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Great Idea but Don't Quote Him

Deng Xiaoping's famous one-liner started China on the way to capitalism. The only problem is there's no proof he actually said it.

September 09, 2004|Evelyn Iritani | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — "To get rich is glorious."

With that catchy slogan, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping is credited with unleashing a revolution that transformed a nation of Mao jackets and people's communes into a land of Starbucks-drinking, Gucci-loving techies.

Deng's phrase from the early 1980s has become a prophetic symbol in the West of the 21st century's most dramatic economic turnaround, one so extraordinary that many believe the world's largest communist country is poised to overtake the United States as the world's largest economy within five decades.

It also symbolizes a China where getting rich -- or at least showing off the trappings of luxury -- is in vogue. China is now the biggest market for BMW's top-of-the-line 760Li luxury sedan, which carries a price tag of close to $200,000, nearly double the cost in the United States. Wealthy tourists staying at Commune by the Great Wall are housed in villas designed by Asia's top architects, each with a private butler. Italian designer Giorgio Armani plans to open 20 to 30 new stores in China by 2008, joining other luxury brands rushing into the market.

And a country with a per capita annual income below $1,000 is minting millionaires at a rapid clip, with more than 236,000 by one count.

One problem.

Deng never actually said "to get rich is glorious." Or at least no one can prove it.

Although many scholars and journalists -- including China expert Orville Schell and veteran CBS correspondent Mike Wallace -- helped immortalize Deng's phrase, he never actually said, sung or muttered it, many scholars and other experts say.

"As far as I can see, the use of the slogan ... has been entirely in foreign reports," says Bai Xueqiu, researcher at Beijing University's Deng Xiaoping Theory Research Institute.

As such, the slogan may rank among "Play it again, Sam" and "What's good for General Motors is good for the country" as among the world's most famous misquotations that have morphed into popular culture.

Humphrey Bogart never urged Sam to "play it again" in the classic "Casablanca." It was Ilse, Ingrid Bergman's character, who said, "Play it once, Sam. For old times' sake."

And former GM President Charles E. Wilson actually said something far less quotable: "For years, I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa."

Of course, the authenticity of Deng's quote could be regarded as merely academic, for arguments among intellectuals or questions in trivia games.

But the slogan has become ingrained in Western media, books, educational materials and other references to China. And Deng is revered in China. Deng Xiaoping Thought -- the theory behind socialism with Chinese characteristics -- is a core course for Chinese studying the humanities and sciences.

Do an Internet search on Deng and his most famous phrase, and you get nearly 1,800 citations in some of the world's best-known media, including Forbes, Time and PBS. In recent weeks the mentions have soared amid widespread coverage of the 100th anniversary of Deng's birth on Aug. 22. He died in 1997.

In a recent article on CNN.com, Zhu Rong, a wealthy Chinese entrepreneur who had built a chain of eight restaurants in just a decade, was described as "just beginning to live Deng Xiaoping's famous quotation that 'to get rich is glorious.' "

AskAsia.org, a teacher's resource guide published by the Asia Society, states: "People all over China responded to Deng Xiaoping's statement that 'to get rich is glorious' and rushed to make money."

After Deng's death, Human Rights in China, a New York-based group run by Chinese exiles, issued a critical statement that said, "Mr. Deng's vision for China was 'to get rich is glorious,' but this glory never extended to human dignity."

Experts point to a confluence of issues -- including the secrecy surrounding the Chinese government and its leaders, linguistic confusion and media hype -- that helped put those words rightly or wrongly into Deng's mouth.

Once the exhortation was picked up by the popular press and posted on the Internet, it created a history of its own.

"It's sort of like a computer virus -- once these things get out in the public consciousness, the associations are made and it's very hard to disentangle them," says Schell, dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

Schell should know. His 1984 book on China's economic revolution, "To Get Rich Is Glorious: China in the '80s," is often mistakenly cited as being the first to link the phrase with Deng. In fact, in his book he associates the slogan with Deng's revolutionary reforms but doesn't directly attribute it to Deng.

Schell can't recall where he first stumbled across the title for his best-known book. The authenticity of the quote, never widely linked to Deng within China, has received little scrutiny, even in academic circles.

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