Monday, February 24, 1997

One Chinese American's View of Deng Xiaoping

The death of Deng Xiaoping, at 92 or 93 depending on who's counting, came as no surprise, since he had been known to be in poor health for sometime. The U.S. media's reaction to the news though was surprising.

On the evening following the announcement of his death, ABC's Nightline devoted its entire program to reviewing Deng's accomplishments and mentioned but did not dwell on Deng's role in quelling the student protest at Tiananmen in 1989. The same evening, Charlie Rose on PBS interviewed well respected journalists from New York Times and U.S. News and World Report along with a spokeswoman from the Council of Foreign Affairs. The next evening, Rose interviewed former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz. In the Bay Area, KCBS, the all news radio station, interviewed Michel Oksenberg, a highly respected China scholar at Stanford.

The reactions from these sources shared a common thread. They lauded Deng for his courage and vision. They gave him credit for changing China's direction from a closed society ruled by ideology that brooked no challenge to one open to the world and receptive to outside ideas, money and participation. While they didn't overlook his blemishes, Deng's mistakes were put in the proper context and balanced against his policies which were crucial in turning China into the vibrant country that it is today.

The mainstream newspapers also showed balance and fairness in their coverage of the man and his accomplishments. The extraordinary amount of space devoted to this man's life beginning with the prominent front page and extending to inside pages was in itself a reflection of media's recognition and respect for the crucial role Deng played on the world's stage. Considering the demonizing of China that has been flowing endlessly from the media, the treatment of Deng is a refreshing surprise.

Of course, old habits never die completely. Some Bay Area media also made obligatory calls to the politician famous for her anti-Beijing rhetoric and the Chinese ex-convict whose expertise is based on his sporadic clandestine forays into China. Compared to the informed remarks from authoritative sources such as former President George Bush, who lived in Beijing as the first official U.S. representative, and Senator Dianne Feinstein, who began frequent contact with the Chinese leadership when she was mayor of San Francisco, along with others already mentioned, the naysayers' comments were all the more pathetic in their obvious lack of objectivity.

Perhaps the generally even-handed reaction is partly because Deng's personal style does not provoke extreme reactions. He was not a flamboyant man with an oversized ego. He was free of the Napoleonic complex that afflicted many men of short stature. He was known as a stay-at-home grandfather that loved to play bridge and never levered his position of power to womenize. He and his family lived simply and he left explicit instructions specifying that his funeral be low key and nothing special.

From 1979 to the early '80s, Deng Rong, one of his daughters, served as an attaché at the Chinese Embassy in Washington using her husband's surname. The Chinese American community in Washington that frequently socialize with the Embassy staff never knew that she was a daughter of the most powerful person in China.

Even though Deng retained power after his official retirement in 1989, he forbade any attempts to create a personality cult around him. He actively discouraged the publication of such little red books as "Quotations according to Deng Xiaoping." It was enough that no head of state visiting China would consider the trip complete without a side audience with the senior leader.

He has been universally praised for being a thoroughly pragmatic person. One indication is the inevitable association of Deng's philosophy with one of his most famous quotations: "It doesn't matter if it's a white cat or a black cat as long as it catches mouse." Another of his famous quotation is "To get rich is glorious." Consistent with his personality, his quotes tend to be simple and catchy to the point of being apocryphal.

Deng Xiaoping recognized the importance of the U.S.-China relationship and actively supported the building of it. To announce that the two countries had agreed to normalize their relationship on January 1, 1979, the People's Daily ran an extra edition printed in red ink. This doesn't happen very often. The previous momentus event that warranted the extra edition treatment was when China sent up her first satellite.

To celebrate the new relationship, Deng made his first and only trip to the U.S. It was a whirlwind tour that included a state reception in Washington and a Texas barbeque. President Jimmy Carter took the initiative to discuss human rights issues with Deng--thus starting a long tradition between the two nations. In particular, Carter asked Deng about China's restrictive policy in not allowing their citizens to freely leave China. Deng's reply was to ask how many immigrants the U.S. was ready to accept. He could send 100 million the next day, he added. End of discussion.

In style and in substance, Deng was as different from Mao Zedong, his predecessor, as day is to night. He was a doer and implementer that Mao depended on, even when Mao objected to Deng's preference to pragmatism over ideology. Even though Mao personally removed him from power, Mao also restored him later to his former position. Deng's superb administrative skills were needed to straighten out the mess created whenever Mao's rule by dogma went awry.

It was Deng's good fortune that he never rose high enough in the hierarchy to be an heir apparent to Mao. All the annointed number twos to Mao did not survive Mao's suspicious nature and preceded Mao in death and in disgrace. Deng, in contrast, left a functioning orderly government behind him. His designated heir apparents that did not work out were allowed to step down and live in quiet seclusion.

The West tends to judge a person and his deeds in the immediacy of current events. The Chinese are more prone to look at the same package in a historical context. If the present government can successfully carry out Deng's legacy and raise the standard the living of China to the level of its neighbors, namely Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan, Deng's place in history will likely exceed that of Mao.

With time as a unrelenting filter, the hazy lens of history will focus on just the major accomplishments. The impact of such Western flies as drugs and pornography that came in the open door and the brutal images of Tiananmen will fade. Deng will be remembered as the man that unleashed China allowing the people to realize their full potential.

As a group of Chinese living in the Bay Area went into the San Francisco consulate to pay their respects to Deng, they said to me, "If it hadn't been for Deng Xiaoping, we wouldn't be here. We owe him much."

No comments: