Twenty years ago this spring, Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader, embarked on a ‘southern tour’ reminiscent of the imperial processions of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The purpose of this tour was not to showcase the pomp and power of the regime but to ensure the future of the economic reforms Deng had fervently advocated for within the Chinese Communist Party during a pivotal meeting of the 11th Central Committee in December 1978.
Thirteen years later, in 1992, at the age of 88, Deng found it necessary to journey from his home in Beijing, where he had just attended a bridge tournament, to the south of China to ensure that local leaders adhered to the ‘reform and opening’ agenda that has shaped China’s current state. This underscores Deng’s resolve to safeguard his economic reforms while also revealing the extent of resistance to his reforms within the Communist Party throughout China.
Deng’s itinerary during this political journey is documented in the official chronology of his life, Deng Xiaoping Nianpu 1975-1997 (Chronicles of Deng Xiaoping), published in 2004. He departed from Beijing on 17 January and returned on 21 February after an arduous tour during which he encountered some of his most adamant political adversaries in the cities of southern China.
Today, Deng is highly esteemed in China (and by many internationally) for facilitating the economic progress that has lifted millions out of poverty and elevated China to a significant global player. His family’s ancestral residence was situated in Paifang village, located in the rural area north of Chongqing in the southwestern province of Sichuan, China.
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The residence remains today and has been transformed into a museum celebrating Deng’s life and contributions. It is a blend of a theme park and a shrine, with his statue serving as the centerpiece for commemorative events on important anniversaries.
It’s a common mistake to oversimplify recent Chinese political history by simplistically contrasting the ‘good’ Deng with the ‘bad’ Mao Zedong. While Deng championed economic reform, he was far from being a democrat or a liberal and staunchly opposed any political changes that could undermine the Chinese Communist Party’s authority. His political journey since establishing the People’s Republic of China in 1949 embodies the contradictions and complexities within the nation’s life.
Deng played a pivotal role in suppressing intellectuals during the ‘Anti-Rightist’ campaign of 1957 but fell out of favor with Chairman Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution, leading to his exile to the countryside. He later returned to power as Mao’s reign drew to a close and briefly tolerated the use of the Democracy Wall in Beijing for expressing independent opinions, only to suppress it when criticism escalated.
In 1987, he compelled the resignation of the reform-oriented Hu Yaobang for being perceived as too lenient toward student protesters. Deng will be remembered as the individual ultimately responsible for ordering the People’s Liberation Army to quash the student-led occupation of Tian’anmen Square on June 4, 1989, and for dismissing the liberal Premier Zhao Ziyang, who sought to resolve the crisis through negotiation.
In 2012, as China ushers in the year of the water dragon—a year traditionally associated with progress and good fortune—the nexus between economic modernization and political democracy occupies the thoughts of many.
The competition for the selection of the next generation of political leaders is well underway. Two figures from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, who remain relatively unknown outside China, have emerged as the frontrunners for the positions of President and Premier respectively. Both have advanced their political careers by demonstrating some allegiance to the reformist principles of Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang.
However, they also understand that openly advocating for anything resembling a Western-style multi-party democracy remains unacceptable to many senior party members, who favor Deng Xiaoping’s approach of pursuing economic modernization while eschewing political change.
On Wednesday, January 18, 2012, Hu Deping, the eldest son of Hu Yaobang, convened a forum to advocate for political reform on the 20th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s ‘southern tour’.
The attendees included academics, retired public servants, and offspring of former high-ranking party and government officials. During the meeting, Hu Deping, an economist who chairs the Chinese National Chamber of Commerce and Industry, praised the peaceful resolution of protests in the village of Wukan in Guangdong, where grievances regarding land confiscation and corruption were addressed through negotiation and compromise rather than through the use of excessive force.
He argued that the time was ripe to expand Deng Xiaoping’s central slogan of ‘reform and opening’ into the realm of politics. It remains to be seen whether the incoming leadership of Xi and Li, who assumed office after pivotal conferences in the autumn and spring of 2012, will pursue this direction.
Michael Dillon 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.
The image shows the Roadside billboard of Deng Xiaoping at the entrance of Lychee Park in Shenzhen. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
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