China’s former Communist Party propaganda chief Deng Liqun dies aged 100

A former propaganda chief fiercely opposed to Deng Xiaoping's reforms, Deng Liqun flexed his muscles in ideology and theory until the end

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 February, 2015, 10:13am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 February, 2015, 7:50am

It was a tale of two Dengs throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

One was an orthodox Marxist ideologue and the other was a pragmatist and paramount leader of the world's most populous nation. Though not related by blood, Deng Liqun and Deng Xiaoping were otherwise deeply connected, with their words often providing a signal about the direction China's political wind was blowing.

Deng Liqun, a former party propaganda chief and theoretician who played a key role in purging liberal intellectuals throughout the 1980s, was the most powerful conservative critic of the late Deng Xiaoping's reform policies.

Xinhua reported he died following an illness at 4.56pm on Tuesday, at the age of 100, in Beijing. The Communist Party paid tribute, praising him as "an excellent party member, a time-tested and loyal communist soldier, a proletarian revolutionist, an outstanding leader in the party's ideological and theoretical publicity work, and a Marxist theorist".

"Little Deng" was the principal architect of the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign in 1983, which essentially targeted liberal intellectuals and artists, and the Anti-Bourgeois Liberalisation Campaign in 1987, which targeted reformers.

He also played a crucial role in a conservative wing's scheme to oust Deng Xiaoping's two handpicked reformist leaders, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, in the late 1980s.

Xigen Li, a professor at City University's department of media and communications, said the propaganda systems of the Communist Party were governed by officials with various thoughts and styles.

"Deng Liqun was the one who stood head and shoulders above others. He almost became one of the top decision makers in China," said Li, also a journalist in the mainland in 1980s.

Little Deng was born into a rich family in Guidong county, central Hunan province in 1915. His father passed the imperial civil-service exam, although he never became an official.

Instead his father founded the first Western-style school in his hometown, and an elder brother became chairman of the nationalist government's provincial government.

Little Deng enrolled at Peking University in 1935, where he studied economics, but left the following year for Yanan, in Shaanxi, where the revolution was taking shape.

Throughout his career he worked under several senior party leaders, some of whom became very powerful in the post-Mao Zedong era. He was the personal secretary of former president Liu Shaoqi , and also worked under Chen Yun, the arch-rival of Deng Xiaoping, as well as former president Li Xiannian and Wang Zhen, former vice-president.

In his book, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, Harvard University Professor Ezra Vogel described Deng Liqun as one of several key political players in the Deng Xiaoping era.

"Deng Liqun was influential because he was fearless in expressing his views, knowledgeable about theory, and was supported by Chen Yun and Wang Zhen, whose opinions he often voiced," Vogel wrote.

Vogel described him as someone prepared "to accept job loss, a prison sentence, or even heavy physical labour to do what he regarded as correct", and "well-organised and skilled at strategic manoeuvring".

He was among many conservative party elders who were initially supportive of Deng Xiaoping's reform policy after Mao Zedong's death, helping to draft many policy documents. But he was soon publicly identified as a leading opponent of the liberalisation push.

Li said that being the master of the Marxist theory of the Chinese Party, Deng Liqun made several attempts to influence the dominant ideology.

Although his influence faded gradually in his later years, he was among the few senior party officials who dared to criticise Deng Xiaoping's line.

"Deng Liqun's recession also indicates the divergence between the utilitarian guiding thoughts - socialism with Chinese characteristics and classical Marxism," Li said.

Little Deng was known to have wanted to replace former party chiefs Hu and Zhao.

"Throughout his life-long fight, Deng Liqun's ultimate aim was to become the party's general secretary," said Dai Qing, a veteran mainland commentator.

In his memoirs, Zhao described him as "a general leading the conservatives in the ideological, theoretic and propaganda realm. In fact, Deng Liqun is the most powerful writer among those opposed to Deng Xiaoping's reform. It would be wrong to underestimate his influence."

After the communist victory in the 1949 civil war, Deng served in various party positions, mostly within the research, propaganda and publication departments, including as secretary to president Liu Shaoqi, before they were both purged by Maoists during the Cultural Revolution.

His political reemergence came in 1982 when he was elected to the Secretariat, the party's nerve centre, at the 12th Party Congress, and also became the head of the Central Committee's propaganda department.

In late 1983, he engineered a major campaign against "spiritual pollution" - an influx of Western trends and liberal values attributed to the open-door policy towards the West.

However, Deng Xiaoping ordered a halt to the campaign in January 1984, after being convinced by his reformist advisers, Hu and Zhao, that it was upsetting his broader agenda.

In July that year, Little Deng was removed from his position as head of the propaganda department and replaced by Zhu Houze, Hu's close associate and reformist party official.

After student demonstrations erupted in more than a dozen cities in December 1986, the party's conservative wing launched an anti-bourgeois liberalisation campaign, which eventually led to Hu being forced to resign to take the blame for the unrest in January 1987.

Deng Liqun was said to have criticised Hu at length during an internal meeting. But he suffered a major setback when he failed to marshal enough votes to put him on to the Central Committee at the 13th Party Congress in October 1987, making him the first candidate endorsed by the leadership to be rejected by his peers.

Snubbed, he was barred from taking his expected seat on the Politburo, the top policymaking body.

Little Deng returned to the political limelight shortly after the June 4 military crackdown and the ousting of Zhao.

He set up the Contemporary China Research Institute in 1990 as a think tank for like-minded ideologues and the China National History Research Society as a base for conservative commissars and party elders. Both institutions were fully fledged "ministerial-ranked" units under the party, and in effect became the headquarters for factions and politicians opposed to Deng Xiaoping's reforms.

His political life seemed to come to a halt when he failed to be elected as a deputy to the 14th Party Congress in 1992, and his official retirement came following the dissolution of the ultra-conservative Central Advisory Commission at the party conclave. Another political snub came when he was excluded from the 459-member funeral committee formed after Deng Xiaoping's death, a "who's who" of who is in - and who is out - in Chinese politics.

It was a sign he was being sidelined by then-leader Jiang Zemin.

However, Deng Liqun continued to flex his muscles in ideology and theory, as he still held titles in many organisations in charge of party history and party publications. He caused a stir in 1995 when he sent a 10,000-character petition to Jiang decrying the dangers of the rise of capitalism. In 1998, he openly criticised then-premier Zhu Rongji's programme to sell off some small and ailing state-owned enterprises.

In 2001, he criticised Jiang's "theory of the three represents", in which the leader suggested allowing private businessmen join the party. Deng Liqun demanded Jiang be expelled from the party, calling him "an enemy of the people" for supporting capitalists.


Deng Liqun

1915 Born in Guidong, Hunan province

1935 Enrolled at Peking University

1936 Joined Communist Youth League and then the Chinese Communist Party

1945 Appointed propaganda chief of Jibei Local Committee

1949 Appointed standing committee member, secretary general and propaganda chief of Xinjiang Bureau of the CPC Central Committee; secretary general and deputy editor-in-chief of Red Flag

1975 Became head of the Policy Research Office of the State Council, vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Social Science, and minister of the Central Propaganda Department

1984 Removed from his position as head of the party's propaganda department

1990 Set up the Contemporary China Research Institute and the China National History Research Society; became deputy head of the central committee's leading group on party history

1992 Failed to be elected deputy to the 14th Party Congress