After Deng Xiaoping

Deng Xiaoping was born on August 22, 1904. One hundred years have passed. There was a time when I felt Deng had accomplished a great deal. I changed my mind on June 4, 1989, when I was living in Baoding, China, and teaching at Hebei University. I learned early in the morning that the Tiananmen Massacre had taken place. Soon bottles began to fly out of the windows of the dormitories. I was puzzled until I realized that Xiaoping sounds exactly like xiao ping, meaning little bottle. The students at Hebei University were telling their teachers just what they thought of Deng Xiaoping.

Deng Xiaoping left China a richer, more powerful, more belligerent country than he found it — a threat to the world and to its own people. Deng abandoned the idea of a socialist economy, and the productivity of China increased rapidly. Business is still growing, and China is ever more important in a world that is turning into a single market place.

The same man who ended socialism in China saved the Communist Party. Consequently, China remains a state committed to idol worship — the adoration of Karl Marx and Chairman Mao. Deng will forever be remembered as the man who ordered the Tiananmen Massacre. He threw away a great opportunity; he could have exploited a massive but totally non-violent protest movement and built a society that accepted the students' demand: a state where the law is more important than the rulers.

Deng was a pragmatist who wanted China to be rich, with or without socialism. He wanted to preserve the strength of the Communist Party, with violence if it seemed appropriate to him. It would be a mistake, though, to think of Deng as simply a practical man. He saved the Party, at least in part, because he believed in Marx and in the inevitability of a future with no inequality and therefore no conflict of interest, where everyone would think alike. Deng never questioned the importance of thought reform, sixiang gaizao in Chinese.

What Deng never understood is that there is world outside of the market place. Human beings, created in the image of God, are as complex as the universe itself. We are curious, emotional, often impractical. You would think that Communists, who are willing to sacrifice their lives to an abstract cause, should understand the existence of idealism. But they don't because they know that Marx said there is no motivation but money. And so they institute repressive systems to make us believe under pain of imprisonment or even death that we love nothing but profit.

Another thing Deng never understood was stability. Democracies are stable because governments speak with the authority of the people who elected them. Furthermore, change is built into the system because of regularly scheduled elections. Deng feared democracy because he thought it would lead to luan, disorder. Yet he had lived through the greatest disorder China had experienced since the days of the Emperor Qin Shi Huang (221-206 B.C.E.). Only Communism could teach the Chinese, famous for their respect of education, to close their schools and beat up their teachers. In the land of filial piety, children reported their parents to the police and vandalized their temples. It was Chairman Mao Zedong who created disorder. His cuckoo policies led to the famine of 1959-61 with its 30-plus million victims, the worst famine that took place anywhere, ever.

In an attempt to insure stability, Deng Xiaoping, like the 18th-century Qianlong Emperor, resigned and let his appointed successors rule in his place. When Qianlong died, his designated heirs were overthrown and executed. Unlike Mao, who was worshiped and so ruled by divine right, China's leaders have no personal legitimacy. All their moral authority comes from the Communist Party. Even though Deng himself suffered at the hands of Chairman Mao, he maintained the idolatry that persists to this day. He did so because he ruled as Mao's heir and could not question the legality of Mao's reign. When protesters threw paint on the picture of Mao in Tiananmen Square in 1989, they were held by other protesters until the police came. One paint thrower was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment. That's how they treat protesters in China. Deng hoped that if the citizens of China continued to adore Mao, the Communist Party would enjoy continuing power and stability.

In Communist China, where there are no human rights, property is always more important than people. There are no safety regulations, and accident victims cannot sue for negligence, since the negligent party is almost always the government. We Americans complain, with good reason, about the explosion of litigation in our country, but despite everything, we are better off because we live in society of law. We may be surprised that Communists value property more than capitalists do, but we shouldn't be. Communists believe in the magical power of money because they have been taught to do so by Marx. They don't understand the power of law, of human rights, of free association. They don't know that America is rich because of its democratic, stabilizing traditions.

Optimism is built into the Chinese language. The words for "tomorrow" and "next year" are mingtian and mingnian, literally "bright day" and "bright year." Today the residents of Hong Kong, with their habits of freedom of speech and freedom of religion, are citizens of China. They have held demonstrations, but government tanks did not run them over, as happened in Beijing in 1989. The Chinese government respects money too much to upset the Hong Kong economy. Deng Xiaoping's reign led to capitalism but not to democracy. Let us hope that the influence of Hong Kong will spread all over China, and that next year, mingnian, China will be free.

This op-ed essay appeared in the August 20-22, 2004, issue of The New York Sun.