Deng Xiaoping

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Deng Xiaoping and I were a highly unusual pair of adversaries--or, you might say, friends. We knew each other extremely well. Indeed, we understood each other better than our own friends understood us. We fought steadfastly to defeat each other, and yet at his death in 1997, no hatred existed between us. (As I'll explain shortly, Deng had decided not to continue hating me.) Our situation was a lot like that of two old friends and opponents seated on either side of a chessboard. My earliest knowledge of Deng came over the kitchen table via some of my father's close friends, longtime Communist Party members, a few of whom had worked directly under Deng's command in the 1930s. After the plates had been cleared, they would linger over the dregs of a pot of tea, telling tales of the revolution to later generation revolutionaries like me. Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun, Mao Zedong, Lin Biao and Peng Dehuai figured prominently in their stories. From a young age, therefore, I was familiar with the two great contradictions of Deng's character. The first was that, while he was an excellent debater, he was an appalling theorist. The second was that, despite Deng's ruthless behavior, he had a capacity for introspection, even regret. His life's experiences account for his lack of formal education. The son of a rural sheriff in Sichuan province, he left home for Shanghai and a boat to France at age 16 and never went back to school. It's true that many people who have little formal schooling are able to develop good analytical abilities. But Deng was not a man who enjoyed study. His life is full of examples of his roving the world, moving from one foreign or harsh environment to the next. It was through these experiences, and not from anything in a book, that he acquired his talent for persuasion and his ability to re-invent himself to suit the peculiarities of those around him. During the great famine of 1958-62, the Chinese people began to lose faith in communism. After the Cultural Revolution, their distrust spread to Mao Zedong himself and the entire socialist political model. After Mao's death in 1976, as calls for reform of the communist system mounted steadily, this distrust developed into a major crisis. At that time Deng and I came to represent two diametrically opposed political positions, and thus began our friendship. My position was that China should abandon its communist single-party dictatorship and adopt a fifth modernization, namely democracy. This view has since been embraced by the majority of Chinese people and has become the reformist stand within the socialist camp. Back then, however, most Chinese found it difficult to accept. Neither the political and military leadership nor the academic circles had many people who shared my view. Deng's position was more complicated. By 1977, he had recovered the leadership posts he lost during the Cultural Revolution and joined the country's collective leadership. Yet he found himself fighting a war on two fronts. He had no choice but to advocate reforming parts of the communist system, and therefore he was forced to contend with hardline, traditionalist factions in the government and military. Thus he had to rely on popular support for political change. But in a communist system that did not permit mass unofficial political organizations, no amount of backing from the people could give him real power within the party. So he shrewdly used the only popular movement of the time--Democracy Wall, the appearance of anonymous posters critical of the government on a wall in Beijing--to exert pressure on hardliners and convince moderates of the need for reform. Because of his success in this endeavor, Democracy Wall was allowed to exist for about half a year. At the same time he came up with a new political doctrine that could accommodate the conflicting viewpoints of conservatives and reformers. It appeared to give something to everyone. For the old guard there were the Four Cardinal Principles--the socialist line, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the leadership of the Communist Party and Marxist-Leninist-Mao Thought. How could hardliners be anything but satisfied with that? For the lower-level Communist Party officials who relied on class struggle to put food on their tables, there was classless class struggle, which ensured that their rice bowls would be filled for years to come. And for the reformers, there was the concept of the primitive phase of socialism, which conveniently cloaked reform of the party in Marxist-Leninist rhetoric--or as folks in Beijing put it, cooperating with the masses to trick the Communist Party. This last element won Deng popularity among ordinary people. Classless class struggle, on the other hand, became the subject of widespread ridicule. People joked that if Deng were going to tell lies, he might as well try to make them at least moderately convincing. Deng never allowed himself to be swayed by emotion. A story from the 1930s illustrates this point. At that time he was in charge of the judicial unit of the Red Army. A