At the end of last year, an exhibition opened in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen with a frieze at the entrance depicting former “paramount” leader Deng Xiaoping touring the region that is synonymous with China’s reform era.
Over the summer, the gallery closed for renovations. When it reopened in August, a quote from President Xi Jinping in Chinese and English, praising the country’s economic transformation, had replaced the frieze.
In September, the entrance was changed again to include quotes from Messrs Xi and Deng. By November, the gallery had reverted to the original plan and the frieze was back.
The hasty series of revamps illustrates the dangers lurking in the staid world of Chinese Communist iconography.
As China prepares for the 40th anniversary of the reforms next month, Shenzhen has found itself at the centre of a proxy battle between China’s two most powerful families that combines politics, history and power. The battle has played out in galleries like the one in the Shekou district of the city, which was the launch point for the “reform and opening” era.
For Mr Xi and his family, the anniversary is an opportunity to set the historical record straight about the role that his father, Xi Zhongxun, played in pushing the reforms that transformed China from a poor and isolated backwater into the world’s second-largest economy. The elder Mr Xi was at one stage the senior official in charge of Guangdong, the southern Chinese province which includes Shenzhen. It became the test bed for a more market-based economy.
Formal celebrations of the 40th anniversary are expected to feature Mr Xi and his “new era” of Chinese socialism, which he defines as building on the legacies of both Deng and Mao Zedong. His image centres on a strong leader standing up for China in the world.
Through shaping the presentation of the crucial period in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Mr Xi is keen to associate his name and that of his family with the reform process, which has become so closely linked with Deng.
“Reinforcing Xi’s direct family links to the genesis of reform reinforces how crucial that period was, and the legitimisation it confers,” says Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London.
The perception that Mr Xi is downgrading Deng’s role has only added to fears that a new cult of personality is developing around the current leader. The tussle over the legacy of reforms comes after the constitution was changed this March to allow Mr Xi to rule for life. Critics believe that his increasingly statist and authoritarian approach threatens some of the Deng era achievements.
In a September speech, Deng’s son Deng Pufang called for a return to the reform era priorities of fixing China’s domestic problems while maintaining stable external relations — an implied dig at the current trade war with the US, slowing domestic growth and the triumphalist propaganda that Mr Xi has cultivated. Given that China remained a relatively poor country yet faced international instability and uncertainty, Mr Deng said “the crucial issue is to get China’s own problems right.” The remark must have stung because Chinese media did not report the speech.
For Mr Xi, there is a political risk involved in appearing to contest Deng’s role. Reverence among Chinese for Deng as the “architect” of the reform era is hard to overestimate. “He is our leader,” says Liang Yuanrong, a small-business owner, as he stopped to take a photo of a billboard depicting Deng in Shenzhen. “If it weren’t for him, our life today wouldn’t be as flourishing.”
After becoming general secretary of the Chinese Communist party in 2012, Mr Xi did not immediately seek to dilute Deng’s place in the official narrative. In his first term, Mr Xi adopted the symbolism of the Deng era. He travelled to Shenzhen in 2012 and laid a wreath at Deng’s statue. The following year, at the third plenum of the 18th party congress, the party echoed the famous plenum of 1978 by releasing a laundry list of long-promised — and still not fully implemented — economic reforms.
In 2016, Mr Xi visited Xiaogangcun, the village in Anhui province that symbolises the rural reforms of the Deng era, to announce his own vision for reconsolidating farmland.
However, ahead of the 40th anniversary celebrations, ideological and personal divisions among the two elite Chinese families have appeared. The fight has coalesced around Xi Zhongxun’s role in establishing Shenzhen as China’s pilot “special economic zone” bordering Hong Kong.
Shenzhen is home to some of China’s most advanced tech companies, as well as the intense assembly-line production that powered China’s export-led growth. Back in 1978, however, it was a rural backwater. Fifteen years later, it served as the backdrop for Deng’s “southern tour”, when he rebooted economic reforms and revived foreign investment flows following his bloody crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
How to tell the story of China’s economic reforms in 2018 is a delicate issue because Shenzhen holds personal significance for the Xi family. Xi Zhongxun was posted to Guangdong province shortly after the end of the Mao era. There he officiated over plans to turn Shenzhen, and Guangdong province more generally, into an export-oriented manufacturing hub to attract foreign investment and precious hard currency to impoverished China. He retired to Shenzhen after falling out of favour with Deng in the late 1980s. He died in 2002.
“There’s a feeling among the Xi family that Deng never gave their father appropriate credit for Shenzhen,” says Dennis Wilder, managing director for the Initiative for US-China Dialogue on Global Issues at Georgetown University. “There seems to be some bitterness.”
This summer, an exhibition at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing commemorating the 40th anniversary of the reforms featured a painting with Xi Zhongxun pitching the concept of a special economic zone in Shenzhen to a seated Deng. The painting was quickly removed after it sparked a furore on the internet.
Because the picture depicted Xi Zhongxun, not Deng, standing at the centre, critics accused Mr Xi’s loyalists of undermining Deng’s place as the “architect” of the reforms.
At an anniversary exhibition that opened in Beijing’s National Museum of China on Tuesday, Mr Xi’s photo was the most prominently displayed. Deng was relegated to equal status with other former leaders of the reform period, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.
Other flattering images that elevate Mr Xi and diminish Deng — including a touring painting in which Deng is reduced to a far-off statue — have been similarly derided.
