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Deng’s lessons for Kim

Oct 02,2018
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Chun Young-gi
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

On Oct. 1, 1949, Mao Zedong, chairman of the Communist-led Central People’s Government, proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese celebrate the founding day as one of the biggest and longest holidays, along with the Lunar New Year’s Day. Nearly seven decades have passed since then, and today the streets of China’s major cities are as bustling and modern as any metropolis.

During a weeklong trip to Beijing, Chongqing, and Shenzhen, I was overwhelmed by the staggering transformation of China and its economic progress. I could not recognize the country as the same place I visited 23 years ago. Then I had to endure appalling public toilets and hide my disgust over the pitiful dwellings of locals along the Jiang River in Chongqing. The ritual of having to pay bribes in U.S. dollars bills to meet government officials in Beijing and elsewhere is now gone.

Few would disagree that the farsighted leadership of Deng Xiaoping opened and cleaned up the colossal country. Its masses of poor people and corrupt bureaucracy transformed it into the second largest economy after the United States. The Chinese government put more emphasis on the 40th anniversary of the opening and reform policy than the 69th anniversary of the government’s founding. After succeeding Mao in 1978, Deng radically changed the fate of the country. Deng remains a rarity in the history of communism, as he abhorred the Mao-like cult of personality. In his will, he wished to donate his organs and have his remains cremated and ashes scattered at sea.

He persistently pursued one wish — making the lives of ordinary people better and building a country of power and dignity. He sustained the communist system simply as the means to reach that goal. He sought to improve the lives of ordinary people through the application of capitalism and set the economy on an entirely new path. Newfound riches have strengthened the military and technological capabilities to empower China as a global superpower. The Chinese do not hesitate to point to capitalism for the prosperity that their country enjoys today. Capitalism is cherished by all Chinese. A democracy loses its appeal if it is not backed by economic power.

Deng, who rose to power in 1978 after radical communists were purged, argued for the opening and reform policy. He claimed that a party, country and people would regress, wither and eventually fall if it was bound by dogma and personality cults. He never used the propaganda slogans of keeping up the “class struggle” or “revolutionist spirit.”

The first liberalization policy Deng adopted was allowing individuals to profit from their farming. Then he built free economic zones that were exempt from regulations and taxes to draw foreign capital. He applied competition to China’s education field to hone its science and technology capabilities. The steps fueled annual growth of over 10 percent for decades.

On the international front, Deng built relationships with U.S. presidents of all stripes, such as Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush. He knew he must befriend the world’s sole superpower in order to attract U.S. investment in his country. In the early 1990s, the Bill Clinton administration mulled removing preferential tariffs for China, citing Beijing’s human rights issues. At the time, Deng persuaded North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to cooperate with America on nuclear inspections and won confidence from Washington. Deng did not care about ideology, face-saving, alliance, or past issues. The average Chinese person is better off now, and their country is super-powerful thanks to a wise communist leader. This should be a lesson for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 1, Page 30