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Last Friday marked the 110th birthday of Deng Xiaoping, the man who in many ways is the architect of contemporary China. A partner and occasional victim of Mao Zedong, he broke with his predecessor in critical ways upon becoming China’s supreme leader. Deng cast aside the ideological dogma that marked Mao’s reign, embracing instead a pragmatism that serves as the foundation for Chinese policy today. A victim of Mao’s periodic campaigns against enemies, he blunted the sharpest edges of political struggles that occurred while he was in power.

While he held no top positions of the Chinese state or the Chinese Communist Party — he was chairman of the China Bridge Association (the card game, not the infrastructure project) though — he was unable to end the cult of personality that marked Mao’s life: No important political decision could be made without his say so. Moreover, Deng’s status 17 years after his death is testimony to the role played by “the great man” in Chinese politics. His thought remains the lodestar of China today, and his legacy is the mantle to which all Chinese leaders aspire.

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