On this day in 1977, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was restored to power after 10 years in exile.
“I don’t care if it’s a white cat or a black cat,” Deng Xiaoping once uttered, “it’s a good cat as long as it catches mice.” It was this sort of pragmatism that helped Deng to lead the transformation of China into the economic powerhouse it is today. Over the years he was a leader of the Communist Party of China, the People’s Liberation Army of China, and the People’s Republic of China. He was a military strategist, a revolutionary, and a statesman, and he was the great architect of the country’s modernisation, its opening up to the international community, and the transformation of traditional socialism into the socialist market economy.
Deng was effectively in charge of China in the years after his restoration to power, from 1978 to 1992, but only after a slow and arduous rise to the top. He was born into a family of Hakka Han ethnicity in Guang’an County, Sichuan Province, on 22 August 1904. His father Deng Wenming was a landowner, and his mother Deng Dan died when he was still a child.
In 1920, when he was just 16 years old, Deng Xiaoping travelled to France as part of the Mouvement Traivail-Etudes work-study abroad initiative. The night prior to his departure, his father asked him what he hoped to achieve and—rather prophetically—he (supposedly) responded, “To learn knowledge and truth from the West in order to save China.”
After crossing the oceans to Marseilles by boat, he studied at schools in Bayeux and Chatillon, and worked a number of jobs including as a fireman on a locomotive and a fitter in a Renault factory. The work was dangerous and poorly paid and it was there—he later explained—that Deng started to understand the disadvantages of capitalism, and to study Marxism.
In 1926 he travelled to the Soviet Union to study at Moscow Sun Yat-sen University, and it was there that he met his first wife. They returned to China and married but, tragically, she died only days after giving birth to their baby girl, who also died. Then in 1933 Deng’s second wife, Jin Weiying, abandoned him after he came under political attack for fighting for the Communist Party. However, after their subsequent victory, and the founding of the People’s Republic of China, his political career took off; so much so that Mao Zedong eventually started to perceive him as a threat.
After the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Deng was exiled to a lowly existence as an ordinary worker in the Xinjian County Tractor Factory in rural Jiangxi Province, and his family were attacked by the Red Guards; his son Deng Pufang was tortured and thrown out of fourth-floor window, which left him paraplegic.
After Mao’s death on 9 September 1976 everything changed once more, and suddenly Deng was again the de facto leader. On 22 July 1977 he was officially restored to power—appointed Vice-Chairman of the Central Committee, Vice-Chairman of the Military Commission and Chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army—and so he was able to start the modernisation process that he so desired.
Credit: © Iain Masterton / Alamy
Caption: A mural in Shenzhen commemorating Deng Xiaoping.