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Chinese President Xi Jinping applauds as individuals who contributed to reform and opening-up are recognized at the Great Hall of the People on Dec. 18.   © Xinhua
China up close

Hegemony troubled Deng but doesn't worry Xi

Warning by former leader's son reflects broader Chinese concerns

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer | China

TOKYO -- Forty years ago, China embarked on a new policy named "reform and opening-up," which began the country's ascent to become the world's second largest economy.

During a commemorative ceremony at Beijing's Great Hall of the People last Tuesday, Chinese state media hailed the policy as "a great revolution that has changed the destiny of the Chinese nation."

But the grand gathering, at which Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a keynote speech, chose not to put the spotlight on the architect of that policy and its greatest contributor, Deng Xiaoping.

Until his death in 1997, Deng was China's paramount leader for 20 years. But for Xi and his team, Deng is not the star of Xi's "new era" which officially started at the Chinese Communist Party's quinquennial national congress in the autumn of 2017.

When Deng's 74-year-old eldest son Deng Pufang made surprise remarks in September about China's current standing in the world, they were widely seen as candid advice to Xi, who as president has overseen a sharp deterioration of China's relations with the U.S.

At the China Disabled Persons' Federation, the younger Deng said: "We must know our place and not be overbearing. We also should not belittle ourselves without reason."

Deng Pufang, the honorary chair of the federation, stressed the importance of reflecting on the current state of affairs in China and planning for the future, while facing up squarely to the fact that the country is at the "primary stage of socialism."

During the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, Deng Pufang fell from a building while trying to escape from a mob and was left seriously disabled. He has since been wheelchair-bound.

It took weeks for the contents of his speech to trickle out into the public. State media did not carry his words. But they reverberated quickly.

Deng Pufang's remarks were particularly disturbing for the Xi regime as the younger Deng is an influential "princeling." Princelings are the children of prominent Communist Party officials and carry political clout.

Xi is pursuing a policy of overtaking the U.S., at least in terms of the size of the economy, by 2035. This "great power" policy stands in sharp contrast to Deng Xiaoping's external policy of "tao guang yang hui," in which he instructed his aides to observe calmly, secure one's own position, hide capabilities, bide time, keep a low profile, and never claim leadership.

"Tao guang yang hui" went hand in hand with "reform and opening up," allowing China to focus on its economy. But today, it increasingly looks like a thing of the past.

The theory of the "primary stage of socialism," which Deng's son mentioned, holds that it will take China, a country with low production capabilities, 100 years to realize socialism. The concept allowed China to embrace capitalist methods and catapulted the economy on a growth trajectory. It personifies Deng Xiaoping's realism.

Visitors go through a section dedicated to Deng Xiaoping at an exhibition marking the 40th anniversary of China's reform and opening-up at the National Museum of China, in Beijing, on Nov. 14.   © Reuters

Deng Pufang has close ties to Japan. In 1985, during the early period of reform and opening-up, he visited Japan and held talks with then Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone.

The meeting between Deng Pufang and Nakasone was held at the Japanese former prime minister's office. It was Yu Zhengsheng, who later became a Politburo Standing Committee member and China's number four under Xi, who carried Deng's wheelchair up the stairs in his capacity as Deng Pufang's secretary.

On the day of his talks with Nakasone, Deng Pufang also met then-Japanese Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe, the late father of current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The elder Abe asked Deng Pufang about the secret of his health. Deng Pufang replied, "Decisiveness and an optimistic attitude." Perhaps it was this decisiveness that spurred his speech at the China Disabled Persons' Federation.

Deng Pufang's September warning about not being overbearing has its roots in his father's thinking. In the negotiations ahead of the 1978 Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and China, Deng Xiaoping told Japanese Foreign Minister Sunao Sonoda that China would not seek hegemony, even if it were to become a major power in the future.

"If that happens, China itself must object [to hegemony]," Deng said. "Japan and countries in the world must also object, along with the Chinese people," the Chinese leader told Sonoda, according to Takashi Tajima, now 83, who was at the time head of the Foreign Ministry's China division

Deng Pufang meets with Japan's then Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo in April 1985.   © Kyodo

China's reform and opening-up, which also began in 1978, was a major turning point for China's diplomacy, as it deepened its relations with the U.S., including in the economic sphere, after many years of confrontation. That meant breaking off relations with the Soviet Union, which had helped the People's Republic of China with its nation-building efforts.

