December 25, 1978 12:00 PM

No Oriental Gerald Rafshoon could have programmed it better. The resurgence of Chinese Vice-Premier Teng Hsiao-ping has been one of the stunning surprises on the 1978 world political scene. Twelve years ago, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, Teng was one of the most reviled men in China. He came out of oblivion in the early ’70s, assumed the duties of premier during Chou En-Iai’s final illness and then fell into disgrace again. Rehabilitated a second time in 1977, he is today the most powerful politician in Peking.

This year the 74-year-old Teng engineered a historic treaty with Japan, barnstormed across much of Asia, warmly improved relations with the United States and—perhaps most dramatic—acquiesced in, if he did not encourage, public criticism of Mao Tse-tung. The ironic result is that Teng—tiny (4’11”), unimposing and charismatic as a bowl of rice—has overshadowed Mao’s handpicked successor, Hua Kuo-feng, 57, the nominal chairman of the Communist party that rules China’s one billion people.

Where Mao seemed to believe China could progress by ideological self-levitation, pulling itself up by its own Marxist doctrine, Teng is more practical. During his trip to Japan, when told each worker in a Nissan auto plant produces 94 cars a year, he exclaimed: “Now I see what mass production really is!” Then he asked, “What kind of education do those men on the assembly line have?” He wanted to meet with the elders of Japan’s business community too, explaining, “When you are drinking water, don’t forget the people who dug the well.”

A return to power like Teng’s is a rare occurrence in a Communist country. In 1966 he was accused of such counterrevolutionary excesses as flying friends in just to play bridge. He is believed to have spent the Cultural Revolution working on a farm outside Peking. Ten years later he was denounced by the radical so-called Gang of Four after Mao died. Posters in Shanghai demanded his execution. But once the Gang was purged, Teng resurfaced. Now the political opponents who called him “a capitalist roader,” the worst epithet in the Communist lexicon, are being proved correct. Teng has begun to offer bonuses to productive workers and otherwise make a virtue of prudent fellow-traveling with the capitalists.

In foreign policy he wants to isolate China’s historical enemy, the Soviet Union. As for the United States, he courts American business and investment and hints that he may become the first People’s Republic leader to visit this country while in power.

Even the political atmosphere in Peking is more relaxed these days. Western newsmen have been granted interviews with Teng, and citizens have pasted up demands for democracy and critiques of Mao (“A fascist dictator,” one said) on the same “poster wall” where Teng was once attacked.

How has he managed to consolidate his position? A China expert in Washington attributes it largely to his 10 years as secretary-general of the Communist party: “The key is that he has support in the army, the party and the government. The people he put in are now putting him back.”

Little is known of Teng personally. In conversations with foreigners he refers to himself as just “a country boy,” in a voice made raspy by a chain-smoker’s cough—and he will sometimes use a spittoon near his desk as if to prove the point. His family is kept largely secluded. (A daughter is still crippled from a Red Guard beating she received while her father was out of favor.) But Teng took his wife, Cho Lin, to Japan, where she wore lovely silk brocade, not the drab uniform of Mao.

“We must at no time violate the basic principles of Mao,” Teng has said. “But we must integrate them with reality.” Combining reverence for the past with independence from it is some political trick indeed.

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