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Deng Xiaoping

BORN: Aug. 22, 1904, in Sichuan province, China
1924: Joins the Chinese Communist Party while studying in France, later goes to the Soviet Union
1927: Becomes a party organizer in southwest China
1934-35: Joins the Long March
1957: Persecutes intellectuals under Mao's orders
1966: Purged as a "capitalist roader" in Cultural Revolution
1973: Rehabilitated and becomes vice premier
1976: Purged by the Maoist Gang of Four
1977: Rehabilitated and launches bid for supreme power
1981: Initiates "responsibility system" for farmers
1984: Concludes deal for the return of Hong Kong in 1997
1989: Oversees Tiananmen crackdown
1992: Spurs economic reform on a tour of southern China
1997: Dies in Beijing on Feb. 19

Those who inhabited China's vast countryside can truly appreciate Deng Xiaoping's greatness. In countless villages lived four-fifths of the hundreds of millions of Chinese, most of them in abject poverty. An entire family might share a single pair of trousers. If lucky, they might live in a small thatched roof hut with a hole at the top to let out the smoke from the open hearth fire. Peasants transported their ducks and geese to markets along rivers and ancient canals; there were few roads. This was not the Middle Ages, but China, circa 1976, the year Mao Zedong died. The country was in the depths, its people depressed and devoid of hope for their lives.

By changing the way peasants live, Deng recast China, and in many ways altered the world we live in. He did this through the simple expedient of giving the land Mao had originally confiscated from the landlord class back to the peasants. Through the contract responsibility system, farmers were free to grow any crops they wished, so long as they delivered a specified amount of staple crops to the central government. Soon money was beginning to course through the system. Two-story brick houses rose where thatched huts used to be. Some 200 million Chinese - more people than all of Indonesia - escaped destitution.

Thus, Deng lifted more people out of poverty than any other world leader, anytime, anywhere. "It is time to prosper. China has been poor a thousand years," he said. But his exhortation - "to get rich is glorious" - did more than just unleash economic drive. It overturned the millennia of ordinary Chinese setting aside their personal welfare for the emperor or the state. That is the real revolution Deng launched, a social upheaval welling up from within each individual citizen. That unleashing of personal drive, coupled with the assertiveness that comes with affluence and education, has been pushing back political restraints in the country, along with economic ones.


Introduction: From among the five who topped their respective categories, we picked the one we considered the most outstanding - the Asian of the Century. And the winners are...

  Deng Xiaoping
  Morita Akio
  Kurosawa Akira
  Charles K. Kao
  Mohandas K. Gandhi

Contenders: As they say in film production, many great scenes from our history were left on the cutting room floor

20 Icons of the Century: Here are 20 concepts that defined the region over the past 100 years

Poll: Have your say on who you think is the Asian of the Century

Deng's policies had immense impact abroad. From the 1950s to the late 1970s, China was ruled by ideologues committed to exporting the communist revolution. Beijing underwrote insurgencies throughout the region, spurring alliances that brought much of Asia under Uncle Sam's sway. Under Deng, China set aside such adventures to concentrate totally on building up the economy and attracting foreign trade and investment. That in turn has permitted neighboring countries to concentrate on their own development. Deng's economic reforms and his realignment of China constitute the most important geopolitical event in Asia in the second half of the 20th century.

The man who became known as China's "patriarch" tackled the great "problems left over from history" - namely the separation of Hong Kong, Macau and later Taiwan from the mainland - with the constructive pragmatism that marked all of his political endeavors. The famous "one-country, two systems" formulation under which Hong Kong was returned after 155 years of British colonial rule was imaginative, daring and unorthodox. It was an issue not only of supreme importance to China in its quest to regain national wholeness. It was also of international concern because of what Hong Kong had become under the British, its key role in Asian economic development and as a model for China in the coming century.

Great men often have great flaws. Deng shared the ruthlessness which has been a mark of Chinese leaders since Shi Huangdi first united the country by force 22 centuries ago. Faced with equally fearsome foes in the wars against the Japanese and the Kuomintang, and purged twice under Mao for his pragmatic views, Deng saw no other sure way to survive and advance his political aims, but through force. Indeed, part of his genius was to outfight his enemies, especially the ideologues bent on leading China down the Maoist way to ruin. Thus, Deng eventually asserted his vision of a modern, prosperous nation. But that very toughness led him to order the harsh, bloody suppression of countless people. He persecuted thousands of intellectuals during Mao's Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957. And when students called for democracy and an end to corruption on Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989, China's partriarch called out the tanks.

Of all the century's great leaders, Deng was truly a man of his century. For one thing, his life (born 1904, died 1997) neatly spanned the era. More importantly, his career embraced most of it. As far back as the 1930s, Deng was shaping the course of history as a top-level communist political operator and military commander. He led China's revolutionary armies in some of the great campaigns of the civil war, culminating in the capture of the Kuomintang capital Nanjing. Yet he was influencing events right up to the century's end, when, in 1992, he rekindled economic reforms, stymied for more than two years after Tiananmen, with his famous tour of southern China.

For Asia, the past 100 years have been a drama in two big acts. The main theme of the first half of the century was the region's struggle for independence from European colonialism. The second half has been dominated by nation-building and East Asia's phenomenal economic success. Alone of all the great Asians, Deng was a leading player in both of these acts, first as a revolutionary leader, then as the architect of a social revolution which has fundamentally changed China and the rest of the world for the better.

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