Wednesday, November 17, 2004

"It's time to Prosper"

Perhaps only those who inhabited China’s vast countryside can appreciate the greatness of Deng Xiaoping, whose 100th birthday would have been August 22. In numberless villages lived hundreds of millions of Chinese in abject poverty. If lucky they might live in a small hut with a thatched roof with a hole at the top to let the smoke out from the open-hearth fire. Peasants transported their ducks and geese to markets along rivers and ancient canals, there being few roads, as they had done from time immemorial. This was not the Middle Ages, but China circa 1977, the year after Mao Zedong died and the year Deng was rehabilitated.

Deng recast China, and in doing so altered the world we live in. “It’s time to prosper. China has been poor a thousand years,” he proclaimed and set in motion policies that lifted more people out of poverty – 200 million by some counts – then any other world leader anytime, anywhere. He did this, in part, through the simple expedient of giving the land Mao had originally confiscated from the landlord class back to the peasants. Through the contract responsibility system, farmers were freed to grow any crops they wished, so long as they delivered a specified amount of staple crops to the central government. Soon money was beginning to course through the system. Two-story brick houses rose where thatched huts used to be.

Deng’s policies had immense impact abroad. From the 1950s to the 1970s, China was ruled by ideologues committed to exporting the communist revolution. Beijing supported and underwrote insurgencies throughout the region. Under Deng, China set aside such adventures to concentrate totally on building up the economy and attracting foreign trade and investment. That in turn permitted neighboring countries to concentrate on their own development rather than fighting insurgencies. Certainly, Deng’s economic turnaround and political realignment constitute the most important geopolitical event in Asia in the second half of the 20th century.

The man known as China’s “patriarch” because no official titled conveyed the authority he held, tackled the great problems “left over from history” – namely the separation of Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan from the mainland – with the constructive pragmatism that marked all of his political endeavors. The famous “one-country, two systems” formulation under which Hong Kong was returned after 155 years of British colonial rule was imaginative, daring, and, so far, a success. It was an issue not only of supreme importance to China in its quest to regain national unity, It was also of international concern because of what Hong Kong had become under the British and its key role in Asian economic development and as a model for China in the coming century.

Great men have great flaws. Deng shared the ruthlessness, which has been a mark of Chinese leaders since Shi Huangdi first united the country by force 22 centuries ago. Much of his career was spent embroiled in the wars against the Japanese and the Kuomintang. Purged twice under Mao and his successors for being a “capitalist roader,” Deng saw no other sure way to survive, and advance his political aims, but through force. But that very toughness led him to order the harsh, bloody suppression of countless people. He persecuted thousands of intellectuals during Mao’s Anti-rightest Campaign of 1957, And when the students called for democracy and an end to corruption on Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989, he called out the tanks.

Of all the 20th Century’s great leaders, Deng was truly a man of his century, For one thing, his life (born 1904, died 1997) neatly spanned the era. More importantly, his career embraced most of it. As far back as the 1930s, Deng was shaping the course of history as a top-level military commander. He led China’s revolutionary armies in some of the great campaigns of the civil war, culminating in the capture of the Kuomintang capital Nanjing. Yet he was still influencing events right up to the century’s end, when in 1992, he rekindled economic reforms, stymied for more than two years after Tiananmen, with his famous tour of southern China.

For Asia, the past 100 years have been a drama in two big acts. The main theme of the first half of the century was the region’s struggle for independence from European colonizers. The second half has been dominated by nation-building and East Asia’s phenomenal economic success. Alone of all the great Asians, Deng was a leading player in both of these acts, first as a revolutionary leader, then as the architect of a social revolution which has fundamentally changed China and the rest of the world for the better.


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September 25, 2006 at 1:13 AM  

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