Deng Xiaoping is less than five feet tall, with a wizened moon-shaped face perched above an almost neckless body. He wears his trousers short and his socks bright white, and he chainsmokes acrid Panda cigarettes. But despite his unlikely appearance, the man who met Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Beijing last week has wielded immense political power. For the past decade, Deng has been the unchallenged master of the Chinese Communist party—the uncrowned emperor of China—even though, officially, he only holds the title of chairman of the Central Military Commission. He has opened his country to the outside world, turning to the West for know-how, technology and investments while steering China through waves of bold economic liberalization.
And while students are now calling for political reforms as well—and demanding that he resign—Deng, 84, showed no immediate sign of stepping down. “I am an old revolutionary,” he has said. “What storms have I not braved and what worlds have I not faced up to?”
The latest storm has been a tumultuous one indeed. Not only have the students demanded democratic reforms but they have attacked Deng personally, accusing him of corruption and nepotism. Ironically, Deng himself had long been considered a leading reformer. He has twice been purged from the party because he was considered too liberal. Even at the height of Mao Tse-tung’s ideological frenzy,
Deng remained a staunch pragmatist, advocating his now-famous philosophy that “it does not matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice.” After his latest rehabilitation in 1977, he publicly—and stunningly—repudiated Maoism with the single phrase, “To be rich is glorious.”
Strategist: According to official accounts, Deng was born in Sichuan province in 1904, the son of a well-to-do landowner. At 16, he travelled to France on a work-study program. There, he joined the ranks of expatriate Chinese communists. Young Deng returned to China in 1926 and led two uprisings in the Guangxi region. He later served as the political commissar of a communist army unit, fighting against the Japanese and then the Chinese nationalists, or Kuomintang. After the commu-
nists drove the nationalists on to Taiwan in 1949 and assumed total control of the mainland, Deng rose through the party hierarchy. He proved himself an able strategist, administrator and diplomat—and eventually became party general secretary under Mao.
Persecuted: But Deng was hardly a Maoist yes-man. In 1962, when Mao was advocating ideological purity, Deng suggested that a col-
lectivist spirit was less important than productivity. In 1966, when Mao launched his Cultural Revolution, zealous young Red Guards—many of them students—attacked Deng as an “arch unrepentant capitalist roader” and persecuted his family. Deng’s younger brother committed suicide in 1967 and his elder son was crippled when Red Guards threw him from a dormitory window. Those incidents, analysts say, left Deng with a visceral dislike for students and have tainted his dealings with the current crisis.
In 1969, Deng was exiled to the southern Jiangxi province along with his wife, Zhuo Lin,
the mother of his five children. In Jiangxi, Deng was forced to operate a lathe in a tractor factory and wait on tables. According to family members, it was in exile—during long walks around his courtyard spent thinking—that Deng formulated a coherent political program. He returned from exile in 1973, only to be purged again in April, 1976. Mao died that September, and a year later Deng was recalled as vice-premier. After a power struggle, he emerged by 1979 as the nation’s paramount leader.
He did so with a clear sense of the need for change. After Mao’s death, crime was rampant and traditional Chinese values had been all but lost. The faction-ridden Communist party lacked a cohesive program for the country’s revival. Abandoning the ideology-driven Cultural Revolution, Deng has gradually tried to inject aspects of a free market into the economy. But, like Mao, Deng has ruled absolutely, with no pretence of democracy—what he says is simply done.
Pleasures: As leader, Deng has also indulged in many of the pleasures denied him during his spartan years in exile. He loves the spicy food from his native Sichuan province, as well as croissants, French cuisine and cognac. And he is an avid bridge player because, as he once said, “only when I am playing bridge can I concentrate on the game completely without thinking of anything else.” Deng also has indulged his family, prompting the stu| dents’ nepotism charges. His children ' have travelled abroad extensively and one son enjoyed a lucrative scholarship in the United States.
Most experts agree that Deng is personally incapable of granting the students’ main demand—democratic liberalization. They say that he is too old, too much a prisoner of his own generation, to introduce political reforms in the way that Gorbachev, 26 years his junior, has done. Nor has he yet followed through on his oftenexpressed desire to retire. “I am a setting sun,” he has said. “I leave the work to the younger generation.” No matter when that generation actually ascends to power, it will step into the tall, determined shadow of the diminutive Deng.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.