That may explain Mr Xi’s cautious reaction when he toured yet another exhibition on reform last month, this one at the new Museum of Contemporary Art in Shenzhen. Staffers said Mr Xi’s main concern was that it featured his father too much. The formal opening date was pushed back as they rushed to rebalance the exhibit.
The clash over the anniversary exhibitions is not just about family pride. It also goes to the heart of the debate in China about Mr Xi’s policies.
To the consternation of many in China, Mr Xi has reversed many Deng-era policies in favour of those more reminiscent of Mao’s time. Despite declaring that China will be “more and more open”, Mr Xi has presided over the revival of statist policymaking and a new reverence for Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy. He has tamped down divergent voices within the Communist party and tightened the screws on civil society. He has reintegrated the party with government bureaucracies, threatening the long effort to create a professional bureaucracy.
“Political reform has been dead for a decade or longer . . . even in the economic sphere, regression is taking place,” says Chongyi Feng, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of Technology Sydney and a critic of the Chinese government. “Deng’s reforms resonated with wider support from the bureaucracy and society as well.”
Under Mr Xi, state-owned enterprises have been elevated in status and he has presided over a squeeze on private companies, which were legalised in the 1980s. Political campaigns and factional purges have been revived under the cover of his anti-corruption drive. Portraits and sayings by Mr Xi extolling the party are everywhere, prompting talk of a fresh cult of personality. The removal of presidential term limits alarmed many of China’s supporters abroad.
When Mr Xi returned to Shenzhen this October, critics noted that he had failed to mention Deng in his speeches.
“I don’t see it as such a big snub because Deng’s policies have been snubbed for a decade already,” says Victor Shih, an expert in Chinese politics at the University of California San Diego.
The shifting historical narratives give a contemporary urgency to those defending the reformist agenda that the Deng era promoted.
“I am concerned that the economic model that the present government seems to be pursuing — a new kind of ‘state-led capitalism’ — may not be consistent with China’s long-term needs,” Pieter Bottelier, the World Bank’s representative to Beijing in the 1990s, told the China Development Forum in September. “Deng Xiaoping’s ‘reform and opening-up’ policies, guided by China’s long history and deep culture, pushed the country in the right direction.”
Although China is now much wealthier and competing directly with western nations, some in China now feel that a sense of direction is missing. At the beginning of the reform era it was “easy to get consensus,” says Feng Lun, one of China’s first real estate entrepreneurs. But after progressing from simply doing things differently than Mao did, to working out economic strategies and legal structures, “by the fourth decade there was a split storyline,” he says. Ideological differences mean sharply different recipes for how to deal with poverty, environmental problems and international relations.
Since Deng’s death, the party’s constant use of the word “reform” shows how important the legacy of the era is. Mr Xi has begun to use the phrase “opening up” again too. In speeches this year he has reassured audiences China’s “great door will open wider and wider”.
“Nowadays, we can’t talk about Deng’s legacy because reform is not dead. Only when something is dead does it have a legacy,” says Zhou Zhixing, chair of the US-China New Perspectives Foundation and a close associate of the Deng family.
Mr Zhou cites “liberation of thought” as the most important achievement of the reform era. But he admits that Deng left unchanged the core structures of Communist party’s statist rule that Mr Xi has so controversially revived: “You can’t criticise Deng for that. Every generation can only fight its own battles.”
Additional reporting by Archie Zhang in Beijing
“Despite great and widespread interest both inside and outside China in this history, there is still quite limited understanding of the Chinese reform process,” Edwin Lim, the first representative of the World Bank in China in the 1980s, wrote in an essay commemorating the 30th anniversary of China’s reforms.
That’s partly because subsequent purges and a tradition of lionising the top leader make it inconvenient for the ruling Communist party to recognise contributors other than Deng Xiaoping. In the party’s simplified official version of history, Deng is portrayed as the heroic leader of reforms — and the third plenum of December 1978 as the watershed moment. In reality, the process of adopting reforms was stop-and-start, with many ideas initially opposed by the party. They were only fully endorsed once it was clear they were successful.
As Xi Jinping took power, accounts began circulating that put his father at the centre of the reform narrative. Those accounts resonate with elite families who feel Deng took credit for the collective effort of party veterans to rescue China from the disasters of the Mao era.
Other senior officials at the time, especially Wan Li and Zhao Ziyang — who Deng blamed for the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 — are associated with the agricultural reforms that freed farmers from the communes. Hu Yaobang, a relative liberal who was purged by Deng in 1987, oversaw attempts to clarify corporate ownership in order to increase industrial output, a problem that still bedevils China today.
In a commemorative essay Qi Xin, Xi Zhongxun’s wife, credits her husband with pushing Guangdong to the forefront of reform experiments. “He wanted to take back the 16 lost years and do more practical things for the party and the people,” Ms Qi writes.
One party history published in 2007 says Xi Zhongxun realised in the late 1970s that Chinese captured trying to flee to Hong Kong could find work if factories were built on the Chinese side of the border instead. That was the origin of the “special economic zones” like Shenzhen.
In his 2011 biography of Deng Xiaoping, however, American historian Ezra Vogel credits that insight to Deng in 1977. He writes that Xi was a strong advocate in getting Beijing’s support for Guangdong’s reforms.
“At the time, turning it into a central policy certainly needed Deng’s OK. But actually not all the experiments at the local level that started after Mao’s death were Deng’s idea,” says Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian. “There wasn’t any ‘architect’. Everyone had their programme and then those became the blueprint.”
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