The architect of Reform and Opening Up, Deng Xiaoping died on February 19, 1997, 25 years ago. It was dank and rainy week. Shenzhen was still very much a manufacturing town, still very much under construction, and that day, very much taken by surprise. After all, commonsense du jour held that Shenzhen’s patron would hold on at least another three and a half months until midnight June 30, when he and troops from the People’s Liberation Army would march from Shenzhen across the Sino-British border into Hong Kong, signaling the formal transfer of the British colony back to China. But he didn’t make it. Instead, Shenzhen along with the rest of the country went into mourning. All Chinese television stations broadcast the 12-episode documentary, Deng Xiaoping, only interrupting archival footage and recorded memories to insert national, provincial and municipal news reports about how China, Guangdong and Shenzhen would continue the hard and necessary work of reforming and opening the county, province and city in his honor.
As soon as people in Shenzhen heard the news about Deng’s passing, they began gathering at the billboard, Comrade Xiaoping in Shenzhen which is located at the intersection of Shennan Middle and Hongling Middle Roads, near the southeastern entrance to Lizhi Park. The title of the billboard speaks to Deng’s intimacy with the city and in turn, the city’s affection for him. In Shenzhen, Deng was known by his given name, Xiaoping and the ordinary appellation, comrade. Throughout the week after his death, mourners gathered despite the heavy rains. They wore raincoats and flip flops, pants rolled up to their knees to avoid puddles. Many carried memorial wreathes with white banners that said, “to be remembered forever 永垂不朽.” For northern friends who had experienced the fallout from Mao’s death—(“As soon as I heard the news, I sat down where I was and cried. Everyone was crying,” one friend told me. “We didn’t know what we would do without him. We didn’t know how China could survive without him.”)—the grief over Deng’s passing was more conventional and therefore less moving (and possibly less genuine? Some claimed that then-CCP General Secretary Jiang Zemin had shed crocodile tears for his mentor…) But instead of asking that question, I commented, “Many of the people bringing flowers to the billboard are crying. Some even performed kowtows, their knees and foreheads pressed against the wet pavement.”
“Of course, they’re crying,” My friend emphasized, distinguishing her relative indifference from their sincere unhappiness. “They’re locals who got rich. Of course, they love Deng Xiaoping. He changed their fate.”
At the time of his death, Deng Xiaoping was not only identified as the architect of Reform and Opening, but also as the unequivocal founder of Shenzhen. Indeed, during the 1990s, every book, exhibition, and celebration of Reforming and Opening Up about The Special Zone (and, for a while, Shenzhen was The Special Zone, the star that lent its radiance to lesser, less special zones in Zhuhai, Shantou, Xiamen and Hainan), every story began with Deng Xiaoping. These two statuses were so closely interconnected as to have become dogma. Without Deng Xiaoping, many believed (some still believe), there would be no Shenzhen, and without Shenzhen, reform and opening might not have become the ideological bedrock of the post-Mao era, which in turn might have led to the demise of the Party.
In fact, Deng’s status as the father of Reform and Opening Up was not only on display during his funeral, when Jiang Zemin laid claim to his mantle, but also in December 2012, when newly designated CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping visited Shenzhen. Despite Xi’s emphatic criticism of corruption during the Jiang-era, which lasted roughly from 1989 through 2012, nevertheless, on his first trip as General Secretary, Xi went to Shenzhen and laid a memorial wreath at the Deng Xiaoping statue, which is situated on Lianhua Mountain, the central landmark in the eponymous park. Xi’s performed abjection to Deng Xiaoping (like Jiang’s eulogy) was and was recognized as a ritual to recreate public order, insuring stability despite the relatively chaotic transition from one regime to the next. Moreover, this ritualized display of filial piety allowed Xi to display and control the contradictions within the Party apparatus: unlike corrupt officials and their sycophants, he was the true heir to the legacy of Reform and Opening Up.
