Deng Xiaoping’s secret ‘Southern Tour’ and its enduring legacy

Society & Culture

With hardline conservatives breathing down his neck in Beijing, Deng Xiaoping made an unannounced trip south in January 1992 to visit his reform-minded friends, a calculated move without any guarantee of success. But his gambit paid off in a big way.

This Week in China’s History: January 17, 1992

No one could be blamed for wanting to head south from Beijing in January. Certainly not someone 90 years old and officially retired from public life. So, fleeing the cold with his family for a few weeks in milder southern cities, Dèng Xiǎopíng 邓小平 attracted little attention when he boarded a train on January 17, 1992, bound for Shenzhen via Wuhan. Within days of his departure, though, it became clear that this was not just a family vacation.

I have relied on Ezra Vogel’s masterful and comprehensive biography, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of Modern China, as the foundation for this column. Reading it also allows me to celebrate and mourn its author, whom we lost in the last days of 2020. I have known few who were as wise as Ezra Vogel, and few who were as generous, but none who combined both these qualities in such abundance. Ezra’s warmth and wisdom enabled him to cross boundaries as few did: he was a pillar of both the Chinese- and Japanese-studies communities, respected and claimed by generations of historians, sociologists, and political scientists. To say he is missed is a colossal understatement, and yet, he is missed. Thank you, Ezra, and rest in peace.

Few careers can match Deng Xiaoping’s, full of dramatic reversals and unanticipated turns, with an unquestionable impact on millions. Born in 1904, Deng grew up with the Communist movement, fighting the Nationalists, and then the Japanese, and then the Nationalists again to eventually become a leader of the People’s Republic. Mao purged him in the Cultural Revolution, three times, but Deng survived and ascended to the top of the Communist Party and the People’s Republic in 1978.

Deng was never as solely responsible for the “reform and opening” policies as his legend suggests, but he certainly deserves credit. (Have a look at Julian Gewirtz’s Unlikely Partners for a fuller assessment of the many streams flowing through China during this era.) The growth statistics are exaggerated because China was rising from such a low base after the disasters of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, but even so it is plain to see that the decade after Deng came to power was, as the title of Vogel’s book says, a transformation. Though many parts of the country remained poor, standards of living rose dramatically, as did personal income, and — by many measures — individual liberties. He was Time Magazine’s Man of the Year. Deng not only survived, but it seemed he had saved China.

But in 1992 it was all coming undone. The economic growth of the 1980s had promoted both inequality and demands for political transparency. Inflation had devoured many people’s economic gains. New opportunities bred corruption. The strain boiled over in the spring of 1989, when millions of Chinese took to the streets in protest, epitomized by the occupation of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Deng himself gave the go-ahead for troops to clear the square, violently. The blood of thousands — how many thousands may never be known — was on his hands.

In the aftermath of June 4, the Communist Party leadership sought answers. Deng’s reform and opening policies were at the center of the search. Some — the so-called “hardliners” led by Lǐ Péng 李鹏  and Chén Yún 陈云 — felt that inflation and disorder were the main culprits, fueled by growth that was too much, too fast, too soon. Their solution was more central planning and government control.

With this mindset, the CCP — now led by Deng’s successor, Jiāng Zémín 江泽民, watched apprehensively as Communist states across Europe collapsed in late 1989, culminating in the Soviet Union itself dissolving on Christmas Day 1991. The consensus in Zhongnanhai was that reforms, like those endorsed by Gorbachev, had led to the collapse of those states. It was not lost on them that the Russian perestroika and glasnost almost perfectly paralleled China’s gǎigé kāifàng 改革开放 — reform and opening. 

Deng, though reeling from the failures of 1989, took the opposite view: more reform and opening, not less, was needed. The problem had not been a lack of control, but a lack of opportunity. But he found himself marginalized for the first time in decades. He no longer held any official posts. This in itself was not a problem — Deng’s influence had long been informal, more norm than rule — but now more conservative voices held sway.

The future of “reform and opening” looked as bleak as the January Beijing day that Deng set out to rescue it.

Seventeen members of Deng’s extended family were part of the entourage when Deng’s special train departed Beijing on January 17. No one in the party leadership was aware of the trip. Not until the next morning, when Deng and his daughter alighted at the platform in Wuhan, just south of the Yangtze River, did Deng’s trip catch Jiang Zemin’s attention. In his new podcast series on Deng’s Southern Tour, Jonathan Chatwin recreates the conversation (more monologue really) between Deng and the local party officials — frustration with bureaucracy and long meetings, the need for more reform, the possibilities of economic growth — which were then relayed back to Beijing. It was just a half-hour stop, but the central government began to take notice.

The Southern Tour has been enshrined now — though the rule of Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 jeopardizes that status — as a central piece in China’s development, but at the time, it was intra-party politics at the highest level. Above all, Deng knew (as Mao might have phrased it) who were his enemies and who were his friends. His friends were in two groups: the military, which arranged logistics for the trip, and the reform-minded leaders in the south (Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Zhuhai, but also Shanghai). Champing at the bit for more market-oriented policies, officials like Shenzhen Party Secretary Lǐ Hào 李灏 were only too happy to hear Deng advise them to “speed up growth and reform.” Ezra Vogel writes that they replied, “We’ll definitely speed things up.”

In Zhuhai — like Shenzhen, one of the Special Economic Zones Deng trumpeted — Vogel writes that Deng went as far as to level veiled threats against Jiang Zemin, telling military officers “whoever is opposed to reform must leave office.”

Deng played his cards brilliantly, but perhaps the most essential element of his success is one that might today be unavailable: the free press of Hong Kong.

Deng had worked for several years to get his message out, challenging the opponents of reform. His 1991 editorial urging greater reform and opening was not published by the national outlets controlled by the party. The meetings in Shenzhen, Zhuhai, and Guangzhou, though, could not be completely concealed because of the coverage from Hong Kong, then still a British colony.

Hearing that Deng was touring, press from Hong Kong outlets streamed across the border. Not only did they report on Deng’s trip in their newspapers, but broadcast stories on television, which could be received in the mainland. Central media continued to ignore the trip for weeks, but Deng’s plan worked. When Jiang Zemin uncharacteristically telephoned Deng with a New Year’s greeting, on February 3, it was clear evidence that Jiang was placing his bets, and his political support, on Deng’s reform program, even though the People’s Daily did not report the trip until late March.

When Jiang Zemin addressed the 14th Party Congress in October, he praised Deng Xiaoping as the architect of reform and opening and elevated his policies to the same level as Mao Zedong Thought.

As the official verdict tipped toward Deng in the spring of 1992, his trip acquired the label Nánxún 南巡, or “Southern Inspection Tour.” More important than the phrase’s literal meaning, it was, before 1992, almost exclusively applied to imperial tours, especially those of the early Qing emperors, who used these journeys to gather information and promote imperial authority. When Kangxi made his first tour in 1684 — 40 years after his dynasty was founded and just after suppressing a rebellion — to project power and convince subjects far from the capital that the empire was not going anywhere. The emperor’s southern tour initiated decades of prosperity.

Deng’s trip matched those details with eerie precision: 43 years after the founding of the PRC and less than three after the Tiananmen Square massacre prompted a crisis of legitimacy. The Kangxi emperor’s Nanxun helped transform his legacy. Three centuries later, Deng Xiaoping seemed to have found the same formula.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.