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China's Deng Xiaoping Is Dead at 92

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 20 1997; Page A01

BEIJING, Feb. 20 (Thursday) -- Deng Xiaoping, who oversaw China's economic transformation and ordered the bloody crackdown on democracy demonstrators in 1989, died Wednesday night of respiratory failure at the age of 92, China's official news agency announced.

His death marks the end of an era for China. One of the last survivors of China's communist revolution, Deng had guided the country out of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, flung open China's doors to the outside world and loosened the grip of central economic planning while insisting that the Communist Party's monopoly on power go unchallenged.

Last seen in public three years ago, looking frail, Deng had gradually faded from China's political scene, and a Reuter news service report Wednesday, before his death was announced, said that his once powerful personal office had been disbanded. Deng died at 8:08 a.m. EST of complications from a lung infection, although the official New China News Agency noted that he had also suffered from the advanced stages of Parkinson's disease.

A 459-member funeral committee headed by Deng's handpicked successor, President Jiang Zemin, issued a statement that spoke of the "incomparable esteem and profound grief of the whole party, the whole army and the people of various ethnic groups throughout the country." The Chinese flag over Beijing's Tiananmen Square was lowered to half-staff, and a six-day mourning period was declared.

The national television anchor announced Deng's death and an overview of his life on the morning news program today. Afterward, Beijing streets were calm as people began going to work. The broadcast statement also said that no foreigners will be invited to the burial ceremonies.

In Boston Wednesday, President Clinton said he was saddened to learn of the death of China's paramount leader, calling Deng an "extraordinary figure on the world stage over the past two decades." His statement described Deng as "the driving force behind China's decision to formalize relations with the United States." He said Deng's 1979 visit to the United States had laid the foundation for a rapid expansion of relations and cooperation between the two countries. "Mr. Deng's long life spanned a century of turmoil, tribulation and remarkable change in China. He spurred China's historic economic reform program, which greatly improved living standards in China and modernized much of the nation," Clinton said.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said in London that the United States "obviously views Deng Xiaoping as a historic figure," but she noted that Deng's record prompted a "mixed assessment." She mentioned the role he played in normalization of ties with Washington, but also noted his handling of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

Senior U.S. officials said his death marks the beginning of a period of great uncertainty in U.S.-China relations, with little sense yet of whether Beijing's leadership will move toward greater confrontation or cooperation with the United States.

Deng's death leaves no vacancies in China's official leadership posts. In 1990, he gave up the last of his titles, as chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission, to President Jiang, who also holds the post of party chief.

Nonetheless, because he was the second powerful personality -- after Mao Zedong -- to rule China since the communist victory in 1949, Deng's death leaves many Chinese feeling uncertain about what lies ahead. "It's not a good thing when a man has died. What course will this country take?" said a school administrator in his sixties upon learning of Deng's death.

In the past, the death of Chinese leaders has given citizens the opportunity to express discontent. The funerals of Premier Zhou Enlai in 1976 and Communist Party boss Hu Yaobang in 1989 each sparked political protests that rocked the government. In the wake of Deng's death, China's leadership called on the nation Wednesday night to rally together, and stressed the need for unity and stability.

"The party Central Committee calls on the whole party, the whole army and the people of various ethnic groups to turn grief into strength, carry forward Comrade Deng Xiaoping's behest and express our mourning with our concrete actions in redoubling our efforts to do work well in various aspects," the New China News Agency said.

"We must unswervingly adhere to the party's basic line," it said. "We must uphold and safeguard the party's unity and unification, unite more conscientiously around the party Central Committee with Comrade Jiang Zemin at the core."

With a lack of open expression in China of criticism of the Communist Party, it is difficult to gauge the depth of discontent people feel even as they enjoy the fruits of economic reform. But initial popular reaction to the news was quiet.

At 7:01 this morning, the Chinese flag over Tiananmen Square was raised to the top of its pole, then lowered to half-staff. Liu Xinyi, 30, an investment consultant from Shenzhen who typifies a new generation of wealthy entrepreneurs created by the Deng era, had not known of Deng's death before reaching the square.

"It's a pity, but it wasn't sudden," Liu said, carrying a cellular phone. "There have been so many rumors in the past that we've slowly gotten used to the idea that he would go."

Many Chinese are aware that it took two years after Mao's death for Deng to solidify his hold on power. "The greatest immediate effect will be on the stock market," said a Chinese businessman in his forties. "We won't know the other effects for a while yet." Still, most expect that China's leaders will continue Deng's open-door and economic reform policies.

Immediately after hearing the news on television, Zhu Jingchun, a 56-year-old telecommunications worker, went to a park across from Tiananmen Square to do his usual morning exercises with a group of two dozen middle-aged and senior citizens. Instead of the ancient morning Chinese traditional taiqi calisthenics, their exercise consisted of shaking their bodies around to the sounds of country and western music tapes.

"The living standard for workers like me has jumped forward. There's no way to compare it with how inadequate it was before," Zhu said. "Everyone is a supporter of Deng. I haven't heard one person say that he didn't endorse what Deng did, [or] that opening up was a mistake. So I don't think there will be much impact. Major things have already happened. Nobody will be able to drive us backward."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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