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Opinion

The Man Who Brought Winds of Change

China Tiananmen Square. Reuters

Sometimes, places increase a journalist’s curiosity.

We were at the People’s Palace in Beijing in front of the famous Tiananmen Square and close to the mausoleum of Mao Zedong at the lunch hosted by President Xi Jinping in honor of his guest, King Salman bin Abdulaziz.

I could have talked about ordinary matters, like the impressions of Beijing’s visitor, or the British fleet or even the weather. But journalism is a troublesome profession in its nature, and so is a journalist.

I asked the Chinese reporter next to me what could have happened if China was still governed by the ideas of Mao.

He smiled and said: “There could have probably been a different China than the one you’re seeing today.”

I tried to go farther than that. I told him I imagine things would have gone out of control under the weight of economic problems and isolation from the world. He answered: “This is what you think. I believe we would have lived in different China.”

I remembered then that the president, the secretary general of Mao’s party, is few meters away and that Chinese officials avoid bringing back the past and playing with sources of legitimacy.

I asked him about the defining moment that led to the birth of the current China. He said that the turning point began with Deng Xiaoping who became in charge following Mao’s absence. He pointed out that Deng realized the seriousness of the impasse and then called for reform according to a golden rule that states gradual reform should ensure stability.

He wanted to reform the economy and China’s relations with the world as well as ensuring that the country joins the modern age.

I asked him to summarize the challenges currently facing China. He said they begin with the economy, especially after the decline in the growth rate. Then, the issue of social justice given that openness to the world has created a gap between the rich and the poor, the consequences of which authorities are trying to limit.

The third issue is the environment and its problems.

He stressed that all the processes are in accordance with the golden rule: carry on with progress while maintaining stability. This is an issue the party, whose members exceed the population of Germany, doesn’t take lightly.

Luckily for China and the world, Deng’s experiment didn’t have the same fate as that of Mikhail Gorbachev.

The Chinese collapse could have been disastrous and could have drowned this immense human reservoir in a dispute about nationalism and inclinations, and consequently drowned the world in a tsunami of refugees.

Deng rescued his country from a dark fate.

China adopting the literal text of Mao’s “Red Book” could have doomed the country to the destiny of North Korea, that is, nuclear and missile arsenal extorting thousands of hungry citizens.

Mao had an exceptional halo and some of his mistakes were exceptional as well.

The Cultural Revolution had its toll on the country, its people, and its economy.

The “great captain” was trapped in his own victory, image and public. Ding came from the same background. He realized that ideas bear the hallmarks of the time and place in which they are created and are not fit for every time and place. He only stripped Mao’s commandments of their holiness.

Ding didn’t take out Mao’s body but he left it resting in peace. From Mao, he continued with the one party rule and began opening doors in the party, the state, and the society.

It was rather a quiet, purposeful, and supervised reform, with strict tuning for sense of adventure, burning of stages or attempts to retreat into the past.

Deng turned to the world, to the United States, Europe and Japan. He turned his attention to countries that rely on numbers, and do not depend on recipes of ideologies and official statements cooked in the kitchens of obedience and compliance, and do not deem the “historical leader” far above.

Deng’s heirs walked the same path. They guarded stability and increased change in the economy.

This made it easier for the current sec-gen to stand during this year’s Davos convention as one of the strongest defenders of globalization and as a trustee of an experience that saved seven hundred million Chinese from extreme poverty and made China the second largest economy in the world.

The Chinese experience deserve a careful reading and analysis from the Arabs, especially after the “Arab Spring” and its costly lessons.

Mao’s heirs refused to canonize his treatments and ideologies, but they steered away from the great depression. They had the vision and programs and were armed with the aspirations of the people, realism and patience without compromising their dreams. They led the process of changing curricula, mentalities, and methods that ended with China becoming part of development.

They saved both the country and Mao’s mausoleum.

It is not simple for the Chinese and the world to agree that Deng launched this process. The highest distinction that can be granted by history to a commander or leader is that it describes him as the man who brought in change.

Arabs need more than one Deng, and the nation has many.

Ghassan Charbel

Ghassan Charbel

Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.

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