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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

When a member of a prominent China e-mail group inquired about the slogan's origin a year ago, Schell went back to his book and dug through original source material to see whether he had fingered Deng as the source. He hadn't.

Now, Schell believes he probably first encountered the phrase in media reports in China. He remembers having discussions with the Chinese about the slogan because it was "shocking" for a top Chinese leader to so explicitly promote the virtues of wealth.

"I actually have not been able to find him saying these precise words," he says. "But it was clearly adopted as kind of an official slogan, and it grew out of the zeitgeist of [Deng] enthroning the capitalists."

Turn back the clock, and it's easy to understand how this piece of Deng mythology may have come about. In the late 1970s, China was still largely a poor, isolated country where roads were clogged with bicycles, televisions offered several versions of the government line and little else, and the government ruled the market.

But under the leadership of Deng and others anxious to retain their power, the Chinese Communist Party began promoting a new form of economic ideology that opened up their hidebound, centrally controlled economy to market forces.

With communism under attack around the world, the pressures on China's leaders to define "socialism with Chinese characteristics" increased. The new China -- which still operated behind a thick shroud of secrecy -- had its own propaganda machine, supported by party-backed newspapers and television stations. Workers were urged to "get rich by working."

By the mid-1980s, major U.S. television networks were in a battle to land an interview with Deng, considered the architect of China's reforms but with little visibility outside his country.

Enter Wallace -- sometimes erroneously cited as the real author of Deng's phrase.

In a 1986 episode of "60 Minutes," the first major interview Deng granted to a Western broadcaster, Wallace asked: "To get rich is glorious. That declaration by Chinese leaders to their people surprises many in the capitalist world. What does that have to do with communism?"

Deng's reply: "To get rich is no sin. However, what we mean by getting rich is different from what you mean. Wealth in a socialist society belongs to the people."

Although Deng didn't actually say "to get rich is glorious," Wallace believes that the Chinese leader acknowledged ownership of the words by not challenging the question. "He certainly never said, 'No, no, I never said that,' " Wallace says.

In the interview, Deng emphasized that wealth in a socialist society meant "prosperity for the entire people" and must not lead to a situation in which "the rich get richer while the poor get poorer."

Deng "saw a danger in that, a political danger, which is another reason why he would not have said fa cai, to get rich," says Sidney Rittenberg, an American business consultant who helped Wallace land the Deng interview.

Rittenberg, who spent nearly four decades in China as an interpreter to Mao Tse-tung and others and was jailed during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, believes Deng may have chosen to let Wallace and others believe he had said the phrase because it had become such a powerful sales pitch for China in the West.

" 'To get rich is glorious' is really an exaggeration," he says. "But it conveyed the idea that a big change was going on."

Bai Xueqiu, the Beijing University researcher, said she did locate numerous instances in which Deng made statements such as "You won't be well off just because socialism's name is glorious" or "To get rich through diligence is appropriate."

Does it bother Bai that Deng's historical record may be inaccurate, at least in the West?

"I think he would see that, although he never spoke these words, he had such thoughts, including getting rich legally, common prosperity, becoming spiritually prosperous. Based on his original meaning, I think he could identify with this slogan," she says.

For those wishing to adhere to the facts, however, this is a less than satisfactory conclusion. Should thousands of publications, book authors and academics -- including the Los Angeles Times -- issue a slew of corrections?

China scholars are divided.

"I think it always matters if a quote is misattributed," Schell says. "But it isn't as if the idea was not part of his universe. Moreover, the slogan grew out of everything he said and did."

UCLA Professor Richard Baum says it is wrong to attribute that slogan to Deng if, in fact, he never used it. He believes that journalists, particularly in the West, have adopted the phrase because it validates their view that capitalism is a superior ideology. In the process, he says, the true intent of China's economic reforms have been lost in translation.

"The idea was not that some people would get rich and others can cry about it, but eventually that everyone would be there," says Baum, director of the Center for Chinese Studies.

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