Remembering Deng’s dream
Former leader recalled as a visionary who changed China forever
Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was a visionary who always saw the long-term potential of his initiative, according to his former interpreter.
Victor Gao, who worked for Deng in the 1980s, recalls him telling the Japanese prime minister, Masayoshi Ohira, that Chinese people would have xiao kang or a comfortable living by 2025.
“Deng used to look ahead like this. He used to think of the world in terms of the next 10 years, the end of the 20th century, and the first quarter and then the middle of the 21st Century. No politician in a Western democracy would think in these terms. That is not their business. They only care about the next election,” he says.
Gao, now chairman of the China Energy Security Institute, a Beijingbased think tank, believes Deng was the right man at the right time to deliver the reform that China needed.
“Deng was both unique to the challenge and the opportunity and China today bears a huge fingerprint of his,” he adds.
Another with personal recollections of Deng is Pascal Lamy, former director-general of the World Trade Organization, who was involved in China’s negotiations to join the trade rules body in 2001.
At the time of reform and openingup in the 1978, Lamy was a French civil servant, but he met with Deng at the Great Hall of the People when he came to China for the first time in 1986 as chief of staff of the president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors.
“It was quite impressive for a young guy like myself. He was very witty and smoking a lot,” he laughed.
Lamy, who has just been appointed a distinguished professor of CEIBS, the Shanghai-based international business school, says reform and opening-up was clearly a landmark event.
“The West regards this as major shift. We know that in Chinese history we have periods of opening and
periods of closing, and that was a real shift,” he says.
This view is shared by one of his biographers, Ezra Vogel, emeritus professor of social sciences at Harvard University.
“Deng … fulfilled the mission that had eluded China’s leaders for 150 years: He and his colleagues had found a way to enrich the Chinese people and strengthen the country,” he wrote in Deng Xiaoping and the
Transformation of China, regarded as one of the major books about Deng, published in 2011.
“But in the process of achieving the goal, Deng presided over a fundamental transformation of China itself — the nature of its relationship with the outside world, its governance system and its society. … The structural changes that took place under Deng’s leadership rank among the most basic changes since the Chinese empire took shape during the Han Dynasty over two millennia ago,” Vogel said.
Gao, a former China policy adviser at the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission and who has held a number of senior banking positions, has many personal recollections of Deng.
“He was a man of very few words, but despite being of diminutive stature had a great presence when he walked into a room,” he recalls.
He believes one of Deng’s most important decisions was to reduce the size of the military by a million soldiers in the 1980s and to focus resources on the economy.
“Deng took the view that World War III was not going to happen tomorrow and rather than wasting resources he wanted to put everything into the basket to make China grow and not worry about armaments,” Gao says.
He was also not someone to get “bogged down in detail”, which held him in good stead when dealing with the complexities of reform and opening-up.
“He would not go down into the details, which is what some functionaries would do. He would not care to lift brick or mortar but would always look at the top of the mountain — into the distant future,” Gao says.
Gao also believes what drove Deng, who was 74 when he launched reform and opening-up, was a sense of his own mortality.
“In the 1980s Deng already had an imminent sense of his impending death (he died in 1997). He didn’t procrastinate and push things off to another day. He felt we could no longer waste our time. This sense of urgency was very important and is what drove him and the initiative forward.”
“Deng was both unique to the challenge and the opportunity and China today bears a huge fingerprint of his.” VICTOR GAO former interpreter for Deng Xiaoping and now chairman of the China Energy Security Institute, a Beijing-based think tank
Victor Gao, former interpreter for Deng Xiaoping and now chairman of the China Energy Security Institute, a Beijing-based think tank
Pascal Lamy, former director-general of the WTO