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Deng Xiaoping
1904 - 1997


Deng Xiaoping (Teng Hsiao-p'ing) became the most powerful leader in the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) in the 1970s. He served as the chairman of the Communist party's Military Commission and was the chief architect of China's modernization and economic reforms during the 1980s.


Born in Guangan, Sichuan Province, in 1904, Deng joined the Chinese Communist party (CCP) in 1924 while on a work-study program in France. Before returning to China in 1926 he went to Moscow, where he studied for several months.

During the fabled Long March of 1934-1935 Deng served first as director of the political department, and then as the political commissar, of the First Army Corps. After the war with Japan began in 1937 Deng was appointed political commissar of the 129th Division, one of the three divisions in the reorganized Communist Eighth Route Army, which was commanded by Liu Bocheng, also a native of Sichuan. The forces under the two Sichuanese grew into a large military machine and became one of the four largest Communist army units during the war. It was renamed the Second Field Army in 1946 when the civil war began. In the critical Huai-Hai battles in East China during November 1948-January 1949, Deng served as the secretary of a special five-man General Front Committee to coordinate the strategy of participating Communist troops and direct the military actions. In 1949-1950 the Second Field Army took Southwest China, and Deng became the ranking party leader there in the early 1950s.

Deng rose quickly in the leadership hierarchy after his transfer to Peking in 1952. He became CCP secretary-general in 1954 and a member of the Politburo the following year after he supervised the purge of two recalcitrant regional leaders. During the Eighth CCP Congress in 1956 Deng was elevated to the six-man Politburo Standing Committee and appointed general secretary, heading the party secretariat. By then, he had become one of the half dozen most powerful men in China.

Exile and Return

By many accounts Deng was an able, talented, and knowledgeable man. He was nicknamed "a living encyclopedia" by his colleagues. Chairman Mao Tse-tung, the architect of the PRC, allegedly pointed Deng out to Khrushchev of the U.S.S.R. and said, "See that little man there? He is highly intelligent and has a great future ahead of him." Deng visited the Soviet Union several times in the 1950s and the 1960s, as he was closely involved in Sino-Soviet relations and their dispute over the international Communist movement.

Mao and Deng parted ways in the 1960s as they disagreed over the strategy of economic development and other policies. Deng's pragmatism, embodied in his well-known remark, "It does not matter whether they are black cats or white cats; so long as they catch mice, they are good cats," was heresy to Mao's ears. Mao also resented Deng for making decisions without consulting him - he scolded Deng in a 1961 party meeting: "Which emperor did this?" In 1966 Mao launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) and mobilized the youthful Red Guards to purge the "capitalist powerholders" in the party, such as Deng. From 1969 to 1973, Deng and his family were exiled to a "May 7 cadre school" in rural Jiangxi to undergo re-education, in which he performed manual labor and studied the writings of Mao and Marx. Deng's elder son, Deng Pufang, was permanently crippled in an assault by Red Guards.

In the spring of 1973 Deng was brought back to Peking and reinstated a vice-premier in the wake of a major realignment of political forces, which resulted from the demise of Defense Minister Lin Piao and the purge of Lin's followers. Deng's ability and expertise were highly valued in the Chinese leadership and he quickly assumed important roles. In late 1973 he carried out a major reshuffle of regional military leaders and was elevated to the Politburo. In April 1974 he journeyed to New York to address a special United Nations session, in which he expounded Mao's theory of the "Three Worlds."

As Premier Chou Enlai was hospitalized after May 1974, the burden of leadership and administration increasingly fell on Deng's shoulders. In January 1975 Deng was elevated to a party vice-chairman, the senior vice-premier, and the army chief of staff. However, Deng's eagerness to carry out "four modernizations" and the political reforms alienated Mao and other radicals led by Mao's wife Chiang Ch'ing (Jiang Qing).

Thus, soon after Premier Chou died on January 8, 1976, Deng became the target of attack in the Chinese media, and on April 7 the party Politburo passed a resolution at Mao's urging to oust Deng from all leadership posts. After Mao's death in September 1976 Deng's allies prevailed and Deng was reinstated in July 1977, the opposition of new Party Chairman Hua Guofeng not withstanding.

After Deng's political comeback and in his struggle for ascendency thereafter, his foremost task was to destroy the cult of Mao and to downgrade Mao's ideological authority. Another powerful measure of de-Maoization was to put the "Gang of Four" on public trial, which began in Peking on November 20, 1980. These four radical leaders, including Mao's widow Chiang Ch'ing, were the late chairman's most ardent supporters and the prime movers behind the GPCR, on which they rode to power. The trial symbolized the triumph of veteran officials, led by Deng, who had fallen victim to the radical crusade between 1966 and 1976.

Moreover, Deng also used the trial as the coup de grace against Chairman Hua Guofeng. Although Hua was not a defendant, he did collaborate with the radicals before Mao's death. In a central committee plenum in June 1981 Hu Yaobang, Deng's protégé, replaced Hua as the party chairman.

