When students ask me who was the most memorable character I've met, I never know how to reply. Was it Nelson Mandela, with a steel-trap political sense sneaking out from under the surface charm and grace? Or Margaret Thatcher in her pomp, allying clarity of thought to an utter conviction in the rightness of her judgment? Or Bill Clinton in 1991, fizzing with ideas and intellectual curiosity, before we knew how indiscipline would diminish him? Or any one of countless others?
It's an impossible choice. But when it comes to the leaders of modern times whom I never met, but would dearly have loved to, there's no contest. I'd give anything to have sat down with a tiny barely 5 feet tall bridge-playing chain smoker who used the spittoon liberally and had a weakness for croissants. And I'd ask him: Did you have any idea what you were doing?
It is exactly 30 years since the conclusion of the Third Plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, the meeting that consolidated Deng Xiaoping's position as China's leader and laid the groundwork for a generation of economic reform. In 1978, Deng was the great survivor. He had been a party member for nearly 60 years, and had been purged more often than a top model's digestive tract, only to claw his way back to the leadership. China was desperate. The horrors of the Cultural Revolution were a fresh memory. As Premier Wen Jiabao said in a speech to a World Economic Forum conference in Tianjin this year, in 1978 "the country was in a backward state ... with the economy on the brink of collapse."
Deng was no student of the dismal science. He once said, "I am a layman in the field of economics. I proposed China's economic policy of opening to the outside world, but as for the details or specifics of how to implement it, I know very little indeed." But he knew enough to let others lead. The reforms that Deng blessed started in the countryside, where farmers were allowed to sell surplus produce and, in time, were allowed to farm their own land on long leases rather than as part of a commune. "Township and village enterprises" small firms, many of which grew rapidly in size sprang up. Prices were freed. As the success of reform became evident in the countryside, it was gradually extended to the cities. Deng endorsed the creation of Special Economic Zones, islands of capitalism in a communist society. (The most famous SEZ, Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong, knows whom to thank for its prosperity; Deng's statue graces a square in the city.) So China started that long run of supercharged economic growth that has made it the workshop of the world. (See pictures of China hosting the Beijing Olympics.)
And more to the point Deng's reforms improved the life chances of more people, faster, than has ever been done before in the history of humankind. To be sure, you can still find poverty in China. Traveling deep in rural Guizhou province this fall, I saw damp villages where the homes were mean huts and families eked a living from rocky hillsides. But everyone had shoes, and nobody looked malnourished.
It is by now an axiom that a generation of breakneck economic growth has brought its own problems. Modern China is not charming. Many of its towns and cities are desperately ugly and shoddily built, workers have few rights, and environmental disasters abound. As global demand contracts, China's export-led, manufacturing-heavy economy is now facing a sharp downturn. Moreover, the accepted narrative of China that Deng opened up and modernized an old-fashioned and hermetic economy needs much qualification. Recent historical research has stressed that China was modernizing and internationalizing fast, if imperfectly, in the half-century between the late Qing dynasty and the outbreak of war with Japan in 1937. And for all his twinkling eyes, Deng was tough. Together with a group of party elders, it was he who gave the go-ahead for the army to crush the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989, snuffing out the hope that real political reform would accompany changes in the economy.
Yet for all the caveats, there is something stupendous about Deng's achievement. (This magazine certainly has long thought so; he is one of only four non-Americans to have twice been named TIME's Person of the Year.) A friend of mine in Hong Kong describes what is happening in China today like this: Think of a quarter of the world's population with all its good and bad, beauty and ugliness rejoining the mainstream of human development after centuries when it stood to the side.
That is the great story of our time. It is our story, everyone's story not just China's. And it is Deng's legacy.