Deng Xiaoping (China)

Reference work entry


Despite never having held any of the major state offices, Deng Xiaoping became one of the most influential leaders of modern China. His economic reforms rescued China from the chaos wrought by the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and laid the foundations for his country’s current economic progress.

Early Life

Deng was born on 22 Aug. 1922 in Sichuan province, into a prosperous family of landowners. Family money allowed him to study abroad between 1921–26, first in France, where he was first involved in the Communist movement, and then in the Soviet Union.

Returning to China after 1926, Deng made for the Chinese Soviet, established by the Communists in the south-west. He was soon involved in both political and military activities as the Communist ‘statelet’ was besieged by the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek (Chiang Chieh-shih). On the Long March (1934–35) Deng became a trusted colleague of the party leadership and was appointed political officer to the Communist Eighth Route Army in 1937.

Deng’s career progress was slow. Although appointed to the Central Committee of the party in 1945 and to the leadership of the Second Field Army in 1948 during the civil war against the Nationalists, when the People’s Republic of China was established on 1 Oct. 1949, Deng was not rewarded with a position in national government. Instead he was posted to the south-west as a regional party official. In 1952 Deng finally received the call to come to Beijing and became one of the deputy premiers. In 1955 he became a member of the Politburo.

As his reputation increased, Deng began to influence state policy, but he became a victim of the divisions within the party leadership. Mao Zedong placed emphasis on continuing revolution and equality. Deng, allied with the head of state, Liu Shaoqi, recognised that most individuals are motivated by personal economic rewards. Deng’s pragmatism was out of tune with the revolutionary zeal of the Cultural Revolution and he was purged from high office in 1967. By 1969 Deng had vanished from public life. When the Cultural Revolution had been discredited, Deng’s climb back was rapid. He was reappointed to a deputy premiership by Zhou Enlai in 1973, and by 1975 he was back in the Politburo and was deputy chairman of the Central Committee. As Zhou Enlai’s health declined, his protégé, Deng, exercised more of the levers of power. But a second fall awaited him.

When Zhou died in Jan. 1976, the radical Gang of Four secured Deng’s removal from government again. Nine months later, following Mao’s death, the radicals in turn were purged and Deng’s second return to power began. Mao’s successor Hua Guofeng lost the battle for the leadership of the party. In mid-1977 Deng was back in office in the Politburo and the Central Committee. In 1980 Hua was forced out of the premiership and in the following year had to resign the party leadership. Yet Deng did not take on either position.

Career Peak

From 1980–81 Deng Xiaoping was effectively the ruler of China, but he ruled through ‘lieutenants’. Zhao Ziyang was appointed premier in 1980 and Hu Yaobang party leader in 1981. Deng and his allies were now free to implement reforms.

State-owned industries gained economic independence and managers were encouraged to make profits. Throughout the economy personal financial incentives were introduced. On the small scale, for example, peasants were allowed to determine their own production plans. On the macro-scale, free ports and development zones along the southern and eastern coasts were opened to foreign investment and enterprise. Many aspects of planning were decentralised. The result was strong economic growth and greatly increased agricultural production. Social reforms too were introduced, not all of them liberal. A rigid policy of family planning—including a legal requirement for families not to have more than one child—was introduced.

With his reform programme bringing success, Deng stepped further out of the limelight. He gave up his posts on the Politburo and Central Committee in 1987, but continued to govern the country through loyal colleagues. Yet one the biggest challenges to his plans was still to come. Economic reform increased public appetite for greater personal freedom and political reform—neither was forthcoming. Party leader Hu Yaobang gave some indication of sympathy towards these expectations and was subsequently removed as general secretary of the party in 1987. Hu’s death in 1989 coincided with the death throes of Communism in eastern Europe, and his funeral was marked by large-scale student protests in favour of political freedoms. Students and workers occupied Tiananmen Square in central Beijing. In the face of this challenge to authority Deng momentarily wavered. But he came down in favour of the authoritarian old guard and the protests were crushed by force and loss of life.

After the Tiananmen Square massacre Jiang Zemin was appointed party leader, but Deng remained in charge of the country’s economic development until his death on 19 Feb. 1997.

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