Reform Leader

Deng's economic policies required opening China to the rest of the world in order to attract foreign investment and to educate students abroad in the latest technologies. Accordingly, the People's Republic of China in 1978 signed a Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Japan. In 1979, Deng obtained his nation's official recognition from the United States. Sino-Russian relations were gradually improved over the next decade, and he achieved the long-cherished goal of recovering the British colony of Hong Kong through an agreement scheduled for implementation in 1997.

These diplomatic successes supplemented and eased major changes in the domestic economy. Deng found China's industrial progress impeded by the imbalances of the Cultural Revolution, which stressed investment in heavy industry while virtually ignoring, consumer production, agriculture, transportation, and energy production. As a result, wages and farm prices were too low, and consumer goods were in short supply.

To combat this situation, Deng reduced capital investment in heavy industry, increased prices paid by the state to farmers, and arranged a series of bonuses to raise workers' incomes. Farmers were encouraged to sell more produce privately, and a rapid growth of free markets for farm produce occurred. The communal labor system was virtually eliminated from the rural communes, and fields were leased to farm families on terms that allowed them more autonomy in determining what crops to plant. Agricultural production increased dramatically while, at the same time, a significant proportion of the rural population transferred its activities from farming to various kinds of light industry and trade. More free markets sprang up for distribution of these products, and some state-owned factories were placed under the control of their managers, who were instructed to take into account the profitability and market conditions for their products.

Fought to Maintain Political Stability

Throughout these reforms, Deng insisted upon maintaining China's socialist system. As ever greater reliance was placed on market forces to determine prices, it became increasingly difficult to balance socialist principles with capitalist effects. The reforms resulted in a generally improved standard of living but produced inequalities that were greatly resented. Inflation in the 1980s, a serious problem for the first time in a generation, accompanied increased unemployment and ever-growing disparities in living standards. Deng's inability to reform the blatant corruption and enrichment of many party and government officials and their families created new tensions.

Such tensions fed the long-smoldering discontent of academics who had opposed the party's dictatorship from the beginning and fueled repeated popular demands, especially among students, for a greater degree of democracy in China. In 1979, some of Deng's supporters had openly opposed his dictatorship and called for a democratic political system, and it was Deng himiself who led the suppression of their democracy movement, imprisoned some of their leaders, and banned unofficial organizations and publications. Again in December of 1986, widespread unauthorized student demonstrations were repressed by the government. Hu Yaobang was blamed for this movement, forced to resign, and became a hero to the students. Zhao Ziyang replaced him as head of the party.

Deng's insistence through the 1980s on maintaining China's socialist system while putting his economic reforms into place had by 1989 forced him into an untenable corner of contradictions; he was presiding over increasing economic disparities in an ostensibly socialist society. The opposition's discontent ripened that year into plans for renewed student demonstrations on the 70th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement. When Hu Yaoband died in April, the demonstrators' leaders incorporated into their plans memorials that resembled their 1976 protests following Chou Enlai's death.

Focusing on demands for greater democracy, a series of student demonstrations at Tiananmen Square coincided with Mikhail Gorbachev's official state visit to Beijing and proved a serious embarrassment to China's leaders - one made worse by world-wide television coverage. The democracy movement quickly spread to other cities, threatening both social stability and Communist party leadership.

Deng, who began his political career 70 years earlier on one side of the May Fourth Movement of 1919, now found himself on quite another as party leaders began to weigh the possibility of compromise with the students. He chose, instead, confrontation. Restructuring his alliances, he forced Zhao Ziyang's resignation and relied on his old military friends to suppress the demonstrations. The violence that followed on June 4, 1989, is believed to have killed hundreds of demonstrators in Beijing alone.

Final Years

Worldwide condemnation of the massacre in Tiananmen Square and the uneasy domestic peace that followed brought a tightening of controls over the Chinese people, but did not shake Deng from his dedication to the Communist party's dictatorship nor his pursuit of modernization and economic reform.

From time to time, Deng compromised with other leaders, slowed down the pace of reform, or shifted priorities to placate his critics, but this did not seriously effect Deng's control of the regime's direction. Recognizing his advanced age, Deng sought to assure continuation of his "open door" policy and other political and economic reforms by putting CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang, Premier Zhao Ziyang, and many other like-minded younger officials in positions of responsibility. In November of 1989, Deng resigned his last official position as head of the Central Military Commission. However, he retained paramount authority and continued to guide Chinese policy from his retirement.

The failed Soviet coup in August 1991 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Communist party reinforced Deng's belief that the fate of China, as well as that of Chinese communism, depended heavily on the state of China's economy. Deng understood well that economic reform meant turning loose forces that might eventually topple the Communist party but believed strongly in the party's ability to deliver economic growth and rising incomes. Deng's commitment to change and chastisement of those who dared oppose him forced many hard-line conservative elders to retire and cleared the way for Communist party to fully embrace his reforms. In 1992 the 14th Party Congress signalled the acceptance of Deng's ideas by making a socialist market economy a national goal for the year 2000.

