China’s winding path to success

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China’s winding path to success

This is the latest in a series of articles on the life and times of Kim Jong-pil, a two-time prime minister, based on extensive interviews with the 90-year-old.

I detest communism. But what Communist China has gone through over the past half century is astounding to me. I would pick the open policy by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping as one of the three major success stories in Asian history, along with Korea’s rapid economic growth and Japan’s Meiji restoration.

For many decades, Communist China blocked Korea from going northward. But China is now open to outside economic trade and has emerged as the world’s largest trade market, so it shouldn’t even be considered a Communist state.

This vast country’s incredible transformation over such a short period can be attributed to its powerful leadership.

From its founder Mao Zedong to incumbent President Xi Jinping, the one commonality among all of China’s leaders has been their tendency to put the interests of their country before their own.

My first encounter with the Chinese was during the 1950-53 Korean War, in late 1952. As a company commander, I captured 10 Chinese soldiers and extracted information from them about the formation of the Chinese Army. With it, I was able to lead a battalion of 500 men to break an encirclement of Chinese soldiers.

The Chinese Army, commanded by Gen. Peng Dehuai, had dispatched troops across the Yalu River to aid North Korea. As a force, they were well-disciplined and formidable.

China’s 4th Field Army Division, commanded by Peng, was composed of experienced soldiers with high morale who fought in mainland China against the Imperial Japanese Army in the 1930s. Mao held the notion that if his people were water, then his troops were the fish living in it.

He emphasized that the two could never live without the other. So the fact that he sent the 4th Field Army Division to the peninsula indicated that he intended to demonstrate China’s military might to the United States.

Mao’s revolution began when the West was gradually and steadily taking control over parts of China. Mao launched his revolution based not on his theories about class, but out of a love for his country and its people.

He wanted to save China from poverty and humiliation by driving out foreign forces. Using his in-depth knowledge of liberal arts and his understanding of Chinese history, Mao attracted people to his side.

People will commit their lives to a person if he or she displays integrity and leadership. If a man lacks leadership and the ability to govern his people, his supporters will soon catch on to his flaws and disband.

I once met Chiang Kai-shek in 1964. He had been defeated by Mao’s forces despite significant support from the United States.

But instead of recognizing that internal corruption and an indifferent military had led to his downfall, he simply said he had done his best to defeat the Communist Party but had failed.

He vowed to fight back with a fresh force against mainland China - a remark that, frankly, sounded hollow, as Mao’s China had already developed nuclear weapons by then.

Mao’s most damaging mistake was his implementation of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

Over 11 years, he ordered his Red Guards to upend China in the name of ridding society of capitalistic elements. The Red Guards attacked social, economic and political institutions, and drove China to the brink of civil war. Mao purged a number of senior leaders who had helped him come to power in the 1930s and ’40s.

Within him, there was an extreme sense of patriotism coupled with an insatiable hunger for power at all costs.

His right-hand man, Zhou Enlai, backed Mao’s leadership and served the Chinese premier for 27 years. He was deeply involved in state and foreign affairs.

In the 1940s, he drew up an agreement with Chiang Kai-shek, in which they promised to cooperate to fend off the Japanese Army.

He was also involved in paving the way for the establishment of diplomatic relations with the United States in the 1970s.

Zhou was a man of intellect and was careful enough to never raise Mao’s suspicions. I watched him run the country, never once raising the ire of Mao, and often found myself impressed with his skills and knowledge of state affairs.

“Mao has an invaluable comrade by his side,” I thought.

After their deaths, it was Deng Xiaoping who opened a new path for China to prosper.

Deng created a new platform for growth by purging four close aides to Mao after the strongman’s death in 1976.

While Zhou was a strategic politician, Deng was a visionary with ideas that would take the country on an uncharted course to a better future.

Deng learned capitalist philosophies by spending time in the United States and Japan. In order to revive a poverty-stricken China, he came up with a system incorporating both socialism and capitalism.

His pragmatic approach to the management of state affairs was no different, in fact, from what Park Chung Hee and I had pursued after the May 16 revolution [coup].

Deng was firmly convinced that elevating the standard of living for the Chinese was the utmost priority. That kind of conviction is only possible when a leader commits himself to the greater good.

Deng’s beliefs were carried on by his successors Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and now President Xi Jinping.

Deng’s historical perspective was also impressive. While he led the country in a way that was completely his own, never once did he disparage China’s past.

During the Cultural Revolution, he was placed under house arrest and his son was tortured by Mao’s Red Guards, but Deng never held a grudge.

He once even acknowledged that about 70 percent of what Mao had done for the country was beneficial.

Deng held the philosophy that while leaders should aim for a better future, there can be no future without considering the past.

That kind of thinking is rarely valued in Korea’s political establishment, which I deeply regret.

China’s presidents are not elected leaders, but they have established a political system that is one of the most stable and effective in the world.

Aspiring statesmen face years of tests in their leadership and can only rise through the ranks once they have proven their ability.

The tremendous changes that have taken place in China occurred thanks to the wise decisions made by the nation’s political leaders.

Compiled by Chun Young-gi, Kang Jin-kyu [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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