China: Deng Xiaoping era ends with start of Xi era

September 06, 2018 08:31
Chinese leader Xi Jinping is not only playing down the role of Deng Xiaoping, he is raising the profile of his father Xi Zhongxun, who died in 2002. Photo: Reuters

The era of Deng Xiaoping, who brought China the reform and opening-up policy in 1978, is over. This is now the era of Xi Jinping.

This year, 2018, marks the 40th anniversary of the reform movement, led by the redoubtable Deng Xiaoping, who ended the madness that had gripped China during the Cultural Revolution.

Deng’s signal achievement was the decision in December 1978 by the Communist Party to embrace economic modernization as its main task instead of class struggle. In a keynote address in preparation for the third plenary session of the Central Committee, Deng issued a call for emancipation of the mind, telling people to rid themselves of their mental shackles and to seek truth from facts.

The shift marked a clear break from the Maoist past. Deng’s reforms saw China change from a very poor country into the world’s second-largest economy in little more than 30 years.

But now the Deng era is over. Last year, at the party’s 19th congress, a new doctrine was unveiled called “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”. For the first time since Mao, the “thought” of a leader was put in the party constitution and, last March, in the state constitution as well.

A key constitutional amendment last spring was the removal of term limits for president and vice president, a stipulation written into the constitution in 1982 at Deng’s behest.

It is perhaps understandable that Xi, the current leader, should want the 40th anniversary to glorify the present and the future, rather than celebrate the past. However, not only is Xi playing down the role of Deng, he is raising the profile of his father, Xi Zhongxun, who died in 2002.

Last month, Benjamin Carlson, a Beijing correspondent for Agence France-Presse, went to the National Museum of Art and was taken aback by the 40th anniversary exhibition. “Deng Xiaoping was hardly to be seen,” Carlson reported. “Xi Jinping – and his father – stole the show.”

What was most startling was a huge oil painting entitled “Early Spring” that shows Xi Zhongxun lecturing and pointing to Shenzhen, adjacent to Hong Kong, on a map while Deng Xiaoping and other senior leaders listened raptly. The intent seems to be to show that Xi senior, not Deng, was the one who deserved credit for the transformation of Shenzhen into a special economic zone, the first in China.

According to China Media Project, an independent research program at the University of Hong Kong, it was in April 1979 that Xi Zhongxun, first party secretary of Guangdong, formally requested that a special economic zone be built, at a meeting presided over by Hua Guofeng, then party chairman and premier. Deng was not present at that meeting. Hua was not included in the painting. The very idea of Xi Zhongxun lecturing top leaders, as depicted in the painting, is ahistorical.

Another museum, this one in Shenzhen – the Shekou Museum of Reform and Opening – first opened last December and, according to The Wall Street Journal, visitors were greeted by a sculpture depicting a 1984 visit to Shenzhen’s Shekou district by Deng and other senior leaders. However, in May, the museum announced that it would be closed for “upgrading” and, when it reopened in August under the new name of the Shekou Museum of China’s Reform and Opening-Up, the sculpture was gone.

In its place were video screens showing local development and a beige wall adorned with a quote from President Xi Jinping.

The Journal reported that there are now displays that extol the current leader and his father. There are also photographs and text portraying the elder Xi’s contributions to reform appearing alongside some Deng-related displays.

The China Media Project, in an article headlined “The Art of Rewriting History”, also reported that the frequency of Xi’s father’s name appearing in the People’s Daily has increased dramatically since Xi assumed power.

The article reported that from 2007 to 2012, before Xi assumed power, the name “Xi Zhongxun” appeared 24 times in the paper. But in the last five years while Xi was in power, his father’s name appeared 98 times in the People’s Daily.

In traditional China, the emperor honored senior officials by granting their deceased ancestors elevated titles. In contemporary China, it seems, the party leader – who is the equivalent of the emperor in many ways – can do the same thing and honor his own parents posthumously.

There is a saying of Soviet vintage, “The future is known. It is the past that keeps changing.” It appears that this adage continues to be relevant, at least as far as China is concerned.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.