Twenty years ago this spring, the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping embarked on a ‘southern tour’ that reminded many of the imperial processions of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The objective of this tour was not to demonstrate the pomp and power of the regime but to secure the future of the economic reforms that Deng had fought for desperately within the Chinese Communist Party at a historic meeting of the 11th Central Committee in December 1978. Thirteen years later in 1992 Deng, at the age of 88, deemed it necessary to travel from his home in Beijing, where he had just attended a bridge tournament, to the south of China to ensure that local leaders followed the ‘reform and opening’ agenda that has made China what it is today. This demonstrates Deng’s determination to protect his economic reforms but also indicates the depth of resistance to his reforms within the Communist Party across China. Deng’s itinerary on this political odyssey is published in the official chronology of his life Deng Xiaoping nianpu 1975-1997 (Chronicles of Deng Xiaoping) that was published in 2004. He left Beijing on 17 January and returned on 21 February after a gruelling tour during which he met some of his most intransigent political opponents in the cities of southern China.
Deng is revered in China today (and by many outside the country) for enabling the economic development that has dragged millions out of poverty and turned China into a major global influence. His family’s former home was in Paifang village in the countryside to the north of Chongqing in southwestern China’s Sichuan province. The house is still standing and has been turned into a museum honouring his life and achievement. It is a combination of a theme park and a shrine and his statue is the focus of commemorative ceremonies on significant anniversaries.
It is a common error to oversimplify recent Chinese political history by contrasting the ‘good’ Deng with the ‘bad’ Mao Zedong. Although Deng was a great proponent of economic reform, he was by no means a democrat or a liberal and remained resolutely opposed to any political reform that might undermine the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party. His political life since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 exemplifies the paradoxes and inconsistencies in the life of the nation. He was instrumental in repressing free thinkers during the ‘Anti-Rightist’ campaign of 1957, but fell foul of Chairman Mao Zedong in the Cultural Revolution and was banished to the countryside. He returned to power as Mao neared the end of his life, and briefly allowed the use of the Democracy Wall in Beijing for the airing of independent views but then proscribed it when criticism became too great. He forced the resignation of the reform-minded Hu Yaobang in 1987 for being too soft on student demonstrators and will be remembered as the man who had the final responsibility for ordering the PLA to attack the student and citizen occupation of Tian’anmen Square on 4 June 1989 and dismissing the liberal Premier Zhao Ziyang who had attempted to resolve the crisis by negotiation.
In 2012 as China enters the year of the water dragon, a year traditionally associated with progress and good fortune, the relationship between economic modernisation and political democracy is at the forefront of many people’s minds. The contest for the selection of the next generation of political leaders is well under way. Two CCP figures, who are as yet virtually unknown outside China, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, have emerged as the front runners for the posts of President and Premier respectively. Both have developed their political careers on the basis of some loyalty to the reformist ideas of Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang but they are also aware that openly espousing anything that appears to be similar to a Western multi-party system of democracy is still anathema to many senior party figures who prefer Deng Xiaoping’s approach of economic modernisation without political change.
On Wednesday 18 January 2012, Hu Yaobang’s eldest son, Hu Deping, convened a forum to put the case for political reform on the 20th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s ‘southern tour’. This meeting was attended by academics, retired public servants and the sons and daughters of former senior party and government officials. At this meeting, Hu Deping, an economist who chairs the Chinese National Chamber of Commerce and Industry, commended the way in which protests in the village of Wukan in Guangdong against land confiscation and corruption had been handled by negotiation and compromise rather than the use of overwhelming force. He argued that the time was right to extend ‘reform and opening’, Deng Xiaoping’s key slogan, into the political sphere. It remains to be seen whether the new leadership of Xi and Li who take office after crucial conferences in the autumn of 2012 and the spring of 2012 will move in this direction. ■
Michael Dillon is the author of China: A Modern History, was founding Director of the Centre for Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Durham, where he taught modern Chinese history. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Royal Asiatic Society and was Visiting Professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing in 2009. He currently teaches Chinese Studies at Newcastle University.
Image shows Roadside billboard of Deng Xiaoping at the entrance of the Lychee Park in Shenzhen. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.