China's leader dies A cunning political strategist and daring economic innovator, Deng transformed China while brutally maintaining Communist political supremacy.

Deng Xiaoping-1904 To 1997

February 20, 1997|By Robert Benjamin and Ian Johnson | Robert Benjamin and Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- Deng Xiaoping, who dramatically transformed China while brutally maintaining Communist political supremacy, died yesterday. He was 92.

The death of the resilient former guerrilla fighter -- twice purged from power before becoming paramount leader of the world's most populous nation in 1978 -- was announced by Xinhua, China's state news agency.

Xinhua said Deng died of complications from Parkinson's disease and a lung infection. He had been hospitalized since last week and had been sick for years.

In Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing, China raised its national flag early today to half-staff in a solemn ceremony.

The bright red flag emblazoned with five gold stars was raised by a soldier of the People's Liberation Army, one of a group who marched with bayonets at their shoulders from the Forbidden City that housed China's emperors.

Early morning bystanders showed scant reaction, many unaware that Deng had died.

State radio and television announced the death and played funereal music, with television showing a black-and-white photograph of Deng against a blue background.

Deng defined an era by taking China from impoverished isolation to the expectation that it would soon be the world's next superpower. His bold, pragmatic economic reforms improved the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese and made him a giant of the 20th century.

His demise leaves China in the hands of a collective leadership centered on Communist Party chief and President Jiang Zemin, Deng's appointed successor. But power in China has rarely changed hands smoothly, so Jiang's grip could prove temporary.

At his best, Deng was a cunning political strategist and a daring economic innovator, constantly searching for ways to make China more prosperous and to do away with the bloody ideological battles that cost millions of lives in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

But his legacy is mixed.

From the third time he rose to power in the late 1970s, the diminutive patriarch repeatedly rejected growing pressures within China for greater political freedoms -- pressures accelerated by his moves to liberalize the Chinese economy rapidly.

As much as for his successful economic reforms, Deng will be remembered for the massacre near Beijing's Tiananmen Square of hundreds of demonstrators June 3-4, 1989. That was followed by a sharp crackdown on political dissent that continues today.

By the end of his life, the limits of Deng's ad hoc approach to economic reform were becoming apparent. By freeing the entrepreneurial spirit of China's peasants and tolerating the rise of a new business class, he set loose an economic boom over the past decade and a half. But he avoided many tough economic choices, leaving China with a vast, antiquated industrial structure and chronic inflation, as well as endemic corruption and nepotism.

As Deng grew increasingly frail in recent years, his death became much anticipated and frequently rumored. The last photo of him, staring glassy-eyed at a fireworks display, was released in January 1995.

China's puppeteer

Consistent with traditional Chinese political culture, Deng ruled the world's largest nation not by charisma or by the artful use of mass media but much like a behind-the-scenes puppeteer.

In his last years, he almost totally removed himself from the limelight, ostensibly deferring to Jiang. His only title was "most honorary president" of China's Bridge Association, reflecting his long love for the card game.

Jiang, a former Shanghai mayor, was anointed by Deng as the "core" of China's next generation of leaders. He became party chief in the wake of the Tiananmen crisis and took Deng's last official post as head of the party's military commission, which controls China's armed forces. In 1992, he became China's president.

But there was little question that until 1994, Deng still had the final say in China -- even as age and illness reduced his abilities, slowed his movements, thickened his speech and turned him into mostly a symbol of power.

When he was more active, Deng, barrel-chested, brush-haired and barely 5 feet tall, presided over 1.2 billion Chinese with a pugnacious style. Well into his 80s, he retained the darting eyes and curling smirk of a mischievous boy. During visits by world leaders in the 1980s, the one-time chain-smoker frequently punctuated his conversations by spitting into a spittoon.

One of those visitors, former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, considered him a "nasty little man." But Lucian Pye, a Sinologist with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, described Deng in more intriguing terms:

"He enters the room at the slow, unanimated pace in which great authority is expected to move in China, the exact opposite of the vigorous American politician or executive. It is said that he is five feet tall, but that is surely an exaggeration. He awkwardly greets his guests; his handshake is limp, without life, almost as though the nicotine stains had taken all the strength from his fingers.

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