In his last years Deng instigated debate within the Communist party on the need to balance economic reform with political stability, but was unable to impose a convincing plan for stability after his death. As Deng's health slipped into precipitous decline, the powerful patriarch became farther removed from his duties of daily decision-making. His last public appearance was during lunar new year festivities in early 1994, and on February 19, 1997 he died at age 92.


De facto leader of China 1978 – 97 Deng's political career is one of remarkable ups and downs. Initially a close comrade of Mao Zedong, he was subsequently purged twice under Mao. However, he returned to take de facto control of the political structure and implement a series of radical reform in 1978. For much of the 1980s he was feted in the West as a great leader as he moved China away from its Maoist past to a more Western and market-orientated economic system, until his reputation became tarnished with the massacre of student demonstrators in Beijing in June 1989.

Deng was the youngest of a small group of young Communists who were sent on a work-study programme in France by the Communist International. Deng was prominent in the radical student and labour movement in Lyon, and with Zhou Enlai recruited young Chinese in Europe to the Communist cause. Returning to China, Deng supported Mao's view that the peasantry were a positive revolutionary force, and was subsequently heavily criticized by Li Lisan — the first and mildest of his official condemnations. A veteran of the Long March, Deng also served as a political commissar in the second Field Army in his native south-west China.

After a brief period in charge of the south-west region after 1949, Deng was brought into the central political apparatus where he served as party secretary-general. Despite his impressive leadership credentials, Deng's rapid promotion to central leadership owed much to Mao's patronage. It is sometimes forgotten that Deng was once a very strong supporter of Mao, particularly during the formative years of the Great Leap Forward. However, when the Great Leap collapsed into the great famine, Deng changed his view, or at least changed his allegiances. Together with Liu Shaoqi and the economist Chen Yun, Deng oversaw the retreat from the Great Leap from 1961 to 1966, and the reinstatement of more orthodox Leninist political and economic disciplines. Deng argued that if a policy was successful in generating economic recovery, then it should be accepted and not subjected to tests of political correctness. If market mechanisms helped bring about recovery, then market mechanisms were good. This was anathema for Mao, and the start of bitter conflict between the two.

Even though Mao, as chairman of the party, remained theoretically in control, he later claimed that Deng did not consult him once during this period, and that Deng would sit with his deaf ear to Mao at party meetings. Mao also suspected that Deng and Liu had deliberately obstructed his socialist education movement of 1962 – 4, and that these two men were the single biggest obstacle to the implementation of true (i.e. Maoist) socialist principles in China. Thus, when Mao launched the Cultural Revolution to purify the party of these heretical influences, Deng was designated as the second worst class enemy in the party (behind Liu Shaoqi).

Deng suffered massive humiliation and hardship during the Cultural Revolution, as did the rest of his family (his son, Deng Pufang, was paralysed by a "fall" from a window). However, his treatment was partly tempered by Zhou Enlai's intervention, and Zhou played a leading role in ensuring Deng's rehabilitation in 1973. From 1973 to February 1976, Deng worked as the deputy to the ailing Premier Zhou Enlai, who saw Deng as a crucial counter-balance to the radical Maoist Gang of Four. The extent to which Deng owed his position to Zhou's patronage became clear in 1976. Once Zhou died in February, the left moved to oust Deng. When a spontaneous mass demonstration occurred in Tiananmen Square in April in support of Zhou (and by implication Deng), Deng was accused of orchestrating a counter-revolutionary movement. The demonstration was brutally suppressed, and for a second time in ten years, Deng was purged.

Deng found a safe haven in the south under the protection of the military leader, Wei Guoqing. After Hua Guofeng's succession to Mao, the clamour for Deng's rehabilitation grew ever louder. Whilst other leaders lobbied for Deng's return, Deng wrote an open letter to the Central Committee explaining that he only wanted to serve under Hua. On a popular level, the Democracy Wall movement in Beijing raised difficult questions about Hua's own Cultural Revolution record and called for a new polity. It is notable that once Deng returned to power he acted to weaken those forced that had helped his own rehabilitation — he reshuffled China's military leaders (including Wei Guoqing) to cut them off from their power bases, and closed down the Democracy Wall.

From 1978, Deng oversaw the radical reformation of the basis of the Chinese economy. For much of this period, Deng acted without any formal position of power. He instead acted as the crucial power broker behind the scenes, making and breaking factional alliances to maintain the reform momentum. Even his closest colleagues were dispensable if they got in the way of greater goals. Thus, Deng promoted both Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang to central leadership, but allowed both men to fall from grace when their actions threatened party unity and undermined the reform process.

The fall of Zhao Ziyang in 1989 accompanied the Tiananmen massacre of 4 June. This event perhaps more than anything epitomized Deng's vision of reform in China. The whole point of reform was to bolster the party's grip on power. Economic reform was essential in that it increased the party's popularity, but political reform that threatened the party could not be countenanced. Those elements of Deng's leadership that the West so supported were part of the same strategy that resulted in the human rights abuses that the West so despised. The party's continued grip on power despite the problems generated by reform and events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe show that in his own terms, Deng's leadership has so far been a great success.










This web page was last updated on: 18 December, 2008