soldier had been badly wounded. There were no medical resources to treat him, and he was in such excruciating pain that he asked for someone to load a gun and put him out of his misery. That soldier's older brother was his battalion commander. Unable to stand his brother's suffering and aware that without medicine, death was inevitable, he used his own gun to end the man's torment. Then he gave himself up to the justice unit for trial. Despite the other officers' pleas that he be pardoned, Deng sentenced him to death. When observers protested the injustice of this decision, Deng criticized them for allowing themselves to be swayed by emotion. The court officer responsible for ordering the execution told me this story years later. So when in 1989, from my prison in Qinghai province, I heard about the students flocking to Tiananmen Square, I was worried sick. I knew that if Deng would not allow himself to be swayed by emotion, he would defend Communist Party rule at all costs. The situation was similar in 1978. Large numbers of pro-democracy activists misguidedly believed that Deng would stand up for them. After all, they had once sung his praises, and he had just used the popularity and influence of Democracy Wall to his advantage in intra-party maneuverings. They believed he would feel obligated to them. But as soon as Deng had consolidated his power in the party, he turned against Democracy Wall. At the time, I knew I had to come up with a way to save myself and everyone else in the Democracy Wall movement. The method I chose was to challenge Deng directly, to provoke him into viewing me as his arch-enemy. I wrote an essay hinting that Deng might be even more of a tyrant than Mao. The majority of the old cadres who had just been released from prison understood this argument. Thus, when I became the first to be arrested, an extensive debate within the Party ensued over how to handle my case. Deng, who wanted me killed, suddenly found himself in the minority. Within a few months, the party had reoriented itself so that Deng found himself the leader of a new hardline minority faction. It was then that he realized he had been defeated by this man he had locked up in prison. That was the source of his teeth-gnashing enmity toward me, and from that time on he was content with nothing less than my total destruction. I saw my actions as having two possible outcomes. If I lost, I would definitely be killed, but the vast majority of the Democracy Wall activists could escape. There would be opportunities for the democracy movement to stage a comeback. If I won, I'd still be in prison, where I would surely die. But chances were the majority of other Democracy Wall activists would not be arrested immediately. They would have a little time to publicize their work, and the ideas of the democracy movement would be able to spread. I figured there was very little chance I would win. I therefore told Liu Qing, chairman of the Democracy Wall coordinating committee, that he should advise everyone to prepare to flee. He asked me why I did not flee myself. I explained that if I escaped, Deng would immediately begin arresting everyone else. If I sought asylum in the U.S. embassy, I would be branded a traitor to my country (as Fang Lizhi was 10 years later). My case became a milestone in the history of political interference with the judicial process. It established a precedent barring execution as a punishment for political criminals. Ironically, Deng's reputation for magnanimity was largely based on the fact that I was not executed, and yet he still hated me for years to come and repeatedly denounced me in public. But by the 1990s he had apparently realized that losing to me had kept him from becoming branded an even crueler dictator than Mao and that he owed me his reputation for tolerance. After 1989, when the massacre he authorized ensured that he would always be remembered as a tyrant, he became more introspective. His thinking and speaking changed rapidly, a phenomenon seldom seen in aging dictators. He publicly accepted the concept of market economics--also a difficult thing for a lifelong communist to do. Finally, he asked his daughter, Deng Rong, to remove the 48 instances of his denouncing me from the new edition of his official Selected Works, and to inform my father that she had done so. This was equivalent to telling me that the things I had forced him to do had worked to his advantage. My first reaction when I heard this news was to wonder why no one had forced him to do the right thing in 1989. People tend to see only his ruthless side; they rarely notice his tolerance and ability for introspection. I will never be able to forgive Deng for his role in the deaths of millions of Chinese from famine and persecution, nor for bringing China to the brink of total collapse. But I will continue to view his capacity for recognizing and admitting his mistakes as uncommon personal merit. Sometimes I even miss him a little. But perhaps that's because I now have to contend with less savvy opponents in the current Chinese government. Wei Jingsheng is the chairman of the Overseas Chinese Democracy Movement Coalition in New York