Deng Xiaoping's death last month at the age of 92 came as little surprise. Although he had held no formal leadership position since 1989, Deng had been, like Mao Zedong before him, the absolute ruler of China. And like Mao, his death leaves a power vacuum which the greatly divided ruling class will struggle to fill.
His obituaries largely focused on the last 18 years, during which the economic reforms that he pioneered have transformed China. But although he was portrayed as the man who overturned Mao's heritage, in fact he spent the vast majority of his life as a loyal follower of Mao. From 1924, when he joined the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), to the early 1960s Deng was one of Mao's closest supporters as secretary general of the CCP. In 1957 he organised the repression that followed the 'Hundred Flowers' movement.
The following year Mao launched the 'Great Leap Forward' which aimed to speed up China's growth by replacing scarce material resources with exhortations to work harder, and the forced collectivisation of agriculture. It was one of the greatest disasters in Chinese history by 1960 the country was in the grip of a terrible famine in which up to 30 million people died.
Deng's reputation as a reformer grew out of his partial undoing of collectivisation in the early 1960s to restore food production. That was when he coined his famous saying: 'It doesn't matter whether a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.' This was later interpreted, by his supporters and his enemies, to show that he had always been a principled opponent of Mao's economic strategy.
What it rather betrays is the pure pragmatism of a born bureaucrat. Deng opposed Mao only when Mao's policies didn't produce the desired ends. This was still enough to earn him Mao's hatred, and when Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966 to regain the power he had lost, Deng was one of its first targets. He was jailed and then sent to the countryside.
The Cultural Revolution killed less people than the Great Leap, but it led to an even greater breakdown of society. By 1969, when it formally ended, both CCP and state machines had largely fallen apart, and Deng was restored to power in 1973 in order to rebuild the bureaucracy. By now Mao was dying, and there was a vicious struggle for the succession between Mao's followers and his opponents, now led by Deng. He was sacked again after rioting in Tiananmen Square in 1976, bounced back a year later following Mao's death and the arrest of the Gang of Four, and by 1978 was able to take power.
He was helped by the 'Democracy Wall' movement of 1978-81, which used the liberalisation after Mao's death to demand justice for those persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. The movement supported Deng against Mao's followers but wanted a faster pace of change. The economic reforms Deng instituted brought about probably the greatest increase in Chinese living standards ever. In the countryside he abolished the communes and allowed the peasants to effectively control their own plots of land, while in the cities wages increased across the board.
By 1985, however, the very success of the reforms had brought about a new crisis. Grain production per head of population dropped (and has kept dropping ever since) while the effects of the market reforms led to inflation reappearing in the cities for the first time since 1949. 'To get rich is glorious,' Deng told the peasants in 1982, but by 1988 the only people visibly getting rich were officials and managers.
Workers' anger at official corruption and falling living standards laid the basis for their mass support for the student movement of 1989 the Tiananmen Square rebellion. At the height of the movement, millions of workers barricaded the Red Army out of Beijing, while protests spread to practically every town and city in China. The massacre of 4 June was followed by a savage and mostly secret repression in which thousands more were shot and tens of thousands jailed. Deng's victory was a hollow one while his regime survived, it was at the cost of losing all support for his reforms in the cities.
Since then the crisis of the system has deepened: the economy goes from boom to bust, and while conditions in the cities have improved slightly, opposition to the regime has spread to the villages.
John Gittings wrote in Real China 'The result in many rural areas has been a complete breakdown of the remaining trust between Party and peasants, which had survived even the upheavals of the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution.'
Mass demonstrations, attacks on officials and even banditry became endemic in the countryside. While the ruling class can ride out such localised protests indefinitely, they have no way of fundamentally changing the situation.
The fulsome tributes heaped on Deng by world leaders were in marked contrast to the indifference shown inside China. Deng's popularity as a reformer is long forgotten what remains is his long and consistent record of repression. The defining memory of his rule will be the bravery and dedication of the students and workers who rose in rebellion against him in 1989.