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China's new leaders were shaped by communism, not revolution

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

BEIJING -- Just three years after the founder of communist China died in 1976, Mao Zedong's policies and legacy were being rigorously rethought -- and in many cases scrapped. But the death of his successor, Deng Xiaoping, a generation later produced a very different result.

Today, six years after Deng was cremated and his ashes scattered into the ocean, he's still running the show.

The leadership lineup that took control of the world's most populous nation this past weekend is in many ways a road map of Deng's intentions. From new President Hu Jintao on down, Deng would -- and in many instances did -- approve.

It illustrates an axiom of politics as many Chinese have come to see it: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

"It's all the same," grumbled a migrant worker named Li from the northern Chinese province of Hebei, after watching his new leaders make their debut Tuesday.

Look closer, though, and a sense of evolution begins to take shape.

Launching reforms

Deng launched economic reforms that would have appalled Mao, who spent years railing against the bourgeoisie. At the same time, Deng led the rejection of what came to be called Mao's "mistakes" -- the disastrous Great Leap Forward and the lethal, intellectual-purging Cultural Revolution -- and promoted the notion that the chairman was "70 percent right, 30 percent wrong."

And when Jiang Zemin was brought in from Shanghai to replace the purged Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang in 1989 and went on to succeed Deng, his approach to his patron's notion of "reform and opening-up" eventually became distinct.

While Deng was a Mao-jacket-wearing communist revolutionary who evolved, Jiang was an engineer who favored a glitzier, suit-and-tie approach to the "socialist market economy" that has helped push China's economy forward.

Now Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao enter the equation. The former is a hydrological engineer and the latter a geologist, but what they are is less important than what they aren't.

On the October morning in 1949 when Mao stood atop Tiananmen gate to proclaim the birth of communist China, Hu and Wen were both 6 years old. Their formative years were molded not by insurgency but by a nationwide feeling of fear and defensiveness -- of Mao's policies and the chaos that ensued. They were children not of the revolution, but of the system it created.

The political attitudes of Hu and Wen in particular are said to have been shaped by the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. During that period, intellectuals were purged by slogan-chanting teenagers encouraged by Mao. These "Red Guards" killed some and banished millions of others to the countryside. Schools were closed and education ground to a halt.

Today, more than two decades after Deng reversed course, China is still struggling to catch up from those years.

Still, in many ways the leadership inherits a healthy land. Though economic reform has left hundreds of millions behind, Hu and Co. are targeting that problem from the start. More foreigners have invested in China, coastal areas are booming and the country is -- despite the continuing communist police state -- accumulating respect on the world stage.


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