Deng Xiaoping’s birthday, Chinese ‘soft’ power, the re-invention of history and John Lee Hooker

Until his 85th birthday it seemed quite quaint to have been born on the same August day as Deng Xiaoping. I could use it to entertain Chinese hosts or guests at official banquets. But after the events of 1989 it turned sour for me. Even if Chinese hosts continued to appreciate the coincidence, I was far from proud, and certainly no longer amused by it. This year Deng Xiaoping would have been 110 years old and in China his birth is being celebrated with an array of media productions.


Until his 85th birthday it seemed quite quaint to have been born on the same August day as Deng Xiaoping. I could use it to entertain Chinese hosts or guests at official banquets. But after the events of 1989 it turned sour for me. Even if Chinese hosts continued to appreciate the coincidence, I was far from proud, and certainly no longer amused by it. This year Deng Xiaoping would have been 110 years old and in China his birth is being celebrated with an array of media productions.

He has been, and will continue to be, lauded as great national hero, the post-Mao saviour of China.
But what did he achieve? He facilitated the continuance of the Communist Party’s dictatorship in China, the economy being used as a tool to ensure Party’s survival and increasingly of CCP-ruled China’s pre-eminence around the world.

It is no secret that multi-national companies, and capitalist investors, appreciate the « stability » that authoritarian government brings. In that sense, Deng Xiaoping’s finest hour came not at the end of the 1970s when he consolidated power and  launched relatively timid reforms, but rather in 1989 when he authorized the killing-off of all hope of political liberalism in favour of, state-controlled, capitalist expansion.

That Chinese propaganda in China should successfully ensure Deng Xiaoping’s good reputation is to be expected. But why does his credit run so high internationally? Is it also the obeisance to ‘stability’ that accounts for the adulation of Deng Xiaoping by foreign leaders and commentators?Surely, twenty-five years after the hailing of George Bush Senior’s New World Order, no-one any longer believes the American Cold War myth than the establishment of capitalist economies automatically brings in its wake a golden era of world-wide democracy. Witness simply the evolution of politics in the former Soviet Union and its satellites and the events of the past few months.

Or is the reverence shown to the former supreme leader simply a diplomatic nod towards the reality of China’s increased economic stature?  Throughout Europe alongside the insouciant selling-off of former airbases and disused ports to China, we see the abandonment of any attempt to take a stance on basic human rights in China. Recently, while the US congressional-executive committee on China called for the release of the Chinese academic Ilham Tohti, detained on charges of ‘separatism’ in his native Xinjiang, and the EU’s tepid concern for his well-being was relayed by the UK and German government websites, I searched in vain for a stance by France itself.

Beside China’s increasing economic presence in all parts of the world, what concerns me most is the Chinese authorities’ attempts to control and impose their own interpretation of history and thus world’s image of China. Over the past few years, the Chinese authorities’ ‘soft power’ cultural diplomatic strategy in Europe has been given carte blanche. Only recently at the European Association of Chinese Studies biannual conference in Portugual we saw the chief of the Confucius Institute network, the Hanban, Madame Xu Lin who has, vice-minsiter status, demand that an innocent Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation publicity page be torn from the congress’s 500 programmes. Elsewhere the demands made of, and obligations placed on, supposedly independent Confucius institues have become increasingly draconian.

In March of this year, during Xi Jinping’s visit to Europe, France’s president subscribed to a Chinese version of history when giving his speech at the state banquet in honor of China’s President.

The Chinese authorities would like to have the world believe that both Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping were students at the prestigious Institut franco-chinois (Sino-French institute) established in France in 1921 and associated with the University of Lyon. This is not true. They were in France on a part-time work/part-time study scheme. There is no record of either having set foot in the Institute.

That the Institute had a great impact on the development of academic disciplines in China when its graduates returned to China is beyond question. But it should be emphasized that its founders who included the President of Peking University and Minister of Education, Cai Yuanpei, stipulated that the Institute should not be politicized. It was never an incubator for the CCP.

The Institute ceased its activities with the arrival of World War Two, but an impressive archive has been preserved that student records and numerous photographs. Needless to say whoever controls this archive can ensure its proper use as a resource for telling history, or use it manipulatively to reinvent history. We all know how archives are controlled in China.

French local authorities have come under increasing pressure to provide copies of documents and photographs not to scholars but to state television companies and state-run museums. In the past exhibitions around the history of the institute were organized on a bilateral basis, now increasingly Chinese organisms are demanding to be the sole agents of such initiatives.

A year or so ago, I was involved in a joint plan proposed by the University of Lyon and Sun Yat-sen University in Canton to set up an advanced research institute in the former premises of the Institute in Lyon. These plans have been brushed aside. There are now rumors that China is making available €10m to purchase and turn the old Institute into a residential college for the sons and daughters of China’s elite. A museum telling the history of the Institute is also envisaged. If this happens, the Chinese authorities will be literally sitting on history.

This project is enthusiastically supported by a local sinophile business consultant who seems to have the ear of certain French authorities, and who wishes to erect a plaque to commemorate Deng Xiaoping’s time spent at the Institute.

The acquiescence of the French authorities in the face of the Chinese authorities’ use of history betrays not simply a lily-livered approach to Franco-Chinese relations, but, I fear, an indifference to China itself. Why should we be bothered by what ‘the Chinese’ wish to do with their history? What’s more, it’s a small price to pay if export contracts are the quid pro quo.

So these are my thoughts on the global sanctification of Deng Xiaoping as China gets ready to celebrate the great leader’s birthday, and I mine. I for one shan’t be celebrating by watching hagiographic films of Deng Xiaoping, but rather by listening to the music of John Lee Hooker. Happily, he was also born on 22nd August.

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