By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles
Unable to walk without assistance, China’s iron-willed patriarch, Deng Xiaoping, set out in January 1992 on a tour of southern China’s bustling coastal cities and special economic zones. By calling attention to the remarkable economic prosperity of the special zones and open cities of the southeast coast, Deng hoped to refute the claims of the hard-liners.
Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour of China
Deng’s trip began in Wuhan and included stopovers in the prosperous enclaves of Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Guangzhou, and Shanghai. En route, he gave a number of talks and speeches, mostly impromptu, the common denominator of which was the call for an immediate, rapid acceleration of reform and “opening up”.
Toward the end of his Southern Tour, Deng issued a pointed warning to his conservative senior colleagues. Old age, he said, tends to make people more rigid and more stubborn, rendering them afraid to make mistakes. If such people cannot display greater flexibility and tolerance in their thinking, he admonished, they would be well-advised to lie down and “take a nap”.
Strangely enough, the official state media in China maintained total silence throughout Deng’s entire Southern Tour. Though occasional hearsay accounts of his attacks on leftism were published in the Hong Kong press, his Southern Tour received absolutely no media coverage inside China—no newspaper stories, no film clips, no nothing.
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
A Total News Embargo?
The reason for the total news embargo soon became evident. A fierce battle was raging in Beijing for control of the party and its propaganda machinery. Hard-liners like Wang Zhen and Deng Liqun, supported by Chen Yun and Li Peng, were struggling to prevent any news of Deng’s critical statements from being leaked to the laobaixing, lest it trigger an anti-leftist uproar among the masses.
For more than three weeks, not a word was mentioned to the Chinese people. As days turned into weeks, the entire future of reform in China hung in the balance.
Breaking the Silence
Finally, in mid-February, two highly-respected moderate political leaders, the PRC’s ceremonial president and the chairman of the National People’s Congress, broke the long silence. Both men were longtime associates of Deng Xiaoping, and both had grown increasingly impatient with the extremist policies of the hard-liners.
Now they went public with their concerns, openly endorsing Deng’s southern statements. Their intervention sent a signal to other moderates who had been holding back, waiting to see which way the wind would blow. Slowly, a groundswell of support for Deng began to build, as a growing number of high-level CCP fence-straddlers declared their allegiance to China’s paramount leader.
Learn more about Deng’s economic reforms.
The Politburo Meeting
At a Politburo meeting convened toward the end of Deng’s Southern Tour in late February, a majority of Standing Committee members, including both Jiang Zemin and a much-restrained Li Peng, endorsed Deng’s recent statements, calling them “important remarks”. And they went on the record supporting Deng’s call for an immediate acceleration of “reform and opening up”.
A few days later, the Central Committee published the full texts of Deng’s southern speeches. This was followed by a spate of proreform, anti-leftist articles and editorials in state-controlled newspapers and magazines. The tide had clearly turned.
However, not all hard-liners gave up without a struggle. At the end of February, a group of 35 senior Communist Party elders, including Chen Yun, Wang Zhen, and Deng Liqun, signed their names to a letter requesting Deng Xiaoping to take prompt action to alter the country’s direction of development, which they claimed had departed from the path of socialism.
In response, Deng urged his old comrades to stop “holding fast to [rigid doctrines]” and to stop “listening to biased opinions”. Instead, he invited them to take a southern tour of their own to see for themselves what was really going on in China’s booming Special Economic Zones and open cities.
Learn more about China’s economic transformation.
The Final Victory of Deng Xiaoping
Elsewhere in China, Communist cadres who had staked their careers on the ascent of the leftists were caught off balance by this sudden reversal of fortunes and reacted with anger.
Faced with small but intense pockets of entrenched conservative resistance, Deng’s allies scored a major victory in early March, when the Politburo, as a whole, formally endorsed Deng Xiaoping’s claim that “leftism” posed a greater danger to China than “rightism”.
Almost immediately afterwards, a subdued and seemingly contrite Jiang Zemin issued a lengthy self-criticism to his Politburo colleagues. In it, he acknowledged that he had not promoted reform and opening up with sufficient vigor. Shortly afterward, Li Peng, who was visibly shaken by all this, took a leave of absence from his duties as premier, on the pretext of a worsening heart condition.
With that, the remaining left-wing Politburo holdouts fell grudgingly into line, dutifully issuing self-criticisms and, at least outwardly, joining the ranks of the born-again reformers. Even stodgy old conservatives like Chen Yun, Peng Zhen, and Bo Yibo half-heartedly endorsed Deng’s initiatives.
Deng had won. Though ill and infirm, at the age of 84 he had almost single-handedly fought off a potent leftist challenge, staking everything on the success of his Southern Tour.
Common Questions about Deng Xiaoping’s Tour of Southern China
Deng Xiaoping’s southern tour began in Wuhan and included stopovers in the prosperous enclaves of Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Guangzhou, and Shanghai.
Overzealous conservatives such as Wang Zhen and Deng Liqun, backed by Chen Yun and Li Ping, did their best to prevent the spread of news about Deng Xiaoping’s southern tour. By doing so, they intended to prevent an anti-leftist uproar among the masses.
The silence in media about Deng Xiaoping’s southern tour was broken by two of his comrades, the PRC’s ceremonial president and the chairman of the National People’s Congress. They went public with their concerns, openly endorsing Deng’s southern statements.