The death of Deng Xiaoping, on 19 February 1997, prompted a torrent of commentaries in the international press on Deng's legacy.
While some credited him for his economic opening of China to the international community, most recalled his role in the continued repression and lack of political freedoms in China, and particularly the crackdown on the students democratic movement in the 1989 Tienanmen Incident.
The most gripping commentary was published on 25 February 1997 in the New York Times in an article by A.M. Rosenthal, titled "But he was a killer." A few quotes:
"It was Deng who ordered the shooting of the students in Tienanmen Square in 1989. It was he who ordered more police terrorism to make sure everybody understood. More dissidents died under prison torture or by execution.
By then he had long experience. Throughout his regime the hideous brutalities of the laogai, the Chinese gulag, had killed thousands of prisoners and everlastingly marked with pain the lives of millions.
He ordered and guided a massacre of a nation and people. He directed the occupation of Tibet in 1949 and the slaughter of its people and civilization, continuing today. So murderously did he hammer Tibet's society and Buddhist religion than even Mao Zedong, then his chief, asked him to go easier, for a bit. He did not."
Mr. Rosenthal also quotes from an open letter from Wei Jingsheng, China's most famous political prisoner, to Deng Xiaoping: "The orchestrator of this tragedy (Tibet) is not other than you, Deng Xiaoping." The letter earned Mr. Wei 14 more years in prison.
With regard to his role in shaping China's relations with Taiwan, Mr. Deng's legacy is also dismal: he continued the anachronistic confrontational approach stemming from the Communists' Civil War against Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists on the mainland. He tried to sugarcoat this by offering Taiwan the same "One Country, Two system" fallacy as China was offering Hong Kong.
Mr. Deng was apparently never able to distinguish between the old repressive Kuomintang regime and the present new and democratic Taiwan. If anything, the rise in democracy in Taiwan scares the Beijing regime, because they are afraid it will present an example to the people in China.
Perhaps Mr. Deng's passing opens a new opportunity for his present successors to discard the old "unification" fallacy, and move towards peaceful coexistence and acceptance of Taiwan as a friendly neighbor, in the same way Russia has recognized the Baltic States as small and friendly neighbors.
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