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Life in a Special Zone

Deng Xiaoping,
Father of Shenzhen:
A 100th Birthday Tribute

August 20, 2004


History is likely to be kind to late Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping.

While his political policies may have remained "unenlightened" by Western standards, his economic policies were nothing short of revolutionary.

A Chinese friend told me this chestnut:

Reagan, Gorbachev, and Deng had a conference.  Afterward, Reagan's chauffer, leaving the parking garage, signaled right and turned right.  Gorbachev's chauffer subsequently signaled left and turned left.  Puzzled, Deng's driver asked the Premier what he should do.  "Simple," replied Deng. "Do as I do: signal left, and turn right!"

This is indeed what Deng seems to have done.  Read this excerpt from Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn's 1994 China Wakes:

Few leaders in recent history have so dramatically improved the lives of as many people as Deng did in his final years.  Under Deng, Chinese learned what it means to own televisions, refrigerators, and washing machines.  Deng took his two callused hands and yanked, pulling China away from orthodox Mao egalitarianism to a new world of stock markets and special economic zones.

[Note here that Shenzhen is a Special Economic Zone--with one of the PRC's two stock exchanges.]

The police might still beat a retarded man to death to keep him out of sight of foreigners [Kristof and Wudunn continue], but this was not a typical experience.  Such brutality, however revolting and inexcusable, was much less widespread under Deng than under Mao.  A far more common experience in the Deng era was the thrill that families felt when buying a first cassette recorder, a first motorcycle, a first puppy.  [pp. 105-106]

After all, how can the life of one retarded man be compared to 1.3 billion warm puppies?

Kristof and Wudunn go on to say that, despite his economic open-mindedness, many Chinese were frustrated by his political stubbornness.  They cite the case of Wei Jingsheng, for example, who, according to Kerry Kennedy, compared "the policies of all-powerful Premier Deng with the disastrous Five-Year Plans of Chairman Mao."  His honesty got him imprisoned and, ultimately, exiled.  The Kerry Kennedy link has an interview with Wei, in which he says (in part):

In December 1978, Deng Xiaoping gave a famous speech that seemed to crush the beginnings of democracy. The people who were active in democracy were so intimidated by his message and the aftermath of that speech that they began to back off. And at that time, I made the decision to stand up to Deng Xiaoping.

Kristof and Wudunn call Wei Deng's "bitter enemy, who may be the only other Chinese as stubborn as Deng himself" [p. 107].  

It's good to pause and think about Deng's dark side as a sort of balance, because this weekend Shenzhen will witness a sort of a holy day.

Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of Deng's birth in Paifeng village in Sichuan.  The event is commemorated by no fewer than four articles leading off today's Shenzhen Daily.  ("Why today?" you may ask, "if the anniversary isn't until Sunday?"  Because the Shenzhen Daily isn't daily.  They only publish Monday through Friday, so this is the last publication date before the Big Event.)

Here's a synopsis of the four articles:

The relationship between Deng and Shenzhen is lauded in Shenzhen, a city of Deng Xiaoping.  The article focuses on Yumin Village in Shenzhen's central district of Luohu, where "a grand ceremony was held to commemorate Deng, the Chief Architect of China's reform."  The reflections of "Wu Jindi, a senior villager," included this remembrance of Deng's inspection of the village on Jan. 25, 1984:

"Deng Xiaoping walked around the village in the company of my father, who was then the Party secretary of the village. He also visited my brother's family and chatted with them," she said.

Stirring.  Later Ms. Yu continues:

"The commemorating activities for the 100th anniversary of Deng's birth will help people rethink and revalue the Deng Xiaoping Theory, which, I think is a great boost for Shenzhen people to overcome disadvantages, " said Yu, a travel agency manager.

The article goes on to describe the village's prosperity, then moves to reflections by a few others, closing with this quote by The Unknown American:

"Without Deng Xiaoping's policies, there would be no Shenzhen at all," said an American who preferred not to be identified.

Next up: the fair-minded and balanced piece entitled Brilliant leader in shaping China.  This is the opinion of no less a luminary than former British Prime Minister Edward Heath, who, beginning "about two months after his four-year premiership came to an end" in 1974, visited China "26 times in 27 years."  Heath said of Deng:

"To the world as a whole, he (Deng) has shown how a country can be handled to get rapid expansion, and how it can make its contribution to the whole world in return..."

and, later,

"His personality was quiet, but also intensive. He thought things out beforehand and explained them. He never hesitated and made a big impression," Heath said.

"And he did have a greater vision of China, a very broad vision, also of its relations with other countries when he introduced reforms and opening-up policies in 1978," Heath said.

The article ends with this point:

Heath has now met three generations of Chinese leaders. He had two long talks with Mao Zedong in 1974 and 1975, a large number of meetings with Deng over three decades and also met the then Chinese President Jiang Zemin in 1995.

Just in case you thought Heath was talking out of his ass.  (Speaking of which: The Daily has more than once put words in my mouth.  Would a former British PM really say things like "get rapid expansion" and "opening-up policies"?)

Now we come to the true mark of any Chinese leader: The Catch Phrase.  Catch phrase shows power says it all.  Remarking on the growth of a refrigerator company whose plant he was inspecting, Deng uttered these immortal words:

"Development is the overriding principle."

As proof of their enduring quality, the article points out that the catch phrase "often appears on walls and billboards and mentioned [sic] on TV."  Remarkably, this one seemingly off-the-cuff mumble brought to rest a global controversy and created the China we know today:

Deng's idea became the core principle of economic development, cooling down then [sic] heated debate of socialism vs. capitalism and bringing the country to a new economic stage.

And to think that it all started in a Shenzhen refrigerator factory.

Although that was 12 years ago, the comment is still reaping fruit today (and how!):

Deng's brilliant idea is still guiding China towards prosperity. Its per capita gross domestic products has exceeded US$1,000 and the country's total import and export volume is also expected to top UUS [sic] $1 trillion this year.

Now, it might be easy to say, "Sure, Shenzhen worships Deng.  But has he attained global stature?"  Yes, and the proof can be found in the last article, Photo exhibit at United Nations.  Here we learn that the Chinese permanent mission to the United Nations has sponsored an exhibition of "more than 40 photos reflecting various stages in Deng's life" which offer "a glimpse of the noble character and great achievements of the late Chinese leader."

At a ceremony opening the exhibition, acting permanent representative of the Chinese mission to the UN Zhang Yishan gave this stirring, clear characterization of Deng's "contribution to world peace":

Deng Xiaoping maintained that China should proceed from its national strategic interest and surpass differences in social systems and ideology and develop friendly relations and cooperation with all countries in the world on the basis of the five principles of peaceful coexistence.

I feel better for knowing that the world can by guided by the crystalline thoughts of the late Emperor Deng.  And I am duly grateful to be living in the Zone that Deng Built at this time of the glorious "commemoration of the centenary anniversary of the birthday of the late Chinese leader," as the first article so aptly calls it.


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