The Wall Street Journal, February 20, 1997

Deng's Contradictory Legacy: Rule Without Law

By Martin C.M. Lee


Six years after Mao Tse-tung's death, China's Communist Party issued the authoritative historical verdict on his life: The Great Helmsman had been 70% good and 30% bad. Now that Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping has likewise gone to meet Marx, the party must undertake a similar assessment of Deng's life.
Since 1978, when he emerged as China's paramount leader, Deng worked to bring China out of international isolation with his partial market reforms. His opposition to political reform, however, prevented China from joining the world community and led to a decade of uncertainty in Hong Kong.
From Hong Kong's perspective, any evaluation of Deng's life must start with June 4, 1989. The Beijing massacre forced Hong Kong citizens to begin questioning the validity of Deng's formula "one country, two systems," to doubt whether Hong Kong would ever be permitted to have any real authority over its internal affairs.
In the 1970s Deng encouraged grassroots reform movements as counterweights to his hard-line leftist opponents. But by the late 1980s, it was clear that he was willing to do whatever it took to stay in power. That was the lesson of June 1989.
It took me a long time to realize why Deng took the tragic route he did. The answer, now apparent, is that he did it to show the Chinese people -- in Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as China -- who was in charge. The most significant actions of Deng's life can best be understood in light of this imperative to maintain power at any cost.
When he launched his "open door" policies in 1979, and expedited China's market reform process following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, Deng realized that the Chinese economy -- and thus the Communist Party -- faced collapse without an infusion of foreign capital and technology. A Communist who had watched other command economies self-destruct, Deng repudiated communism, calling his new capitalistic policies the oxymoronic "socialist market economy."
Similarly, Deng's impetus to win the sovereignty of Hong Kong from Britain -- the question was far from settled before the 1984 Joint Declaration -- had its roots in keeping a tight grasp on political power. In January 1993, Deng was reported to have said that "if China did not recover Hong Kong's sovereignty in 1997, Chinese people would not allow it, and any Chinese government which allowed that to happen would fall from power . . . and be condemned by history and the nation."
Deng's failure to institute the rule of law in China was also tied to maintaining the Communist Party's monopoly on power. As we are all too well aware in Hong Kong, legal reform is meaningless as long as the Communist Party and its leaders remain above the law.
Closely connected to the rule of law, demands for democracy above all else shaped Deng's final years. This is where he had the greatest impact on Hong Kong. A turning point in Hong Kong-China relations occurred when more than one million Hong Kong citizens took to the streets in protest against the Beijing massacre. Deng's anxiety about democracy was enhanced by the pro-democracy sweep in Hong Kong's first direct elections, in 1991.
So when Hong Kong Gov. Chris Patten put forward proposals to promote a partial democratization of Hong Kong's Legislative Council, China's reaction was swift and vehement. With Deng's reputed blessing, an abusive propaganda campaign was launched. Beijing attacked Hong Kong's legal system, the validity of contracts straddling 1997, the stock market, Gov. Patten and other civil servants, and individual corporations.
And when pro-democracy candidates swept Hong Kong's elections in September 1995, Chinese leaders declared their intention to scrap elected institutions in Hong Kong, replacing them with Beijing-appointed proxies.
China's objective is to cripple the development of democracy in Hong Kong during the transition period so that Beijing will be better able to control Hong Kong after the July handover. Deng and China's senior leadership must also have had a great fear that democratic reforms in Hong Kong would have a catalytic effect on the millions of residents of Southern China who watch Hong Kong television every night.
Political reform in China is still off limits, and now that Deng has finally joined the rest of the Long Marchers, it is still unclear who will succeed him as paramount leader of China. What is clear, however, is that Deng -- prophetically once purged as China's "No. 2 Capitalist Roader" -- started a process of liberalization that future leaders will find difficult to reverse.
Economic reform and prosperity lead inevitably to a demand for something that cannot be bought: true political freedom. Ironically, the final epitaph for Deng Xiaoping may be that he opened the way for a free and democratic China.

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