FEBRUARY 19, 1997
China's paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, died in Beijing. He was 92. Deng came to power in 1977 and was responsible for the market-oriented reforms that helped promote rapid economic growth. He was in charge when the democracy movement in Tiennamen Square was squashed by Chinese troops. Following a background segment, Elizabeth Farnsworth is joined by a panel of China watchers to look at the life of the man who changed the face of modern China.
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
February 19, 1997:
An ITN background report on the life of Deng Xiaoping.
January 28, 1997:
A report on the already shaky handover of Hong Kong to China.
December 17, 1997:
A report on the 10 day tour to the U.S. by the Chinese defense minister.
November 26, 1996:
Out-going Secretary of State Warren Christopher discusses the U.S./China relationship and other elements of America's foreign policy.
November 25, 1996:
President Clinton is extending his hand to China's leadership, despite its notorious human rights record. A panel discusses the merits of the president's decision.
May 17, 1996:
The Secretary of State discusses U.S.-China relations.
Browse the Online NewsHour's coverage of Asia.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: We get four views now. Michel Oksenberg was a National Security Council staff member responsible for China during the Carter administration. He's now a senior fellow at the Asia Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. Arthur Hummel is a former U.S. ambassador to China and a retired Korea foreign service officer. Minxin Pei, whom we hope will join us, he's not here yet, is assistant professor of politics at Princeton University. He received his undergraduate degree in Shanghai and has been in this country since the mid 1980's. And Jim Hoagland is a columnist and associate editor of the Washington Post. Thank you all for being with us. Mr. Oksenberg, you knew Deng Xiaoping. You arranged for his trip in 1979 to this country. Tell us about it.
MICHEL OKSENBERG, Stanford University: Well, he was a remarkable individual. He was intellectually curious. He had great intellectual curiosity, very vital. He projected an image of power. He had the requisites to be the leader of China, mainly ruthlessness, a vision for the future, a lust for power, and a network of ties in all the Chinese bureaucracies, party, army and government, that enabled him to really alter his country. He also had a great sense of humor.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He goes way back, doesn't he, Mr. Oksenberg? I mean, he goes back to the peasant revolts in the South in the 20's, though he was not from a poor family.
MICHEL OKSENBERG: No, he came from the interior of China, and in a way he straddled two worlds: the world of the interior of China, he always referred to himself as a son of the interior of a country bumpkin, even, but in addition, he had his foot--another foot firmly planted in the Chinese future. He looked to the modernization of China. He wanted his wealth and power for his country. He did what was, he thought, necessary, often excessively so, to accomplish his objectives.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. We'll come back to the economics in a minute. Mr. Hummel, you also knew him.
ARTHUR HUMMEL, JR., Former Ambassador, China: Yes, I did.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What was he like in your meetings with him?
ARTHUR HUMMEL: Well, he was always in control, except the very first time I saw him when he was just fresh out of being exiled and just came out. That was at the new end when Henry Kissinger saw him for the first time after his rehabilitation in 1973. The--at that time he was curiously hesitant. He hadn't gotten all of his--got all of his reading material in hand. And so he had to turn to the foreign minister from time to time for answers. After that time there was never any doubt that he had all of those threads of China policy in his hands and in his head, and he was always very, very self-confident, and, as Mike Oksenberg said, also with a sense of humor. I enjoyed very much sitting with him and talking to him in the times that I had--that I was able to do so.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So Jim Hoagland, is this kind of the end of an era, with his death?
JIM HOAGLAND, Washington Post: Well, I think it could be. I mean, I certainly agree with what my colleagues have said. Deng Xiaoping was a giant figure on the Chinese stage, on the world stage. But I don't think we ought to grow overly sentimental about this man either. He was a faithful henchman of Mao. He supported Mao's great leap forward that resulted in a famine that killed 20 million people. He oversaw the action in Tiananmen Square in 1989. While he opened up his country to the West, he did so for Chinese reasons, for his own economic reasons, and always warned his people against contamination from democracy. So the picture is not--not one of black and white, and there's a lot of gray in there as well.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Hummel, any comments on this picture that's really not black and white? He was a mixture of qualities, wasn't he?
