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02 February 1997

China After Deng Xiaoping

On the day of Deng Xiaoping's official funeral Sheila Parker examines what was really behind the recent moves towards the market in China. Western discussions and preoccupations with the personality, history and accession of Deng, she argues, obscures the forces which constitute real problems for the future of China

The death of Deng certainly represents the 'end of an era'. Deng represented a figure with historical ties that enabled him to span the contradictions of contemporary Chinese society - the tension between China's failed 'socialist' experiment and its contemporary embracing of the market. In fact it was Deng who introduced these tensions into China in the first place. However, while everyone credits Deng with the reforming of China and opening it to market forces, the key impetus for these reforms had little to do with his personality.

The opening up of China in the seventies was the result of the interplay between the failure of China's Stalinist-controlled command economy and the interests of the United States of America in the region. By the late 1960s America was facing new challenges to its post-war domination. The rise of Japan as an economic competitor forced the US to alter its previous hostility to Mao's China. The USA was anxious not only to counter Japan's increasing influence in the region, but also to maintain a balance of power which would hold the Soviet Union in check. Courting Peking was seen as an effective way of maintaining, indeed of intensifying the Sino-Soviet split.

The first overtures between America and China began in 1971 with Kissinger's visit to China followed by President Nixon in 1972. By 1978 diplomatic relations were restored and trade began to flourish: increasing from $3.9bn in 1969 to $14bn in 1975. It was these changes in America's relationship with China that provided the context and impetus for Deng to introduce much-needed changes. The proverbial black or white cat Deng famously remarked upon ('as long at it catches mice') as his historic claim to fame had more in common with Mickey Mouse than most commentators concede.

While it is true that Deng played a particularly important role throughout this period, it was not his personality that was important, but his credentials as a cadre of the Long March. This connection with China's revolutionary past gave Deng a unique credibility: market reforms could be and were presented as a continuation of Mao's legacy. The inherent social tensions this entailed could be reconciled precisely because Deng retained credibility within both camps - the winners and losers of China's marketisation. For the past 19 years, the Chinese state bureaucracy have been struggling to prevent these from breaking out - and not always successfully as was the case in June 1989 with the Tiananmen Square massacre. Today the problems of Tibet and Xinjiang express this clearly.

And it is precisely the future of the market in China that Western commentators are preoccupied with. But the future of China has little to do with the personality of the new leadership. What will happen to China in the 21st Century will depend upon the interplay of events inside China and internationally. On the one hand, China is currently more dependent on the world economy than any other recently developed nation at the same point in its development. On the other, internal problems are awesome: the future of the transformation of the state and bureaucracy; the social and economic fragmentation of society as the market creates both winners and losers; the impact of competing foreign interests within China, are but a few of the questions which will determine what happens in China in the 21st Century.

The West's preoccupation with the personalities of China's leaders both past and present obscures the complex economic and political process underway in China. Underlying these commentaries is a recognition that whatever happens in China today will have an impact upon the world. Deng 'opened' China, but he has also ensured that China's internal affairs are now the world's affairs. And this is what informs the unstated content of the West's preoccupation with the passing of Deng's China: both a fear of China's rise and an even greater fear of it faltering. The love of Deng the reformer and the reluctant but necessary appeasement of Deng the 'Emperor of Tiananmen Square' broadly mirrors the West's fear and envy.

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