HONG KONG–For some Chinese scholars, the recent and unremarkably marked anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s death on Feb. 19 delivers a subtle but significant political message.

Deng Xiaoping
Deng Xiaoping

They wonder if the Chinese government under President Xi Jinping is downplaying the legacy of the undisputed helmsman of China’s economic miracle.

Over the last three decades, Beijing has spared no effort in praising Deng, China’s paramount leader after Mao Zedong, in spearheading the sweeping 1978 market reforms that unleashed China’s boom.

Past Chinese leaders have zealously joined in the annual chorus to praise Deng in order to establish their political legitimacy. Afterall, it was Deng’s so-called “open door” policy that has benefited billions of Chinese since the 1980s. The success of that policy has compensated for the failure of socialist ideals and has cemented Deng’s popularity among grassroots Chinese.

No Deng tribute this year

Deng also handpicked Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao as his heirs in ruling China. Hence, both Jiang and Hu, as his consecutive successors, were eager to remind their fellow citizens that they had inherited their political “orthodoxy” from Deng. Annual and extravagant ceremonies to mark Deng’s passing have been held ever since. While low-key, they have always had the ring of serious vigils. However, no official tribute of any kind was arranged for Deng this year.

Simon Shen Yachuen
Simon Shen Yachuen

Simon Shen Yachuen, a Chinese scholar who once worked for the outspoken Southern Metropolitan Post, believes the absence of such observances this year marks an effort to undo Deng’s legacy. “This (the anniversary marking Deng’s death) is perhaps, in my impression, the most event-less anniversary I have ever seen,” said Shen in a Weibo post. Shen is currently a researcher with the Center of Legal System and News Studies at the East China University of Political Science and Law.

Shen also serves as deputy chief editor of Sina.com, one of the country’s key Internet portals. He also noted in his post that both social media and party mouth pieces had barely mentioned Deng this year. This, despite Deng’s huge impact on China for the last three decades. He expressed astonishment at the swiftness of the tidal change.

Shen's microblog post
Shen’s microblog post

However, Shen’s comments didn’t survive long on China’s Internet. The remarks by Shen, who used “Shifeike” as his pseudonym, were almost immediately deleted by government censors. Some analysts tied the deletions to the issue’s sensitive nature.

So how should one interpret these events and why has there been such a “change” in honoring Deng?

A glance at the events of the last few years sheds light on the phenomenon.

Back in 2014, Deng was still trumpeted as a political giant. State media hailed the connection between Deng and incumbent President Xi Jinping. State broadcaster CCTV produced a 48-episode drama series entitled “Deng Xiaoping at History’s Crossroad” to honor Deng’s 110th birthday.

A commentary published in the overseas edition of the People’s Daily also equated Deng’s political momentum with Xi’s. The editorial reads, “Some people say, in the past it was if there is hardship along the road, just think about Deng Xiaoping.” But now, where hardships are concerned, people are encouraged to look to Xi’s example.

Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping

The public campaign two years ago to bolster Xi’s image as China’s leader was a very successful one. Even Washington was convinced that President Xi had emerged as a Chinese leader with clout comparable to Deng’s. President Obama noted in 2014 that Xi “has consolidated power faster and more comprehensively than probably anybody since Deng Xiaoping.”

The White House also extended an invitation for an official state visit to Xi in a gesture symbolizing Washington’s confidence in Xi’s firm grip on power.

Xi made his state visit to Washington in September 2015. Domestically, Xi’s diplomacy on the world stage was deemed a success and his reputation as a “strongman” was further established among the so-called “princeling” circle.

Xi’s Princeling support

The importance of such princeling support cannot be overstated. The princelings (also known as “crown princes”) are the scions of prominent communist party officials. The moniker is often used in a derogatory way to suggest those benefiting from nepotism and cronyism.

The political momentum behind Xi developed quickly. At the end of 2015, some officials flocked to pledge loyalty to Xi. They acknowledged him as “hexin” or “core.” The honorific denotes the fact that Xi enjoys the final veto power on virtually everything affecting the party and China. So far, at least 21 officials at the provincial rank level have declared allegiance to Xi.

Jiang Zemin
Jiang Zemin

In the past 30 years, only Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin enjoyed this superior status of being the “core.” Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, was merely envisaged by the party as “the mediator leading a collective leadership.” He did not have final veto power.

Some princelings also weighed in on Deng’s memory. Early this year, a former member of the princeling circle published a memoir in Hong Kong. In it he claimed that “many princeling members saw Deng as ‘betraying’ the socialist ideology.”

“Deng’s era was plagued by rampage selling (of) offices and barter ranks,” the ex-princeling wrote.  The princeling who made these comments was Luo Yu, whose father, Luo Ruiqing, held several keys positions including member of the Secretariat of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, vice premier, Central Military Committee secretary-general and chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army in the 1950s.

Luo Yu himself was also a senior military officer prior to the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. But the younger Luo became a critic of the Chinese government after the June 4th bloodshed and now resides in the US.

Communist Youth League slapped

In another signal reflective of Xi’s rising power, the Communist Youth League (CYL), China’s cradle for rising political stars during Deng’s era, was blatantly criticized by the party’s disciplinary watchdog in early February. The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection said in a statement that the league’s central committee “had not fully implemented the party’s decision to improve the work of mass organisations … The committee was overly bureaucratic, and some officials regarded themselves as ‘political aristocrats’ “.

Hu Jintao
Hu Jintao

The CYL, also known as tuanpai in Mandarin, was widely seen as an organizational stronghold of former President Hu Jintao. Tuanpai also came under fire after one of its key members, Ling Jihua, was arrested on corruption charges. Unconfirmed but widespread rumors in Beijing alleged that Ling had staged a botched coup against Xi before Xi became president in 2013.

Xi’s policies differ from Deng’s in several ways. Deng decided in 1989 that China should keep a low profile, yet Xi has made his “China Dreams” a high-profile endeavor. Deng encouraged pragmatism, calling for setting aside ideological arguments. But Xi has reiterated the importance of ideology.

It’s still unclear if such potential policy disagreements will be further polarized at an upcoming keynote party congress. But signs are that significant replacements at the party’s top echelon will take place at this all-important plenum in late 2017. Some analysts foresee political brawling and jockeying for key posts until the outcome is decided.

Fong Tak Ho is a longtime Hong Kong journalist who has worked for the Hong Kong Standard, the South China Morning Post, Ming Pao, Asia Times Online and other publications.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times. 

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