It was a busy winter for Beijing. In late October 1978, Deng Xiaoping made his first visit to Japan and exchanged instruments of ratification for the Sino-Japanese peace and friendship treaty.

China established diplomatic ties with the U.S. on Jan. 1, 1979, followed by Deng's first visit to the U.S. at the end of that month.

An underlying theme of Chinese diplomacy back then was its animosity toward the Soviet Union. Even the calm-looking Deng felt strong emotions about the Soviets.

According to a Japanese political figure who secretly shuttled between the two capitals in the 1970s as Japan and China established diplomatic ties, Deng at one point made a surprising comment regarding the Soviets.

It was shortly after Tokyo and Beijing normalized relations in 1972. According to the figure, who was acting as a secret envoy, Deng said the following words to him, referring to a Sino-Soviet border conflict in 1969: "The Soviet Union has invaded us. How about the Japanese Self-Defense Forces coming to China and fighting against the Soviets?"

The secret envoy was flustered. He had come to Beijing many times for negotiations and had met Deng multiple times. But this statement was totally unexpected. Not sure whether Deng was joking or serious, he reported Deng's remarks accurately to senior officials of the Japanese government and ruling party.

Sending the Self-Defense Forces was not a realistic option at the time, of course. Although the U.S. had moved toward normalizing diplomatic ties with China by 1972, Washington had yet to establish formal diplomatic relations with Beijing. For Japan, a U.S. ally, both China and the Soviet Union were still enemy nations. But the remarks nonetheless capture the degree of hostility Deng felt toward his northern neighbor.

Those emotions were captured in Article 2 of the 1978 Peace and Friendship treaty between Japan and China. Neither country "should seek hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region or in any other region," and "each is opposed to efforts by any other country or group of countries to establish such hegemony," the treaty read.

It was China that insisted the anti-hegemony clause be inserted into the treaty. There is no doubt it had the Soviet Union in mind.

The Soviet Union subsequently collapsed, but Deng Xiaoping's China, with its energy focused on the economy, survived.

Forty years after the inception of the reform and opening-up policy, the situation now looks very different. Under President Xi, China has made clear its ambitious goal of overtaking the U.S., alarming his American counterpart Donald Trump.

The U.S. and China are now locked in not only a trade war but also a war for technological supremacy.

If the situation escalates, the "new Cold War" between the two countries will continue even if it does not lead to an armed clash, following a similar path to the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. If there is a new Cold War, China, like the Soviet Union during the original Cold War, could be besieged economically.

In an ominous sign for China, Meng Wanzhou, the eldest daughter of -- and likely successor to -- Chinese tech giant Huawei's founder Ren Zhengfei, was arrested and later released on bail in Canada.

A woman walks past Huawei and Apple shops in Beijing: In the Sino-U.S. war for technological supremacy, the Xi Jinping regime has moved to take tensions down a notch, perhaps partly moved to do so by the arrest in Canada of Huawei's Meng Wanzhou.   © Reuters

Alarmed by the possible escalation of Sino-U.S. tensions, the Xi regime is now preparing concessions to the U.S. that smack of China's traditional "tao guang yang hui" policy.

Among such concessions will be the rumored changing of the "Made in China 2025" plan, a blueprint for upgrading China's industries, which the Trump administration wants retracted.

Some minor changes to the "Made in China 2025" plan might help ease tensions temporarily, but will not be enough to alter the basic confrontational structure of bilateral relations.

In his speech at the Dec. 18 ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of the reform and opening-up policy, President Xi said that China "will never seek hegemony."

But the situation has already changed, as shown by the case of Huawei.

Huawei was established in Shenzhen, a special economic zone, and was symbol of Deng Xiaoping's reform and opening-up policy. Huawei has grown into a global company and has now fallen victim to the Sino-U.S. feud.

Deng Xiaoping said that if China became a hegemon, the Chinese people must object.

Forty years after his reform and opening-up policy was introduced, the meaning of his anti-hegemony maxim needs to be reflected on again.

Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He has spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later China bureau chief of Nikkei. He is the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize for international reporting.

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