FLAGS stood at half-mast last Thursday, marking the end of Deng Xiaoping's long death watch. The secrecy surrounding his death, and the lack of clear national sentiment, perfectly bolster the image of Deng as a man whose place and legacy are yet to be determined.
As Mao Zedong's former protege, pariah, and prodigal returned, Deng came to power after Mao's death in 1976 and effected a new flavour of leadership. A pragmatic man, he liberalised the economy while maintaining the character of communism, if not the letter. But political reform did not follow economic reform and his once lauded pragmatism was soon spoken of with resentment.
With his death, the world looks to China with uncertainty and mixed feelings. For it has lost a mastermind of forward thinking, but one who didn't tolerate dissent. The direction China will take is murky, defined primarily by grand plans of reunifying the motherland and little in the way of solid policy. Even Deng's great creative compromise, of "one country two systems", is seen as suspect in the light of China's recent repeal of human rights laws in Hong Kong and the continued intolerance and volatility of Beijing's leadership.
Deng is celebrated as the man who opened China's doors to the larger world. Modernising the stunted economy, he secured his place in history with the accolades of foreign investors and statesmen. But opening those doors let in the gadflies of foreign ideas, inflation and corruption. These would ultimately lead to the efficient, however cruel and shortsighted, crackdown on democracy in Tiananmen Square.
Just as Deng wrenched power from Mao's hand-picked successor, Hua Guofeng, President Jiang Zemin's rule is haunted by the chance of political instability. The choice of Jiang, the inability to groom someone "paramount," reveals Deng's ultimate failure as a leader. Some China watchers say that the crown sits uneasily on Jiang, who lacks in scope and style what Deng had in spades.
China has always had emperors. Though the biggest threat to Jiang ended with party elder Chuen Yun's death in April 1995, many believe another charismatic leader could come to the forefront. Jiang has been reticent in the shadow of Deng's death. Jiang is the favoured son, but if he maintains power, it is because Deng, retiring from the public eye, bequeathed it to him and lived long enough to shore up support for Jiang. Before speculating on intrigue, Hong Kong analyst Tai Ming Cheung cautions against pronounc -ing Jiang a lame duck. "Jiang Zemin is a student of Chinese history and Chinese politics and he is very clear that the military holds the key to political power. As Mao said, 'power comes from the barrel of the gun'." The market reforms instituted by Deng have been under way for nearly 20 years. Jiang's leadership looks to have neither the power nor inclination to stray from the current course.
It is not true, however, that Jiang is inheriting a thriving economy. Says one economist: "The major success of Deng's farm reforms came in 1978-84 when output soared and the income gap between farmers and the city people narrowed. After 1984, increases in farm output slowed, while the urban economy continued to grow, so the income gap began to widen again," he said.
Today's China supports an elite business class and an ever-growing underclass. The current disparity hints at the historic inequality which ended Manchu rule and favoured the communists over the Kuomintang. Defending this as a necessary evil for growth, Deng highlighted the fact that these are unfortunate end-products of an unprecedented enterprise in national economic and social leadership.
THE instability resulting from Deng's reforms make them no less noble. His four modernisations, agriculture, industry, science and defence, were largely responsible for China's ascent to current superpower status. However, most farming is still small, costly and inefficient, receiving little foreign investment. Overheated growth continues to fuel inflation. The Communist Party leadership is not without foresight, though they have lost the visionary Deng. Premier Li Peng has declared inflation to be the party's biggest concern. Should the National People's Congress meeting this spring signal the direction of leadership through the millenium, the communists are in a position to maintain central power. Given a history of Chinese military might against the Chinese, and the willingness of the police to suppress dissent, communism and growth are unlikely to be impeded by Deng's death.
The world looks to China with mounting anticipation. Regional statesmen recognise the power of the sleeping dragon. While the US may act like a powerbroker in the Asia-Pacific region, most countries know China will make its presence felt.
Asian remorse over Deng's death was widespread. Bilateral Chinese-North Korean ties were weakened after the death in 1994 of Pyongyang's vaunted communist leader, Kim Il-Sung. China seems to be nearing a boiling point with long held communist allies in the North. Katsumi Sato, director of the Modern Korea Institute, believes that in the wake of Deng's death, China is likely to back Pyongyang's reformers.
Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's remarks perhaps best emphasise the position of China in Asia. He extolled Deng as "one of the great leaders of the world." "He was certainly one of China's greats. He saw events in historical sweep and thought in terms of generations. Deng's legacy will be a strong China in the 21st century." As China's fifth largest investor, some analysts retort that Singapore could say nothing less.
China is the eight hundred pound gorilla dictating diplomacy in Asia. But on the world stage it is frequently the power of the purse which determines diplomatic response. The 1.2 billion people are not only the largest workforce the world has ever seen, but they are the largest collection of consumers as well.
The US and China remain in an unhappy waltz of mutual interdependence. The US needs the untapped market to welcome the reach of its mature capitalism, but resents the difficulty of investing in China. China enjoys the benefits of foreign investment but claims western concerns over human rights are concocted to make it lose face.
Most experts agree this is a stranglehold unlikely to be broken by the death of one symbolic leader. Political instability would send investors running, so many are calmed by the relative unimportance placed on Deng's death by the Hong Kong and Shanghai stockmarkets.
Both China and the US, not to mention Europe and Taiwan, see the July I handover of Hong Kong as a harbinger of what to expect from tomorrow's Deng-less China. Deng constructed the Sino-British compromise but had little to do with the execution. As policy-makers consider the handover to be a testing ground for how China will address its conflicts with Taipei, few are ready to second guess Beijing by making the assumption that prosperity brings democracy. It is this sense of uncertainty that has Hong Kong and the world on edge.
The next time China takes a stand, there may be little others can do to stop it. In Beijing a new incinerator is being built for Deng's cremation so his ashes don't mix with those of other people. One can only guess what the winds of change will bring to the bones of his reforms as they mix with the muscle of future leaders. Only the flags at half-staff know which way that wind is blowing.