Deng’s place in history is largely tied to two things: his economic reforms after the death of Mao Zedong and his repression of students after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
Born Deng Xianxeng on Aug. 22, 1904, in Sichuan province, he traveled to France at age 15 to work and study. Deng often cited his long hours in grueling conditions at the French factories of manufacturers Le Creuset and Renault as his first encounters with what he believed were the evils of capitalism.
During his five years in France, Deng studied Marxism under the future premier of the People’s Republic of China, Zhou Enlai, and eventually joined the Communist Youth League in Europe. In the second half of 1923, he joined the Chinese Communist Party and in 1925 he moved to Moscow to study at Sun Yat-Sen University, intending to train youth for the communist revolution.
Deng returned to China in 1927 to become a member of the Red Army, the antecedent to the People’s Liberation Army, and rose to power during the retreat of the communists from the nationalists (KMT) known as the Long March.
As he was promoted through the army and party by his comrade Mao Zedong, Deng lead successful military battles against Japanese forces and in late November 1948, he led the final assault that ousted the nationalist forces from the Chinese mainland.
During the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976, which decimated the educated classes and caused economic and social turmoil, Deng Xiaoping fell out of favor with the ruling elite and was forced into early retirement. Several anti-rightist campaigns were waged against him, and the mass movement of civilians known as the Red Guards reportedly harassed his family and imprisoned and tortured his son, Deng Pufang.
When the beloved Premier, Zhou Enlai, fell ill with cancer in 1974 he handpicked Deng as his successor, reinstating him into the party power structure and appointing him “first vice premier.” Deng was tolerated by party elites for two years while Zhou was alive but with his death, Deng was left with little support in the party and Hua Guofeng was picked as Zhou’s successor.
After Mao’s death in 1976, party power was highly factionalized and Deng managed to emerge rehabilitated and outmaneuver his rivals. Hua was replaced by the reformist Zhao Ziyang as premier in 1980.
As Deng gained more power within the party he advocated for a liberalization of some restrictions calling for a “Beijing Spring” to mirror the “Prague Spring” of 1968. By allowing open dissent about the Cultural Revolution, Deng was able to destabilize his enemies in the party that had supported the Cultural Revolution and shore up those like himself who had been purged by the event.
His other reforms included land privatization, the creation of Special Economic Zones, and the welcoming of capitalists into the party. Deng is credited with most of the economic reforms and was the first CCP member to meet a sitting U.S. president, Jimmy Carter.
Students in the streets
In 1989, as students and others amassed in Tiananmen Square to protest the treatment of reformer and party chief Hu Yobang’s funeral and to demand implementation of democratic ideals, Deng was consulted as the most influential party elder on governmental reaction to the protests.
Deng did not, however, believe in uncontrolled dissent.
Deng had suppressed democracy efforts during the country’s Democracy Wall Movement of 1978 and had a harsh view on public protests. In the Tiananmen Papers, the minutes of the meetings where the key decisions were made, he is quoted as saying, “After thinking long and hard about this, I’ve concluded that we should bring in the People’s Liberation Army and declare martial law in Beijing.”
On May 20, martial law was declared in Beijing, but not in other cities also experiencing unrest. The show of might convinced many of the students to leave the square and return home, but a small number remained, erecting a statue of what they called the Goddess of Democracy.
Raymond Burghardt, then acting deputy chief of the American Embassy in Beijing told the NewsHour “We knew that the demonstrations were going to be broken up, that the square was going to be cleared by force, and so we were there. … Most of us predicted it was not going to end well.”
According to the Tiananmen Papers the decision to send in the army was made in top-level Communist Party meetings in the park-like military and party compound known as Zhongnanhai, and, in the final days before the crackdown, at meetings in Deng’s home.
On June 3, following clashes between demonstrators and police, hardliner Li Peng, speaking to the Politburo standing committee, advocated what he called clearing the square. Deng was not present at the meeting but sent word, as paraphrased by then-President Yang Shangkun, “The Martial Law Command must make it quite clear to all units that they are to open fire only as a last resort. And let me repeat: No bloodshed within Tiananmen Square — period.”
That night, troops moved into the center of Beijing, firing upon people in the streets. The Chinese government’s official death toll was 241, though other estimates of those killed went as high as 3,000.
According to Burghardt, “The demonstrations in the street were used by the leadership to fight out a struggle among two factions within the leadership. … Of course, what happened is that the relative hardliners won out” as demonstrated by Zhao Ziyang’s ousting and Li Peng’s rise in standing.
Listen to more of Burghardt’s interview here: