Twenty four years ago in January and February of 1992, one of history’s most significant event happened. It is known as “The Southern tour” of Deng Xiaoping which is not widely known or taught in the West. Below is an extract from my book ‘Blood, Dragons and Lions’ on this monumental event.
Following the Tiananmen Square crackdown in June 4 1989, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union underwent their own momentous revolutions. Within a matter of months in late 1989, communism in Eastern Europe was shattered, while the Soviet Union was disintegrating under Gorbachev’s disastrous but well intentioned reforms of Perestroika and Glasnost. After almost two years of political and nationalistic turmoil, even the mighty Soviet Union was liquidated in December 1991. The West was jubilant and triumphant. Could China be the next to fall?
At the beginning of 1992, China was still under international ostracisation and a pariah nation. Its economy was stagnating from sanctions and factional politics which were increasingly veering back to hardline communism. The progressive reformers had been in retreat since the turmoil of June 4th, and leftist hardliners were becoming more powerful and defensive in the aftermath of the dissolution of the communist countries in Eastern Europe. Once again, it looked as though China just could not modernise without making a mess of itself because of stupid political ideology.
“It does not matter whether a cat is black or white so long as it catches mice”
This quote was by Deng Xiaoping, the reformer whose reputation was severely damaged by the Tiananmen Square crackdown. He was still a reformer and great pragmatist through and through. China was on a knife edge between economic and social collapse, and retrenchment back to unproductive ultra-leftist orthodoxy. In January and February 1992, Deng who was by then 87 years old made his legendary ‘Southern tour’ to Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shanghai – the pioneering provinces and cities which led China’s economic reforms in the previous decades.
I can still remember vividly reading about the southern tour news in the library and immediately felt the awe of a tremendously uplifting event by a giant historical figure, visionary and reformer. My esteem for Deng became even higher when I learned that the tour had been planned with secrecy and with great vigilance as he had no official power at this point. Before the trip, he had pretended he was visiting relatives to deflect attention from leftist adversaries; and he had sought and enlisted the support of top People’s Liberation Army generals to ensure his last great push to ‘reform and open up’ was not scuppered by hostile and opposing elements in the party or military.
The ‘Southern tour’ was initially ignored in the state media as Deng called for the people to wholeheartedly push for greater reform and to open up the country again. He knew brave progressive reform, not retrenchment was the only way forward for China.
After more than two years of economic stagnation and dangerous political impasse, the entrepreneurial and hard-working spirit of the Chinese people was re-ignited. Once again, economic dynamism returned with a vengeance; hardliners and their backward ideology were side-lined. The rest is history, as China marched forward to become the world’s largest trading nation in 2013, and world’s largest economy (GDP measured by purchasing power parity) in 2014.