SINGAPORE — The approaching close of 2008 should remind us of the day 30 years ago that marked the onset of a chain of events that was to alter the course of Asian — and human — history.

In December 1978, the Chinese Communist Party endorsed the opening up of Chinese agriculture to private, small-scale farming, a radical departure from Mao Zedong’s policy of communized agriculture. The capital surpluses accumulated by agricultural privatization helped finance the buildup of urban areas, especially on the eastern coast, which eventually widened the gap between the dynamic coastal areas and the backward interior, between the urban and the rural, and between the rich and the poor.

In any case, the fundamental turnaround in economic policy led to the surge of the Chinese economy, its linkage to the international economy, the modernization of China’s industry and financial system, the strengthening of the country’s military capacity, and the expansion of its international influence. More importantly, the new policies resulted in the most massive reduction of poverty within the shortest period of time in mankind’s history — from 800 million to 100 million people living on $1 to $2 a day.

Not least, they were adopted amid the expansion of personal freedoms and the elevation of living standards to a degree that the Chinese people had not enjoyed for centuries, if at all.

Much of this can be attributed to the strength of will, vision and pragmatism of one man — Deng Xiaoping. In December 1978, Deng was officially the first vice premier of the State Council, but there was no doubt he was China’s de facto leader. His strength of will could be measured not only by his resilience in surviving two purges and exile but also by his ability to have his vision of the country prevail.

His pragmatism was expressed in his famous 1961 aphorism: “It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.”

It was also reflected in his description of the Chinese system as “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and in his admonition to “seek truth from facts.”

This month not only marks the 30th anniversary of China’s policy of opening up its economy to private and international capital and commerce; it is also an occasion for remembering and paying tribute to Deng Xiaoping.

I first met Deng Xiaoping in June 1975. An officer in the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs, I was on the delegation of President Ferdinand Marcos on his state visit to China. Zhou Enlai, premier of the State Council, was terminally ill in 305 Hospital of the People’s Liberation Army, where he and Marcos signed the joint communique establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries, and where Zhou introduced Deng Xiaoping to Marcos and the rest of us. Deng carried on the talks with Marcos.

Vilified by powerful radicals as one of the two “persons in authority taking the capitalist road (the other being President Liu Shaoqi),” Deng, general secretary of the party since 1957, had been purged in 1969, at the height of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and sent to do manual work in a tractor factory in Jiangxi province.

After Zhou was diagnosed with cancer early in 1973, Deng was rehabilitated and, in April, appointed as vice premier, in which capacity he effectively ran the government. More than a year later, he was designated as first vice premier and elevated to the Politburo Standing Committee and vice chairman of the party.

I served as note-taker during the Marcos-Deng talks, but because they were held behind closed doors, my notes were classified and I could not retain copies. Nevertheless, I remember clearly Deng’s articulation of China’s policy on the South China Sea: “Shelve” the conflicting sovereignty claims to the land features and waters of the South China Sea and, in the meantime, undertake cooperative activities in the area.

Zhou Enlai died in January 1976. When I re-entered Beijing on April 7, 1976, to take up my post in the new Philippine Embassy, I was met on Chang An Avenue, Beijing’s main thoroughfare, by a procession of people screaming to the banging of drums, “Da dao Deng Xiaoping!” or “Beat down Deng Xiaoping!” Deng was purged again.

Crowds of a different persuasion had protested vociferously the removal of the paper flowers and posters placed in tribute to Zhou Enlai at the Monument to the People’s Heroes at Tiananmen Square on April 5. That was the day of Qingming, the festival to honor the dead. Regarding Deng Xiaoping as a rival in the fierce struggle for power then wracking the country, the Gang of Four — Mao’s ambitious wife, Jiang Qing; the model worker, Wang Hongwen; the political operative and former Shanghai Mayor Zhang Chunqiao; and the ideologue and propagandist Yao Wenyuan — tied Deng to the protests and had him purged.

On Sept. 8. 1976, Mao Zedong died. The next month the Gang of Four was arrested. Hua Guofeng, who had replaced Zhou as premier, succeeded Mao as party chairman. Deng returned to the good graces of the party and the government and eased out Hua as premier in 1980 and as party chairman in 1981.

In March 1978, Li Xiannian, vice premier and later president (1983-88) of China, paid an official visit to the Philippines. As charge d’affaires at the embassy, I was invited to join the vice premier in his plane. There to see us off at the old Beijing airport was Deng Xiaoping. While we were waiting for Li Xiannian, Foreign Minister Huang Hua and the rest of the party, Deng asked me whether I had learned to speak Chinese yet. I replied that I was taking lessons but that time was always a problem. The next time I saw Deng was during the conversation in Zhongnanhai, the seat of power in China, between him and Philippine President Corazon Aquino in 1988. I never encountered him after that.

Much changed in China from 1978 to 1988. Indeed, by the time I left my post in Beijing at the end of 1978, signs of China’s transformation had already started to show: Chinese ladies’ colorful skirts in place of the monochrome tunics and baggy trousers of the Mao era; state-sponsored dances in the brightly lit hall of the Palace of Nationalities; Chinese and foreigners visiting one another’s homes; the expansion of private business.

After his second return to power, Deng Xiaoping did not hold a government position except as chairman of the Central Military Commission, although he wielded supreme authority. In 1989, he stepped down from that post, setting the example of a top leader voluntarily relinquishing office.

As “paramount leader,” Deng saw his reforms bear abundant fruit in the form of export-led manufacturing, openness to foreign investments and foreign trade, financing by taxation or through the banking system, and the decentralization of economic decision-making.

He oversaw the success of the Special Economic Zones, particularly the transformation of Shenzhen from a mere rail terminus and immigration and customs gateway to a manufacturing powerhouse of 10 million people and a forest of skyscrapers.

Having visited the United States in 1979, he presided over the normalization of diplomatic relations between Beijing and Washington. He guided China’s emergence as a global power. Deng died in February 1997 at 92, and thus did not witness the return of Hong Kong to China in the middle of that year.

Today, because of factors not of China’s making, the Chinese economy is buffeted by the global financial crisis. There is now a question of whether the reforms that Deng set on track 30 years ago will enable China not only to survive the current turmoil but serve as a locomotive that helps pull the global economy out of it.

Rodolfo C. Severino was the secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations from 1998-2002. He currently heads the ASEAN Studies Center at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. © 2008 OpinionAsia

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