Deng left China with problems and promise

Deng Xiaoping’s death and President Jiang Zemin’s assertion of power last week were formalities — Deng had been ill for years and China’s government was prepared for a smooth transition. Yet world attention has focused on China’s future, primarily because Deng’s passing marks the end of an era. China is now poised on the edge of superpower status, but it is a nation facing numerous paradoxes and problems.
Since World War II, China has experienced great changes — momentous cultural upheavals and enormous political and economic growth. Through it all, however, there have been a few constants: the Communist Party and its two iron-willed top leaders. Mao Zedong and Deng created a revolutionary tradition and, in the end, were shaped by their creation. Together they struggled ideologically, politically and militarily for decades before coming to power. Yet for all this, the two were very different leaders. Mao was an idealist, enamored with the revolutionary process and dedicated to rapidly applying Marxist/Leninist doctrine — albeit in uniquely Chinese ways. Deng, however, was the ultimate pragmatist, much more concerned with making the nation strong and stable than with creating a worker’s utopia. Mao overthrew the old, and unified most of China; Deng paved the way for China’s future power.
President Jiang and other new leaders, however, are a different breed. They don’t have the same revolutionary credentials and military experience as their predecessors. Many question their willpower and ability to deal with China’s complex problems. How they meet these challenges will determine whether their nation lives up to its superpower potential.
Like all large and developing countries, China is culturally diverse. Deng’s economic reforms, combined with the party’s socialist ideology, threaten to create unrest. Gaps between rich and poor, the coast and the interior, north and south, and party elite and non-party members are all potential flash points. Deng also strengthened China’s military greatly, but Jiang may lack the connections and experience to keep it under control. Furthermore, there are the always divisive questions of human rights and the temporarily down, but not out, democracy movement.
Despite China’s problems, major changes are unlikely in the near future. Thousands of political prisoners are in jail or labor camps and are horribly mistreated. But millions of others are freer and better off than ever before. China’s new wealthy class values the combination of political stability and economic freedom that Deng promoted. The Communist Party still enjoys enormous power and prestige with few challenges. Socialist ideology, while often ignored in practice, still gives China’s leaders a connection with the past and a legitimacy with the nation’s peasants.
Although in the long term international pressure and internal contradictions may move China toward democracy, Deng’s death won’t be the catalyst. The United States can encourage moves in this direction, however, through policies of rewarding human rights improvements and by deterring expansion. But China’s diversity is also its strength, and its destiny is driven by strong nationalism. Deng’s death is a historic transition, but his influence, good and bad, will continue for years to come.