China's one-time strongman doesn't matter anymore Deng at 91 is near death, ignored by the nation he transformed economically

July 28, 1996|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- One of the best-kept secrets about Chinese strongman Deng Xiaoping may finally be out: He doesn't matter anymore.

Indeed, what has fascinated Chinese and foreign observers here over the past few weeks hasn't been the widespread perennial rumors of Deng's impending death. It has been the fate of his family's business empire and the future of his policies, both of which seem to be encountering some de-Dengification.

Deng's children, for example, have made a quiet exit from the web of businesses that they once ran in southern China, most of which owed their success to the family name.

With their 91-year-old patriarch unable to protect them, Deng's niece, son-in-law and even his youngest son have run afoul of anti-corruption efforts by China's new generation of leaders.

Headed by President Jiang Zemin, these new rulers have also tried to tone down some of Deng's policies, showing less tolerance for foreign culture or the gap between rich and poor.

A sign of how serious the Deng family views the situation was seen in a defense of Deng's theories given by his elder son, Deng Pufang, who has been an invalid since Communist radicals pushed him out of the window of his college dormitory 30 years ago.

Deng Pufang spoke to the Chinese Federation for the Disabled on July 9, although the speech is only now circulating in Beijing.

He criticized recent actions that "wholly negate the Deng Xiaoping political line" and he argued that Deng's policies had contributed to social stability rather than fostering the corruption and disparities that many Chinese believe are the flip side of his economic successes.

That Deng's son felt he had to speak in his father's defense shows how much power China's former paramount leader has lost.

From 1978 until recently, Deng was China's uncontested ruler, the diminutive chain-smoker who radically transformed China from Mao Tse-tung's isolated, impoverished Communist state to economically vibrant country that has never been so sure of itself since the mid-19th century.

His last great push came in 1992, when he took a celebrated tour of southern China's experimental economic zones, using the trip to urge Jiang and the other younger leaders to be bolder in reforming the economy.

By 1993, however, Deng's health had started to deteriorate, and in 1994 he was only caught twice in pictures: early in the year on television, looking drawn and weak, and later in the year in a photo with his mouth gaping open and his eyes staring vacantly at a fireworks display.

Not only has China's propaganda machine stopped releasing pictures since then, but over the past year it has stopped touting his ideas and writings.

While his books are still on sale, Chinese are no longer treated to Deng photo exhibitions or Deng computer games, which were supposed to ensure Deng's relevance to a younger generation.

The rollback goes beyond the outer trappings of power; Deng's ideas are also having to justify themselves as never before.

Although a staunch Communist, Deng firmly believed in bold strokes and trickle-down economics. He had little time for timid souls who worried too much about poisonous foreign ideas or an unsocialist gap between rich and poor.

Over the past year, however, the experimental economic zones that Deng visited in his 1992 push have been called into question.

Preferential policies, such as low tax rates, are being abolished, and coast area is being forced to redistribute some of its wealth to the impoverished inland.

Many economists see this as a natural correction after nearly two decades of breakneck growth, but it goes contrary to Deng's spirit.

Culturally, the country is also growing more conservative. China is in the midst of an old-style campaign to rid itself of "colonial" culture, ordering shopkeepers to purge their signs of foreign words. And in a break with Deng's emphasis on economics over politics, Jiang recently made a major speech ordering officials to "talk politics."

"Jiang still pays lip service to Deng, but he realizes that he has to define himself and so has put an emphasis on stability rather than bold reforms," said Tai Ming Cheung, a political analyst with Kim Eng Securities in Hong Kong.

Jiang has also positioned himself as the champion of clean government. Some observers believe that the current anti-corruption campaign, while badly needed, is also being used to strip the Deng family of power.

Deng's niece Ding Peng, for example, has been mired in a corruption scandal since last year when an Australian partner was sentenced to 18 years in Chinese prison for corruption.

Deng's younger son, Deng Zhifang, recently quit his business interests in Hong Kong after his company was tied to a corruption probe in China.

And son-in-law He Ping has apparently lost his job in a Chinese military firm after it was linked to a huge gun-running racket in the United States in May.

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