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My memories as Deng Xiaoping’s interpreter

Aug 22 marked the anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s birth 110 years ago. Though it has been 17 years since he left us, his eyes, sharp and deep, remain vivid in my memory. Though his demeanour was that of a calm, gentle old man, his determined gaze betrayed a will as hard as iron — one that has shaped an entire nation.

My memories as Deng Xiaoping’s interpreter

Mr Mikhail Gorbachev (left) with Deng Xiaoping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing during a summit on May 16, 1989. The former Chinese Premier felt prioritising political reform,
as the Soviets
were doing then, was foolish.
Photo: Reuters

Aug 22 marked the anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s birth 110 years ago. Though it has been 17 years since he left us, his eyes, sharp and deep, remain vivid in my memory. Though his demeanour was that of a calm, gentle old man, his determined gaze betrayed a will as hard as iron — one that has shaped an entire nation.

As an interpreter for Deng and other senior Chinese leaders in the 1980s, I was fortunate to have had opportunities to be in close range of this great statesman.

I also observed Deng at his meetings with foreign leaders, including Kim Il-Sung from North Korea, Robert Mugabe from Zimbabwe, Mikhail Gorbachev from the Soviet Union and Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings.

Kim visited China in 1982 when the North Korean economy was going through a particularly tough time. He told Deng that a way he was planning to overcome his difficulties was to raise more common quails than chickens because he had learnt from the Pakistani President that quail eggs were twice as nutritious as those from chickens.

Deng, let’s say, was non-committal and steered the conversation elsewhere. He talked to Kim, instead, about his observations concerning China’s impoverished north-east on his way back from a trip to North Korea in 1978. After decades of revolution, he said, most rural areas were still dirt poor.

Believing socialism should have brought wealth and not poverty, Deng was not as interested in talking about quail eggs as he was about shifting the nation to a path of economic development and modernisation. The measures he wanted to adopt, he told Kim, included opening China up to foreign technology, management and capital.

While many socialist nations at the time were still thinking of minor technical adjustments, Deng was already considering fundamental reforms.




Mr Robert Mugabe visited China for the second time in 1985. He admired Mao Zedong and half of his Cabinet members were trained in a military academy in Nanjing. During his first visit in 1981, Mr Mugabe felt China was marching towards capitalism and was unhappy that the Chinese had ditched Mao’s ideas.

Deng told Mr Mugabe China was only upholding the principle of “seeking truth from facts” — a key element of Maoism. And the presupposition for the Four Modernisations (agriculture, industry, national defence as well as science and technology) was socialism. Deng was firm on two core principles: The leadership of the Communist Party and common ownership. As long as these elements were intact, he felt any mistake could be corrected.

Since Mr Mugabe was a leftist, Deng spent a considerable amount of time recounting the lessons China had learnt from being “left” — the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. “We were punished (for these mistakes),” Deng bluntly told his surprised guest. At the same time, he reassured Mr Mugabe that China would stick to the so-called Four Cardinal Principles — upholding the socialist path, dictatorship of the proletariat, leadership of the Communist Party as well as the Mao Zedong Thought and Marxism-Leninism.

During Mr Mugabe’s next visit in 1987, Deng spoke about these principles further. There is only one objective for upholding them, he said, and that is to ensure stability in China. Without stability, Deng believed, China’s modernisation would be destroyed by pro-Western liberalisation.

These principles, however, were not dogma, Deng stressed, but must be guided by “seeking truth from facts”. In short, realities on the ground, not ideology, would pragmatically guide China’s reform path.

Even after much explanation from Deng, Mr Mugabe was not totally convinced. “We friends in the Third World still hope China will uphold the socialist path,” said Mr Mugabe.

I sensed Deng’s annoyance when he replied: “We still have a powerful state machine.” Deng added that this strong machine could avert any serious deviation from the socialist direction.

Indeed, Deng was expecting the worst in China’s daunting journey towards modernisation, including the kind of political turmoil that materialised in 1989. It was clear to me from his conversation with Mr Mugabe that he would never allow an open challenge and overthrow of the socialist system.




This brings us to Mr Mikhail Gorbachev who visited China in May 1989. At that time, there were two political forces in China.

On the one hand, we had student activists whose hero was Mr Gorbachev, known for his prioritisation of political reform. The students welcomed their hero with the slogan Today’s Soviet Union, Tomorrow’s China, which was very appealing to China’s intelligentsia.

On the other, we had Deng who believed the most urgent task was to improve people’s livelihood. In his view, all other reforms, including political ones, had to serve this primary goal. He also believed copying the Western model and placing political reform on the top of the agenda, like the Soviets were doing then, was utterly foolish.

In fact, that was exactly Deng’s comment on Mr Gorbachev after their meeting: “This man may look smart, but in fact is stupid.”

A month after receiving Mr Mugabe in 1985, Deng met then Ghanaian leader Jerry Rawlings. With the first steps of reform going well, Deng was in a very good and relaxed mood.

“It looks like we have found our own way,” Deng said proudly. He encouraged Mr Rawlings to visit Xiamen, one of the special economic zones being established. Chinese President Xi Jinping was then Vice-Mayor of Xiamen.

“Don’t just copy China’s model. You have to walk your own path,” Deng cautioned Mr Rawlings. He summarised China’s experience for his guest: “If there’s any relevant Chinese experience for you, I’m afraid it is only one thing — seek truth from facts.”

In other words, he told Mr Rawlings:“You must formulate your own policies and plans according to the actual situation of your country. During the process, you must learn the lessons in a highly timely fashion — to keep the good things and correct the wrong ones. This, perhaps, is the most relevant experience for you.”

To this day, this is the essence of the China Model.

Mr Rawlings commented in response that the Chinese seemed very rational, while his countrymen were not. The West simply presented a model and told them to copy it.

However, here was the leader of the world’s largest nation telling him not to copy its way. “Only the leader of a great civilisation could have said such a thing,” remarked Mr Rawlings.





To sum up, my times with Deng left me impressed with what I call his four characteristics. First, his vision. Even in his 80s, Deng was a strategist with a very long view. He always talked about issues that he would not be able to see a few decades ahead.

As he saw it, his task was to lay down some fundamental principles that would pave the way for the nation for a hundred years.

Second, his thinking. Deng was thinking all the time. Every time he received briefings from the Foreign Ministry, he would sit silently on the sofa alone with his cigarette, staring out into the room lost in thought. This image has stayed with me ever since.

Third, his clear-sighted pragmatism. Deng always emphasised the importance of first trying anything new to see if it worked before implementing it on a larger scale.

Fourth, his grandeur. Deng commanded a big army and fought fierce battles in the revolutionary years. He also suffered many ups and downs in his career. This vast experience lent him an aura of grandeur and dignity that expressed itself in a certain confidence about how the world works.


Zhang Weiwei is director of the Centre for China Development Model Research, Fudan University in Shanghai. This is an excerpt of a longer piece. The original version in Chinese is distributed by Guancha Syndicate.

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