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Some in China Cling to Deng's Capitalist Coattails

As nation marks the 100th anniversary of the late leader's birth, his political successors scramble to associate their policies with him.

August 22, 2004|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

GUANGAN, China — Deng Xianyan runs his fingers over a bottle of Deng family liquor as he mulls the legacy of his famous cousin, the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, on the 100th anniversary of his birth.

"He unleashed the creativity of a billion Chinese people," the 52-year-old company president says of the man known as the father of China's modernization. "Even having a couple of extra chickens before Xiaoping came along was enough to brand you a hated capitalist."

Throwing in a little sales pitch for a business that has seen sales rise 30% from the attention surrounding today's commemoration, he adds, "We owe him a great deal and hope that spirit of gratitude is appreciated by customers of our top-quality liquor."

Hooch-making relatives aren't the only ones basking in Deng's reflected glory more than seven years after his death. Other Chinese, including those in the upper reaches of the Communist Party and in the halls of commerce, continue to invoke the diminutive revolutionary to justify pet projects, innovative policies and sacred cows.

Deng's bold reforms during the 1980s liberated China's economy, foreign policy and thinking after decades of economic mismanagement and political turmoil epitomized by the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.

On the road into Guangan, Deng's hometown in Sichuan province, a huge red banner calls on Chinese to follow the principles of the "paramount leader" and his successor, former President Jiang Zemin.

The pairing is significant. The aloof Jiang hopes to elevate his own standing by associating himself with the far more popular Deng, analysts say, as Jiang angles for power from his position as the head of China's military.

In Zhongnanhai, the high-walled Beijing compound where China's top leaders live and work, Jiang's rivals use Deng to justify their more moderate line. Insiders say allies of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are spreading the word that China's increasingly confrontational stance toward Taiwan and Japan -- policies associated with Jiang -- is a potential disaster that departs from Deng's enlightened principle of regional peace and prosperity.

"There's a big move to refocus attention on Deng's theories of diplomacy," said one party member who declined to be identified. "Jiang purposely took advantage of nationalism after the 1990s without fully understanding what he'd unleashed."

The Communist Party has its own reasons for hitching its propaganda star to Deng: For one, he arguably saved the party from its own excesses.

By systematically reversing many of Mao Tse-tung's sacred ideas, Deng, starting in the late 1970s, freed Chinese intellectuals to think again, entrepreneurs to build wealth and diplomats to expand national influence on the world stage.

"His theories helped China recover its common sense," said Liu Zhiguang, a professor at the Marxism Research Institute of Beijing University.

In appreciation, the party has for months been revving up the 100th-anniversary hoopla with a blizzard of song contests, books, stamps, documentaries, calligraphy exhibitions and photo exhibits. One television producer recounts being told -- not asked -- by propaganda officials several months ago to prepare at least four programs centered on Deng, a drill repeated throughout the country. China watchers say the pageantry is set to match or exceed that surrounding Mao's 100th birthday celebration in 1993.

Although Deng made some brilliant moves, he also made at least one huge mistake, presiding over the decision to open fire on pro-democracy students in Tiananmen Square in 1989 that politically set China back by years and left hundreds, possibly thousands, dead. And even as he led China's modernization drive, Deng was no liberal, continuing throughout his life to support the Communist Party's political monopoly.

The party remains largely silent on Tiananmen. Deng's hometown museum devotes only two oblique sentences to it: "China faced a severe trial in the late 1980s and early '90s, when political storms occurred both at home and abroad. Led by Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese Communists survived these severe tests."

Analysts say this follows a pattern long seen throughout Chinese history of papering over mistakes, amid concerns here that any criticism of Deng will reflect on the party as a whole and on people still alive associated with the decision.

Even as public figures jockey to ally themselves with Deng, at least one has tried to improve his position by putting down Deng.

Li Peng, the former prime minister known overseas as the "Butcher of Beijing" for his Tiananmen role, this month published an essay in the monthly party journal Seeking Truth that placed much of the blame on Deng for "resolutely backing" the decision to fire on the protesters.

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