Deng's the thing

Sunday, August 22, 2004

China's late leader feted like a pop star

By Stephanie Hoo ~ The Associated Press

BEIJING -- Known as the father of a two-decade-long economic boom and crusher of the 1989 pro-democracy movement at Tiananmen Square, Deng Xiaoping has an unlikely new role: pop culture icon.

His face beams from wristwatches and tea sets. He's the star of a popular Beijing exhibit. His hardscrabble hometown has been turned into a tourist attraction with a museum to his storied career.

To mark the 100th anniversary of the late supreme leader's birth today, China's government is pulling out all the stops to promote the image of the chain-smoking communist guerrilla.

"Along came Deng, and he gave all of our lives a big lift," said Hu Huijun, a 32-year-old Beijing magazine editor visiting the Deng exhibit at the National Museum.

The Communist Party pins its claim to legitimacy on rising public prosperity, and riding on Deng's coattails helps promote loyalty to the party at a time of public discontent with corruption and official abuses.

The propaganda campaign is a paradoxical fate for Deng. He disdained the cult of personality cultivated by communist founder Mao Zedong, whom he succeeded in 1976 but whose portrait still hangs in homes throughout the country.

Mao led the 1949 revolution that ended decades of chaos under feuding warlords and began China's opening to the West in the early 1970s. But it was Deng who took the leap toward capitalism that would transform China into a global economic power.

And, in a sense, Deng still rules from beyond the grave following his death in 1997, having picked not just his successor, Jiang Zemin, but China's current president, Hu Jintao.

War on poverty

For all those who mourn the bloodshed of the military attack on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests, Deng's commitment to "reform and opening up" has lifted millions out of poverty.

At the National Museum, Deng fans jostle for free tickets, crowd the souvenir stand and snap each other's picture in front of a giant poster of the leader, who was barely 5 feet tall.

"Because of Deng, ordinary people can now make money based on their abilities," said Wei Qinglin, a 72-year-old corn farmer from China's northeast. "If you're willing to work hard, there's no limit to what you can achieve."

Wei was in Beijing visiting his daughter, who runs her own barbecue stand.

"If it weren't for Deng's policies, my daughter wouldn't have been able to come to Beijing," he said. "She'd still live in the countryside. She'd be a peasant."

China's state-controlled publishing industry has pitched in, bringing out glossy picture books documenting Deng's rise from student in 1920s Paris to anti-Japanese fighter in World War II, communist revolutionary and, finally, national leader.

In one tribute, former Premier Li Peng writes that Deng's resolve in crushing the Tiananmen protests in 1989 served to "suppress the political turmoil, ensuring the nation's long-term stability and providing the necessary conditions for China's development and progress" -- a standard government justification.

In Guang'an, Deng's hometown in the southwestern province of Sichuan, the government has built parks and a concert stage. Plans are afoot to add a musical fountain and outdoor movie theater.

Before Deng, Mao may have liberated millions of peasants from the tyranny of landlords but his misguided economic campaigns in the 1950s led to a famine that killed as many as 30 million people.

The violence of the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution instigated by Mao pitted neighbors against each other, traumatized the nation and forced a generation of intellectuals to labor in the countryside.

Deng, who advocated a more pragmatic line, was thrown out of the top leadership repeatedly as he ran afoul of party radicals. At one point, he was sent to work in a factory.

"Deng had to pay attention to what the rest of the people around him were saying, and he was able to protect himself when he needed to," said Zhang Suning, a 21-year-old university student in Beijing.

"When he later had the opportunity, he expressed himself and his ideas. This is something all Chinese people can relate to."

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