ARTHUR HUMMEL: Of course he was. Coming up through the Communist system he did a lot of things that undoubtedly his biographers, Chinese biographers, are going to skip over. The history of China is very turbulent. The whole Cultural Revolution business, when he was a casualty of a sort, made Chinese do strange things. He did strange things.
He stepped in at the very last stages of the Tiananmen business. And if you don't mind, I'd like to point out one aspect of Tiananmen. Aside from the killings--it's hard to say aside from the killings--but for six weeks the Chinese government was paralyzed. The six-man standing committee of the politburo couldn't decide what to do about what started as less than 2,000 students in the Tiananmen Square. They couldn't decide whether to conciliate or to use modest force and sweep them out, which obviously in hindsight they should have done.
The whole thing was a matter of malfeasance for the whole governmental apparatus. And it was Deng Xiaoping and oldsters who stepped in at the last moment and did--solved it but solved it, of course, the wrong way. One can wonder now whether the Chinese government in the absence of these oldsters who can step in and make decisive moves when necessary, one can wonder now whether the Chinese government and its balance between the governmental officials and the party officials is going to be able to solve the crisis problems that are--any country will eventually have.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Oksenberg, I want to get to that in a minute, but before we do, how important was Deng Xiaoping in U.S.-Chinese relations in getting relations and then making sure that they didn't go off track, and what happens without him in that field?
MICHEL OKSENBERG: Well, I thought Sec. Albright was right on the mark in saying that Deng Xiaoping played the crucial role on the Chinese side in establishing full diplomatic relations with the United States in December of 1978. We must remember that this is not a totally easy decision for the Chinese to make because it did represent an acquiescence on their part to continued intimate American relations with Taiwan, including continued arms sales to Taiwan. Deng Xiaoping after that and after full diplomatic relations were established continually stepped forward to solve meddlesome problems that arose in the relationship. And I think that some of the problems of the last three/four years are attributable to his weakening, his declining health, and he really wasn't there to step forward. He understood the historical significance of Sino-American relations. And I must say that in looking at his total record--and I agree that it's a mixed record--one of the other contributions he made was not only to improve relations with the United States but really to lead China in a greatly enhanced strategic position in the world. For the first time in 150 years as a result I think of Deng's strategic acumen China does not face an imminent threat directed against it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Pei, I think you're with us now, aren't you?
MINXIN PEI, Princeton University: (New York) Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about U.S.-Chinese relations now that Deng Xiaoping has died, will there be major changes?
MINXIN PEI: I don't--I don't think there's going to be any major change because a good relationship with the U.S. is the best interest not only of China but of the current leaders who are going to succeed Deng Xiaoping. The cooperative relationship China has had with the U.S. has been a product of Deng Xiaoping's diplomatic policy, and this policy is going to stay.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Anybody disagree with that? Mr. Hummel, do you think relations will pretty much stay the same?
ARTHUR HUMMEL: I do agree entirely, and we know now that at various points after Deng Xiaoping came to power and began his internal reforms and also solidifying relations with the United States, this basic policy was challenged by others in the top leadership in Beijing. And Deng Xiaoping each time came down in favor of maintaining the American relationship, even though there were things the Chinese didn't like that we were doing or saying; Deng Xiaoping was always on the side of the maintenance of this relationship. One can wonder then, now that he's gone, who--of course, nobody will have the same kind of clout that he used to have--but now that he's gone, who is going to play that same role?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, moving to some of the questions that Mr. Hummel raised, what about succession, what about the questions of decisiveness that the ambassador has already raised, is the succession a foregone conclusion? Is Jiang Zemin in power, and is it set?
