HE LIBERATED China from the communes, the horrors of the great famine of the 1950s, the folly of the Great Leap Forward and the terrors of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s-70s. He brought back the profit motive, supply and demand, individual initiative, the stock market, the private farmer, the private company. He unleashed the massive potential of China to produce the greatest economic growth of any country at any time. He was the antidote to the madness of Mao Tse-tung. For all this, Deng Xiaoping will be gratefully remembered as long as there is a China.
At his passing yesterday at 92, he was the last Asian despot to have learned his Marxism as a student in France in the 1920s, the last Chinese ruler to have survived with Mao on the Long March of 1934-5, the last to have commanded armies against Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists in the 1930s and 1940s and the Japanese imperialists in between -- the last standing icon of Chinese communism's heroic age.
Deng Xiaoping was a leader of China's Communist Party for a half-century, a cabinet minister from the 1950s on, the true leader from 1976 or 1977, depending on which post is counted. He fell from grace to humiliation at the hands of radical Maoist rivals twice, in the 1960s and 1970s. He gave up his last office of leadership a year after suppressing the Tiananmen Square democracy demonstrations in 1989. But his prestige and presence dominated even after. If nothing changes overnight, some will say he rules still from the grave.
Unlike Mikhail Gorbachev of Russia, to whom he will be compared, Deng Xiaoping did not unwittingly unravel communism. He left the Communist Party's monopoly of power, in concert with the army, intact. His death is that of an emperor, not of a dynasty. The new emperor, Jiang Zemin, is in place.
For some things, he will be detested by posterity: He freed no speech, permitted no protest, tolerated no pluralism. He set in motion the peaceful transfer of Hong Kong later this year, shorn of democracy. He sought good relations with the United States while threatening hysteria over Taiwan. He imposed the cultural destruction of Tibet and Xinjiang. If he was one of history's great economic liberators, he was one of its major political tyrants.
His death will inevitably usher in a period of change that his life had kept at bay.
Pub Date: 2/20/97