China's leading anti-capitalist dies

April 12, 1995|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- The death of Chen Yun, China's reclusive opponent of free market capitalism, robs orthodox Communists of their best opportunity to roll back the country's recent economic reforms.

His death also puts an end to the worst fear of China's reformers: that ailing leader Deng Xiaoping would die before Mr. Chen, allowing conservatives to rally around the survivor and reverse China's recent economic reforms.

"With Chen dead, there's no one else of his stature to lead a campaign against the reforms," said a Western diplomat in Beijing. "Deng has scored a victory just by outliving Chen."

Party sources say the 90-year-old died of leukemia Monday in the Beijing General Hospital.

Widely viewed as second only to Mr. Deng in influence, Mr. Chen received a 23-minute obituary and eulogy at the top of last night's newscast. He was praised as a "long-tested brilliant leader of the party and the state."

The official obituary emphasized Mr. Chen's early participation in China's revolution, carefully omitting his split with Mr. Deng in the 1980s. He joined the Communist Party in 1925, just four years after it was founded. In 1933 he entered the Central Committee, a post he gave up 54 years later only after Mr. Deng shunted him aside.

Although considered one of the founders of the People's Republic of China, Mr. Chen was a recluse for much of its history, preferring to feign illness during power struggles and -- like Mr. Deng -- to wage political war through younger proxies who represented his views.

When the party took power in 1949, Mr. Chen was one of its top economic policy-makers. After Chairman Mao Tse-tung's disastrous Great Leap Forward, which resulted in one of the worst famines in modern history, Mr. Chen joined forces with Mr. Deng and other party moderates in proposing modest reforms to give peasants more economic freedom.

These policies in the early 1960s -- the forerunner of China's first phase of economic reforms in the late 1970s -- were swept aside by Mao during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. After Mr. Chen and Mr. Deng were rehabilitated in the 1970s, they again teamed up when Mr. Deng rose to power in the late 1970s.

Mr. Chen was a powerful backer of Mr. Deng's early economic reforms, but the two had a differing vision of China's economic future. Mr. Chen, for example, opposed China's Special Economic Zones, which allowed free-wheeling, capitalist-style economies to develop in Chinese coastal cities during the 1980s.

Mr. Chen formally retired from his party posts in 1987 but became chairman of the Central Advisory Commission, a body of elderly leaders who pulled strings from behind the scenes.

Often in bad health and always publicity shy, Mr. Chen waged a guerrilla war against Mr. Deng's economic reforms, supporting younger, conservative leaders, such as China's current premier, Li Peng, who favors slower growth and more state planning.

Mr. Chen and Mr. Deng were briefly reunited in 1989, when Mr. Deng turned to Mr. Chen and other nominally retired party elders to put down student-led protests in Beijing. Mr. Chen backed the use of military force to crush the Tiananmen demonstrations, a decision that resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths.

As payoff for his support, Mr. Chen insisted on a period of economic retrenchment, which lasted until Mr. Deng's famous 1992 trip to southern China, when Mr. Chen's conservative policies were cast off in favor of speedier reforms and breakneck economic growth.

Mr. Chen's death has been the country's second-most anticipated death, after Mr. Deng's.

For a while, it appeared that Mr. Deng, a year older than Mr. Chen, would die first.

As Mr. Deng's health weakened in recent years, Mr. Chen remained active, taking the unusual step in 1993 of flying to Beijing from his home in Shanghai to try to cool down Mr. Deng's drive to open up China's economy. And during last year's Chinese New Year's celebrations, he was seen on television talking vigorously to top Chinese leaders, while Mr. Deng looked shockingly ill and listless.

This gave rise to the reformers' fears that Mr. Chen would outlive Mr. Deng and lead -- or at least mastermind -- a rollback of Mr. Deng's reforms.

Mr. Chen was most famous for comparing the free market to a bird that will fly away unless it is firmly locked inside the cage of a planned economy.

While Mr. Chen's death precludes his building a bird cage for China's economy, analysts said they doubted that Mr. Deng was well enough to launch a counterattack on Mr. Chen's conservatives. Mr. Deng is rumored to be healthier than in recent months, but still too ill to participate in daily political events.

Little is known of Mr. Chen's personal life, except that he was born in a poor family in Jiangsu province and liked to listen to local dialect storytelling.

He is survived by his wife, Yu Ruomu, described in a 1987 party biography as "a veteran party official"; a daughter who runs a venture capital firm; and a son, Chen Yuan, deputy governor of China's central bank.

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