JIM HOAGLAND: I think neither the succession nor the state of U.S.-Chinese relations is quite as simple as it might have been portrayed here. I think there are fifty to seventy-five commissars, political party hacks, generals, who are going to be jockeying for influence. There's a tradition in Communist regimes, certainly in China, itself, in a period like this where you see new forces begin to contend, and there are about four issues out there that I think will affect both the succession struggle and Chinese-American relations over the next few months as people define different positions on the takeover of Hong Kong being one, Taiwan being the second big issue, and one that China does not control entirely. Taiwan is pushing its own drive for international recognition. That's going to have a certain destabilizing effect, I think. Without Deng there I think the Taiwanese may be tempted to push even harder. Third, of course, is the question of proliferation, the spreading of nuclear weapons and nuclear technology by China to rogue regimes. They continue to do that. And, fourth, of course, is human rights, where there has been a traditional problem between the United States and China. It's gotten worse, as the State Department has said. It may continue to get worse. Those four things are going to be serious problems, I think, over the next few months, as you have a period of uncertainty in Beijing.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Pei, do you--I'm sorry, Mr. Pei--do you agree with that? Do you think that there could be a period of uncertainty and that those four problems will be the crucial areas?
MINXIN PEI: I think there's going to be a period of uncertainty, but we should not greatly exaggerate the potential for instability in China, because the current leadership basically shares some level of consensus on the direction in which they want to take China. I agree that these are important for this leadership. But this leadership has a sense of priority of what's going to be the most important on the agenda. I think they will try to stabilize transition of Hong Kong to Chinese rule, and I think Mr. Hoagland forgot to mention another important event that's coming up, that is the 15th party congress which is due to convene this fall, and that's probably going to be much more important than the other three issues he mentioned.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Pei, it's happened before that it seemed a succession was set and then it wasn't. You don't think that'll happen this time?
MINXIN PEI: No, because this time we have to be realistic about the fact that it has been three years since Deng Xiaoping was effectively not in control of Chinese decision-making. And this is the first time in Chinese history that a leader actually died in retirement, rather than died in office. So that fact bodes well for the current leadership. I just reviewed the facts and found that the current leader, Jiang Zemin has succeeded in practically reshuffling the entire military establishment. Most of the senior generals, if not all of them, have been appointed to their current positions by him. So I think he has pretty much consolidated his power both in the military and to some extent in the state apparatus.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michel Oksenberg, you wanted to say something, and I interrupted you.
MICHEL OKSENBERG: No, that's fine. I'm inclined to agree a little more with Jim Hoagland's position that there are considerable uncertainties in the situation. Jiang Zemin is going to have his metal tested over a number of very difficult issues that he confronts, in addition to ones that have already been mentioned. They're the economic issues, both domestically in China and also concerning China's entry in the World Trade Organization. And I would put this in an even broader perspective.
One has to remember that Deng Xiaoping was part of that remarkable generation that earned its legitimacy by defeating the Japanese, unifying China, restoring China's greatness in world affairs, and then after an unacceptably high, terrible human price did set the nation on a course of economic development. There's a question now as to whether this successor generation can establish the same claim of right to rule and how will they do so. Will they do so by building up their nationalistic appeals? We already see some signs of that, and that's disturbing. Or will they continue on the road of rapid economic growth? Can't that play itself out, or will they perhaps begin to address the issues of political reform, maybe moving into ways that make them more responsive to the popular will and renew their mandate in that fashion, and those are some very fundamental questions these leaders face.
How will they reform the Chinese Communist Party, itself, which is increasingly a corrupt agency, as they, themselves, say? So Deng's passing in the short run is manageable. A succession of sorts is in place. Jiang Zemin's metal will be tested. But over the long run we have to recognize that China has moved into a new era, and a new era inescapably brings with it uncertainties.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Ambassador.
ARTHUR HUMMEL: As I always do, I agree with Mike Oksenberg, but I think we're talking about two kinds of things. We're talking about the problems that China will face and does face. And these problems exist regardless of whether Deng Xiaoping is alive or dead. And Deng Xiaoping is unable--would have been the last many years--several years--unable to intervene the way he did before, so these problems are going to be exceedingly difficult. And I agree with the formulation of the problems. The fact that Deng Xiaoping has now died I don't think affects those problems in any appreciable way.
JIM HOAGLAND: There has been a period of a kind of marshaling forces by the various contenders while Deng was still there. His disappearance makes the contenders now ready to bring their forces into play.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, gentlemen, thank you very much for being with us.