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By Anton Graham in Beijing

The single most important political question for China — and therefore for Hongkong — as it advances towards the 21st century is: what happens after Deng Xiaoping dies? It is a question that every Chinese person thinks about, but few are willing to discuss because some of the possibilities are dire. But his death will undoubtedly prove to be a crucial watershed in Chinese history.

Deng is currently China’s undisputed leader, the man who has inspired all the economic and social changes the country has undergone since the death of Chairman Mao Tsetung in 1976 (the last important watershed). But he is now 78, and, there is obviously a very good chance that by 1990, he will already have gone to “meet Marx”.

Will his reforms last, or is China doomed to suffer yet more leadership power struggles, shifts of political line and debilitating political campaigns? The present Beijing leadership, installed by Deng over the past four years, naturally swears that there is nothing to worry about, and that the present phase of relative political stability is permanent. Collective leadership is the answer to the power struggle, they say.


But is it? Deng has certainly tried hard to change the very nature of Chinese politics, but he is fighting against a deep- rooted tradition of factionalism in the Communist Party, and centuries of the “Emperor” tradition, under which one man has be in final control. Generralissimo Chiang Kai-shek and Mao were both post-Imperial examples of the “Emperor” syndrome, and Deng himself, although far less prone to megalomania, is once again the strongman imposing his personal vision upon the Chinese people.

The consensus amongst the “China watcher” community seems to be that China’s bane, the leadership power struggle, will inevitably rise to the surface once again after Deng is gone. The long he stays alive, the longer his system of collective leadership may survive. But China is a huge, volatile, backward country with a generally low level of education, and it is hard to believe that it can shrug off the habits of generations with just a few years of reform.

And what will be the result of a renewed power struggle? That is anybody’s guess. But at the very least, it will mean continued political instability. The fear amongst ordinary Chinese people is that there could be a repetition of the Cultural Revolution, the mad eruption of the late 1960s inspired by Chairman Mao which almost degenerated into civil war. At present, a second Cultural Revolution would seem to be unlikely, largely because the leftist ideas which gave birth to it have almost no support amongst the ordinary people. But then again, Mao was almost certainly wrong when he said that “the people, only the people can make history.”


Maoism is still a strong force in the Communist Party and in the armed forces, in spite of Deng’s efforts to root it out. Many leftists are certainly lying low waiting for Deng to pass from the scene so that they can stage a recovery. They are far from being a spent force.

Hongkong former governor, Lord Maclehose, made a fascinating speech in London several months ago about the conditions required before the Hongkong people and foreign investors could have continuing confidence in the territory. His words, however, have equal relevance to China itself and to the reforms that Deng has effected: the key, he said, is to find a way to convince people that they can “rely on the package being preserved intact in the future.”

“The present government in Peking…is regarded as the best China has had for a very long time. The problem is, unfortunately and unavoidably, the recollection of the many changes in line and personalities that have wracked China in the past 30 years,” he said.

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