Arguably, Deng Xiaoping’s status in and association with Shenzhen are products of ‘the age of uncertainty,’ as some have labeled the years following the Tian’anmen massacre. Comrade Xiaoping in Shenzhen, for example, had been erected on June 28, 1992 to celebrate Deng’s 1992 inspection tour of Shenzhen. The visit was part of the so-called Southern Tour to the cities of Wuchang, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, and Shanghai. As Deng visited sites, listened to reports, and made observations about reform and opening, he embodied the Party’s (and by extension the Chinese government’s) commitment to economic reforms and its openness to foreign investment was an expression of political stability. During the 1992 Southern Tour, the Reform and Opening Up policy, its implementation and concomitant results were construed as concrete manifestations of an unwavering truth, the plot line that made it possible to narrate post-Mao China, despite and against bloodshed and uncertainty:
Had it not been for the achievements of the reform and opening policy, we could not have weathered June 4th. And if we had failed that test, there would have been chaos and civil war. The “cultural revolution” was a civil war. Why was it that our country could remain stable after the June 4th Incident? It was precisely because we had carried out the reform and the open policy, which promoted economic growth and raised living standards. The army and the government should therefore safeguard the socialist system and these policies.*
The billboard, Comrade Xiaoping in Shenzhen was a sign of and for uncertain times. In the upper half of the painting, Deng Xiaoping emerged from fiery red clouds, his presence dwarfing the city skyline. The billboard slogan chastised and threatened Shenzhen residents, national discontents, and foreign cynics alike, “Failure to adhere to socialism, failure to reform and open up, failure to develop the economy and failure to improve the people’s lives can only be a dead end.”
Comrade Xiaoping in Shenzhen was refurbished in 1994. In the new version, Deng came down from the clouds to settle on the mountains above Shenzhen, through which the great wall threads. Given the the lay of the water, the view strikes me as possibly a view of Shatoujiao, but it may also have been what Shenzhen would have looked like from Wutong Mountain (looking west) before the Shenzhen River estuary was reclaimed and the Futian River straightened. Moreover, many images of the Shenzhen skyline during the 80s and 90s highlighted that only a river (the Shenzhen River) separated the two cities; in all other specifics, these images implied, Shenzhen and Hong Kong were similar. The major change to the billboard was the slogan, which was more concise, less overtly threatening, “Adhere to the Party’s basic line for 100 years, don’t waver.” However, as with the 1992 version, Deng Xiaoping was the focus of the message.
Then on National Day (October 1), 1996, a more secular version the billboard was unveiled. The elements were the same as in the 1992 and 1994 billboards (Deng, the skyline and a slogan), but the 1996 composition bespoke a new normal. Deng Xiaoping had moved to the image’s foreground, and the viewer’s perspective was no longer looking up at Deng, but rather included the Shenzhen skyline behind him. Moreover, the buildings in the skyline were recognizable; the city’s identity had solidified around stunning buildings, most of which were built in during the 1990s. Deng’s clothing and posture also told a story of prosperity and stability story. In the 1992 portrait, Deng wore a beige windbreaker, just like he had throughout the 1992 Tour. In fact, the 1992 billboard cited Deng’s visit to Xianhu Botanical garden in eastern Luohu. At the time of the billboard’s unveiling, the image of Deng Xiaoping moving through Shenzhen, directing the way forward would have been familiar to residents and visitors alike because the original photograph circulated widely after the 1992 tour. Indeed, this particular image is still (as of 2022) used to illustrate Deng Xiaoping’s relationship with the city.
In contrast to the 1992 image of Deng-in-motion and the 1994 version of hand-painted-Deng, in the 1996 version, Deng was immobilized, as in a formal portrait, and he wore a blue, buttoned up Mao jacket (as we say in English. The Chinese would say a Sun Yat-sen jacket). On October 15, 2004 the billboard content was updated for the fourth and final time—a bigger and better billboard, the headlines read. However, despite technical improvements to the production of the billboard, the only changes made to the 1996 version were made to the skyline, with the new seat of city government (still under construction, but basically completed), the Citizens’ Center taking pride of place.
Yesterday and today, as the country commemorates Deng’s passing, reports and interviews in Shenzhen emphasize the city’s nostalgia (怀念) for Comrade Xiaoping. “We remember,” they say, “never to forget.”
*To read excerpts from Deng Xiaoping 1992 talks in Wuchang, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shanghai,” visit the Marxist Internet Archive https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/deng-xiaoping/1992/179.htm.