The World

The rise and fall and rise and fall and rise of Teng Hsiao-ping

August 8 1977
The World

The rise and fall and rise and fall and rise of Teng Hsiao-ping

August 8 1977

The rise and fall and rise and fall and rise of Teng Hsiao-ping

The World

When U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance lands in Peking on August 22 to start putting American-Chinese relations back on the rails, the man he will have to reckon with will be an acid-tongued, fanatical bridge player who is, arguably, a greater escapologist than Houdini. The name is Teng (pronounced Dung) Hsiao-ping. At 73, the diminutive Teng has just performed a feat few would have thought possible in China—or any other Communist society: he has come from the depths of political disgrace not once but for the second time.

The millions throughout China who celebrated the official restoration of Teng to a place in the sun, third in the Chinese hierarchy, at the end of last month were marking the latest phase in a career that stretches back into the faraway, heroic days of the Chinese revolution. In exile, Teng was with the revered Chou En-lai in Paris; in the era of the Long March, when the Great Helmsman Mao Tse-tung led his battered legions through Chiang Kaishek’s armies to the safety of the Communists’ northern fastness, Teng was one of the Red Army’s top political commissars.

But they were also bearing witness to the ability of one man to survive a bitter, 11year feud in China’s innermost circle over personal power and the political and economic paths the world’s most populous nation should be pursuing in the second half of the century. It was in the 1960s that Mao, complaining that his former comrades, Teng among them, were treating him like a “dead ancestor,” took his revenge by launching the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and sending his Red Guards rampaging through the land. Teng, at that time secretary-general of the Communist Party, and Mao’s designated successor, Liu Shao-chi, were swept from power as “capitalist roaders.” Liu disappeared from sight

but Teng survived to await his recall from the wilderness.

Comeback No. 1 came when Mao had to get rid of Lin Piao. the army commander who had put the necessary military muscle behind the cultural revolution. Only one man could summon up the political clout, Teng Hsiao-ping. Surefooted manoeuvring on such slippery ground was Mao’s speciality. With the help of Premier Chou En-lai he convinced Teng that all was forgiven—just get rid of Lin Piao and he could come back to work. Teng put down some terms—restoration of other party faithfuls who had been purged in the cultural revolution and a top job for himself. Lin’s death was staged and. in 1973, Teng reappeared at a Peking banquet hosted by Chou En-lai on the arm of Mao’s niece.

It was like Napoleon’s return from Elba. All China knew that Teng had parted ideological company with Mao in the mid1950s, even before Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward policies had brought the nation near to economic ruin. Then Teng had bluntly declared that he did not care whether a cat was black or white so long as it caught mice—and he ordered private plots returned to peasants and material incentives given to workers to pull the nation out of the chaos created by Mao’s visions.

When he regained his hold on the nation’s political and administrative machinery, Teng slashed program after program initiated by Mao. Worker participation in management of factories was eroding any sense of production discipline; ideological controls were hampering the work of research scientists; Mao’s edicts on China’s self-reliance were being stretched beyond credulity and must be severely modified.

Once more he was the no-nonsense executive to whom Marxist-Leninist polemic was so much distraction from the real task: to make China an efficient, modern state.

They were heady times and, as Chou En-lai’s life ebbed away in the dying days of 1975, it seemed that Teng’s claims to succeed the Premier were indisputable. So much for surmise. Hardly were the flowers and tributes—Teng himself spoke the public eulogy—to Chou over in January 1976 than Houdini was back in his box.

The people who put him there were precisely those responsible for his first disgrace—the ageing Helmsman Mao, his wife Chiang Ching and her tight little group of young, ambitious acolytes from Shanghai who. between them, had shaped the original cultural revolution. Their motives were twofold: simple lust for power and views diametrically opposed to Teng’s—political purity is more important than technical or administrative expertise, learning from foreigners is bad, workers should submit to no restraint.

By mid-1976, Teng had been stripped of all his posts and, labeled a freak and a monster, was in Canton taking refuge with former army friends. In Peking, Hua Kuofeng,almost an unknown, had been officially declared Mao’s number two and, with the 82-year-old chairman weakening, seemed destined to succeed.

Comeback No. 2 was officially celebrated at the end of last month. But the new turn in Teng’s fortunes dates from the death of Mao last September and the arrest the following month, in another twist of China’s labyrinthine power plays, of Chiang Ching and her group, now vilified as the Gang of Four. Ever since, Peking hands have been receiving heavy hints that old Houdini was back at his desk, beavering away behind the scenes and only awaiting the right moment to go public.

The coincidence of the announcement of Vance’s coming visit and the reappearance of Teng is almost too striking to be mere chance. For one thing, Teng is the only man in the three-strong junta (the third man is the ageing Marshal Yeh Chien-ying) who has much experience of dealing with Westerners. So the problem for President Jimmy Carter and his Secretary of State is what the change portends.

The answer is that the United States and China have a common interest in stability in the East—and both are worried about the Russians. (The United States is particularly concerned lest its planned military withdrawal from South Korea should upset the delicate balance of power in the area.) But before they can get together, the Chinese insist that the United States should allow them to settle the question of Taiwan, still a nationalist stronghold.

A lot will depend on whether Carter has decided to be as abrasive in his dealings with Peking as he is with Moscow. If so, he can forget any thoughts of normal relations. If not, a deal can almost certainly be struck—China needs U.S. technological expertise and, if Congress can be persuaded, might even be interested in U.S. arms. But a lot also hangs on the tough, chain-smoking, Teng, whose social habits—he makes frequent use of the spittoons—reportedly led Henry Kissinger privately to describe him as a nasty little man. He is a born survivor and, like any class bridge player, he will want to take every trick he can. HAROLD ELLITHORPE