Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Diminutive Deng a Giant in Chinese History

BEIJING -- Deng Xiaoping overcame setbacks and humiliation to become one of the pivotal figures of the 20th century, transforming China into an economic powerhouse, yet keeping it under ruthless communist control.

Born in 1904 into a semi-feudal land of emperors, footbinding, warlords and foreign domination, Deng leaves behind one of the world's fastest growing economies, a nation courted by the West and feared by its smaller Asian neighbors.

The diminutive, enigmatic man from Sichuan was the wizard behind this transformation. He unleashed the Chinese people's entrepreneurial spirit and combined it with foreign capital in a mixture that released explosive energies.

Yet for all his economic liberalism, Deng -- driven by an obsession to build a strong nation-state under Communist Party leadership -- maintained political dictatorship.

Beneath his easy-going manner lay the authoritarian nature of a man haunted by disorder, a trait that confused the international community.

He was Time's "Man of the Year" of 1984, honored for promoting economic change, but was stained with the blood of Tiananmen Square just five years later.

In contrast to his giant's place in the history books, Deng cut a tiny figure, standing little more than 1 1/2 meters tall, with a vast, cheerful moon-shaped face, close-cropped hair and the rolling gait of a wind-up doll.

Usually clad in a gray Mao jacket, Deng's great pleasure was simply to play bridge with friends or family, with a packet of cigarettes and a spittoon close at hand -- until the chain-smoker kicked the habit in his old age.

Deng was the eldest son of a landowner in the isolated Sichuan village of Paifang.

He joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1924, quickly revealing his talent as a political organizer. After entering the party central committee in 1945, Deng rose quickly following the 1949 communist victory and founding of the People's Republic.

In autumn 1951, troops under Deng's joint command successfully seized Tibet. The following year he was deputy prime minister and finance minister and by 1956 was general secretary.

"Don't underestimate that little fellow. He is highly intelligent and has a great future ahead of him," Mao, a patron since the early 1930s, confided to Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev in 1957.

Deng displayed his pragmatism towards economic development at an early date, making, in July 1962, his famous statement: "It doesn't matter whether the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice."

But then came a cruel blow. During the chaos of the 1966 and 1967 Cultural Revolution, Deng was branded a "capitalist roader" by Mao's Red Guards. He was stripped of all power and found himself working in a tractor factory in Jiangxi province.

Mao's death in September 1976 set the stage for Deng to make one of the most spectacular comebacks in modern political history.

His titles of party deputy chairman, deputy prime minister and army chief of staff were reinstated in 1977, allowing him to push aside Hua Guofeng, Mao's handpicked successor.

In late 1978, Deng launched his historic policy of economic reform and opening to the outside world. Moving discreetly but firmly, he dismantled Mao's system of collective farms that had nearly driven the country to famine. Peasants were allowed to farm their own plots and sell surplus produce on the market after meeting state quotas. Small stores and restaurants reappeared. Private enterprise -- and personal profit -- returned to China after 30 years.

On June 4, 1989, Deng ordered the army into Beijing, massacring citizens who were peacefully protesting against soaring inflation and rampant corruption and young students who were pleading for a small measure of democracy.

Thousands of alleged "counterrevolutionaries" were rounded up and jailed, and China's cultural and political life was bludgeoned into terrified silence.

In the shocked aftermath, the elder statesman all but disappeared from view, closing himself off with his family and stepping down in 1990 from his last official post.

"After I retire, what I want most is to lead the life of an ordinary person -- to live more simply, to be able to take walks on the streets and to go on tours," a biography by Deng's daughter, Deng Rong, quoted him as saying.

But his invisible hand was more keenly felt than ever.

A personality cult propelled Deng to the status of Marx, Lenin and Mao, while his vision of a "socialist market economy" became enshrined in the constitution.

Now that Deng has gone to "meet Marx," in his own phrase, the people of China will inevitably, in retrospect, seek truth from the facts of Deng's life.

But Deng, the inner Deng, remains an enigma. The emotions of this small man of iron will were always a secret. To his death, his private thoughts were sphinx-like, shrouded from public view.