision.

It is precisely that emphasis on communism as organisation that has created particular problems for Deng late in his life. Quite apart from the events of 1989, the organisational consequences of communist party rule have presented other problems that Deng has not been able to resolve. One is the search for successors.

Despite his obvious commitment to a more open political system than existed under Mao and during the Cultural Revolution, Deng does not seek a completely open system but one dominated by the CCP.

The decision-making process in the PRC remains inherently personalist, despite more than 15 years of sustained reform. One of the ironies of reform under Deng has been that its continued momentum has relied on the use of Deng Xiaoping's traditional and personalist authority.

Professor Goodman is the author of Deng Xiaoping And The Chinese Revolution to be published by Routledge in October.