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China Celebrates Deng Xiaoping's Centenary - 2004-08-19

China is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of former Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping - who led the country toward unprecedented economic development.

At China's National Museum in Beijing, people from all over the country flock to view an exhibit of Deng Xiaoping's life. It traces his childhood in Sichuan province, the Chinese civil war and the Cultural Revolution and finally, his reform period.

This older man sitting outside a Beijing stadium reminisces about how the city has changed since Deng's reforms began 25 years ago. He says it would be difficult today to find a leader like Deng Xiaoping, who served the people wholeheartedly.

"Among the leaders of the Communist Party of China, you can say that in every aspect of serving the people, Deng Xiaoping was comparatively comprehensive," he said.

Across China, celebrations are underway to mark the 100th anniversary of Deng's birth on August 22, 1904. Hundreds of books have been published, commemorative stamps issued, symphonies written, a movie about his life filmed, and artworks commissioned.

Deng Xiaoping formally led China from 1978 to 1989, and remained a powerful figure until his death in 1997. He took charge of a nation weary of the upheaval caused by Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, and embarked on an ambitious program to unleash the economic power of the Chinese people.

Since then, China's economy has grown far beyond what many might have imagined. From 1980 to 1990, China's annual economic growth averaged 10.3 percent. In the next decade, it continued to expand by 9.7 percent.

Progress is evident in many of China's cities, with gleaming tall buildings replacing courtyard houses and expensive cars overtaking bicycles.

But the vast countryside remains mired in poverty - with hundreds of millions living on less than $1 a day.

This increasing divide between the rich and poor in China puts pressure on officials in Beijing. They are worried about potential instability and social unrest the income gap could provoke.

Richard Baum, a China expert from the University of California in Los Angeles, says Deng recognized the danger of such a gap.

"I think he realized that those with comparative advantage in resources, labor, skills and infrastructure would go ahead quickly. In fact, he said its okay for some to get rich sooner than other," he said. "So I think he was quite concerned there would be some initial polarization of wealth and concerned that they might get out of hand."

Deng Xiaoping was born in Sichuan province on August 22, 1904. In 1920, at the age of 16, he left for France to study. There, he joined other Chinese students in the communist movement.

He returned to China in 1927 and fought alongside Mao Zedong to establish Communist Party rule. But he was purged three times from the party by factional rivalry.

Mao's Cultural Revolution was a trying period. Deng and his wife were forced to do manual labor. His son, Deng Pufang, was tortured and thrown off from a window, leaving him paralyzed.

Deng was restored to the party hierarchy only after Mao Zedong's death in 1977. After that, he was free to implement his ideas for a new China.

David Goodman, a Chinese history professor at the University of Technology in Sydney, says Deng Xiaoping was a patriot rather than an ideologue.

"I think Deng Xiaoping all through his life had a commitment to making China great and powerful in the world. And he saw from a very early stage the Communist Party as the only mechanism that he thought was viable for doing that," he said.

Despite being passionate about economic reforms, Deng was a hardliner when it came to the Communist Party. He was intent on stopping anything he thought would weaken its hold on power.

Perhaps the most infamous incident came in June 1989, when government troops crushed pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. The crackdown killed hundreds of protesters, mostly students.

At the National Museum exhibit, Deng's role in the events of 1989 was noticeably absent.

Deng died at the age of 92 in February 1997. His handpicked successor, Jiang Zemin, continued his reforms. Mr. Jiang has since passed the baton to another generation of leaders.

This man reading a newspaper in a busy Beijing street says Deng Xiaoping was good for China. "Mao Zedong helped the Chinese people stand up for themselves. Deng Xiaoping helped the Chinese people get rich," he said.

In a visit to Deng's home province last week, President Hu Jintao urged cadres to continue following Deng's theories to help the masses, especially farmers, attain a better life.

Commemoration activities at Deng Xiaoping's hometown of Guang'an in a way symbolized his life. As the government embarked on efforts to preserve Deng's ancestral village, residents lost their farmlands and were resettled in modern buildings with the trappings of modern China - central heating and television.

Many reportedly opened businesses, serving the growing tourism industry in the city and living the life their favorite native son had envisioned.