From the 1960s the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was keeping an eye on Deng Xiaoping as an important Chinese leader to watch, recently declassified CIA documents reveal. Deng emerged from his humiliation during the Cultural Revolution to become China’s leader in the late 1970s, launched the reforms which have made China the world’s second largest economy, and pioneered the concept of “one country, two systems” under which China took back Hong Kong from the UK in 1997.

On September 16, the CIA released on its website about 2,500 previously classified documents for public viewing, of which a significant number touch on China.

In 1962, as Sino-Soviet relations deteriorated, Deng “had earned the reputation of being a man able to stand up to and infuriate the Kremlin,” said a CIA report on 8 April 1974. By January 1965, Deng was the third most powerful leader in China behind Chairman Mao Zedong and President Liu Shaoqi, said the report.


“Before the Cultural Revolution, Teng was addicted to the game of bridge, flying in bridge partners from around the country in army aircraft,” said the 1974 CIA report.

A formerly secret CIA memorandum of 17 June 1966, titled “The leadership upheaval in China”, said, “Disclosures point to a power play by Teng Hsiao-ping (Deng Xiapoing), the powerful secretary general of the party, who seems to be making a bid to replace Liu Shao-chi (Liu Shaoqi) as Mao’s deputy in the party and therefore the heir apparent. Teng probably built the case that led to the recent ousting of Peng Chen (Peng Zhen), a rival in Mao’s inner circle of advisers. Peng Chen has already been replaced in the Peking city’s apparatus with one of Teng’s protégés.”

Peng Zhen, the party secretary of Beijing, was purged in May 1966 for opposing Mao. A few months after this memorandum, in August 1966, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution that would lead to Deng’s being purged.

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A formerly top secret CIA report on 4 June 1967 said, “A step-up in the tempo and intensity of attacks on Chief of State Liu Shao-chi and party general secretary Teng Hsiao-ping strongly suggests the stage is finally being set for their disgrace and removal.”

Numerous rallies were held in Beijing after December 1966 to denounce Deng and Liu, and both men came under strong criticism at the Chinese Communist Party Plenum in August 1966, said the 1967 CIA document.

Sure enough, Deng was placed under house arrest later in 1967 and dismissed from his posts and expelled from the Chinese Communist Party in October 1968. In October the following year he was demoted to working at a tractor factory in Jiangxi province. A month later Liu died after beatings and torture by Red Guards.

It was probably in 1972 that Mao, over the objections of his wife Jiang Qing but with the concurrence of Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, endorsed the reversal of the Chinese Communist Party’s judgement of Deng, said the 1974 CIA report.

In a speech by CIA Deputy Director Vernon Walters to the US Army War College in June 1973, Walters said one of the most important political developments in China in 1973 was the rehabilitation of Deng in April that year. The move was probably part of an effort by moderates such as Premier Zhou to fill the many senior positions in the Chinese government left vacant after the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, said Walters. In 1973, the country had had no defence minister since the downfall and death of Lin Biao in 1971. More than a third of China’s ministries lacked a head, and of the 25 Politburo members appointed in 1969, only 12 appeared to be functioning, according to this formerly secret CIA document.

Deng was elected to the central committee of the Chinese Communist Party in October 1973 and promoted to the Politburo in January 1974, said the 1974 CIA report. At that time, there was still significant opposition to Deng’s return from leaders who had risen to power as a result of the Cultural Revolution, such as Jiang Qing, said the report. Deng made his first public appearance since 1966 at a state banquet in 1973, where Jiang Qing was conspicuously absent, the report noted.

A formerly secret CIA document on February 1995 predicted that Deng’s death would intensify political jockeying, but his designated heir Jiang Zemin had a “modest edge” over political rivals.

“The United States has few means to influence the succession process without risking widespread Chinese condemnation,” said the report.

Any US attempts perceived by Beijing as interfering in China’s domestic affairs or favouring a potential successor to Deng could provoke the Chinese to become particularly sensitive to perceived slights to Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong or Taiwan, the report warned.

Deng died on 19 February 1997, while Jiang Zemin, who had been President since 1993, remained in power.

Hanshih Toh

Hanshih Toh

Toh Han Shih is freelance journalist and writer. He is a Singaporean citizen who has lived in Hong Kong since 2003. In Hong Kong, he has worked as a business reporter for South China Morning Post and in Kroll, a US risk consultancy. Prior to that, he has lived and worked in Shanghai and Beijing in 2003 and 2002 respectively.