A little more than a year has gone by since "paramount" leader Deng Xiaoping passed away, and it is time to evaluate what his departure has meant to China.

The media, labeling Deng’s death as a non-event, stressed calmness and continuity. This, in and of itself, was a big accomplishment, one that suggested how very much China has changed since Mao’s death two decades earlier.

Since Deng’s demise, however, it has become apparent that there is change as well as continuity in China. Moreover, the pace of change seems to be accelerating. The era of Jiang Zemin will not be simply a continuation of the Deng Xiaoping period.

The year since Deng’s death has been filled with major events: the return of Hong Kong to China; the convening of the 15th Party Congress; Jiang’s summit visit to the U.S.; the recently convened 9th National People’s Congress (NPC); and President Clinton’s forthcoming trip to China. In domestic developments over the past year two features stand out.

First, Jiang has overseen a sweeping change of personnel that promoted professionalism, reduced factionalism, and enhanced his own authority. At the NPC, personnel changes have been accompanied by structural changes that offer the possibility of reducing the bureaucratic infighting that has been a hallmark of Chinese administration in recent years. Among the many organizational changes, two are worthy of special attention.

The first and most significant may well be the incorporation of the State Commission for Economic Restructuring under the direct control of the State Council with the premier, Zhu Rongji, taking charge. The second change is the reorganization of the State Planning Commission, the bulwark of the planned economy, as the State Development and Planning Commission. If this latter change goes beyond a new name, it may well mean a new future for the old planning organ as more of a Japanese ministry-type organization—with more planning and less control.

Second, these personnel and structural changes have been accompanied by a new and unexpected ideological campaign designed to underpin a new wave of reform, one that will include a rapid privatization of a substantial section of the Chinese economy, as inefficient state-owned enterprises are sold off.

Starting in the fall of 1996, Jiang’s associates have sponsored a number of books and articles that set a new tone and align him with previous reform upsurges. The first major work in this vein was Yu Zongshuji tanxin (Heart-to-Heart Talks with the General Secretary). A few months later, Guanjian shike (The Critical Moment) hit the bookstores. Both of these books carried prefaces by Jiang’s close advisor, Liu Ji, and both brought together a number of young intellectuals to put forth reform-minded solutions to the problems China faces.

Most dramatically, the recent book Jiao feng (Crossed Swords), also prefaced by Liu Ji, gives a detailed account of Jiang’s battles with conservative opponents in the Party. The book describes the "thought liberation" sponsored by Jiang in 1997 (referring to his criticism of the "left") as a continuation of previous ideological struggles. The 1978 discussion on "practice as the sole criterion of truth" (which criticized the "two whatevers" of Hua Guofeng and paved the way for the introduction of reform) and the 1992 battle over what constituted socialism (which culminated in Deng’s dramatic trip to Shenzhen and the 14th Party Congress) are specifically mentioned.

In earlier years, Jiang had been reluctant to adopt bold rhetoric in the ideological field, trying cautiously to combine calls for "spiritual civilization" with economic reform. The publication of Crossed Swords, however, underscores Jiang’s consolidation of power and determination to leave his own legacy of reform. It should be noted that Crossed Swords ends with the teaser: "We do not have the wisdom to predict the future, we can only guess that the time for the ‘need to continue deepening the political structural reform’ mentioned in the report of the 15th Party Congress will appear."

Deng’s death was more than a non-event.

— Joseph Fewsmith

Department of International Relations

Boston University

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