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Such logic has repeatedly been challenged during the convulsions that have shaken China in this century. No one has proved more adept than Deng in staging tactical retreats, sometimes going so far as to make public confessions of error in which he almost certainly did not believe. He is, moreover, a dedicated Communist who does not question, publicly at least, the basic tenets of Marxism-Leninism. Yet in his patient but dogged style, Deng has continually tested the doctrine's outer limits. Says Rong Yiren, chairman of the China International Trust and Investment Corporation: "He is convinced that the basic principles of Marxism-Leninism are correct but also that the ideology should develop along with the society."
The eldest son of a well-to-do landowner, Deng grew up in a period of violent unrest, climaxed but not ended by the revolution of 1911 in which Sun Yat-sen brought down the imperial Qing dynasty. When Deng was about 15, his father enrolled him in one of the best secondary schools in the city of Chongqing. A hardworking student, Deng followed a curriculum that enabled him at 16 to enter a program providing an opportunity to work and study in France. Despite an anti-Western wave then simmering in China, Deng and many others of his generation jumped at the chance to go abroad. "We felt that China was weak, and we wanted to make it strong," he later told the New York Times. "We thought the way to do it was through modernization. So we went to the West to learn."
When Deng and 88 other Chinese arrived in Marseilles in late 1920, they found jobs scarce and funds even scarcer. Nor was there any opportunity for formal schooling. Deng worked for a time at a Renault factory and at a rubber-footware plant in Montargis, south of Paris. Though he wore Western-style clothes and acquired a lifelong fondness for croissants and bridge, he associated almost exclusively with other Chinese, among them Chou En-lai.
Deng's increasingly leftist ideas quickly brought him into contact with radical politics. Like many other Chinese students in France, he joined the French Communist Party, where he learned basic Marxist theory as well as the Internationale. (The Chinese Communist Party was not founded until 1921.) Later, as a member of the Chinese Socialist Youth League in France, Deng was assigned to mimeograph its journal, Red Light, a task he performed with such zeal that his fellow activists nicknamed him "Doctor of Mimeography."
In 1925, Deng left France to study at Moscow's newly established Sun Yat-sen University. He and other Chinese students attended classes in Marxist social evolution, the history of revolutions and basic military training. Among heroes of the Russian Revolution who came to visit were Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin. Whether or not it made an impression at the time, Deng's six-month stay coincided with the end of Lenin's New Economic Policy, which included a return to some private agricultural production and denationalization of much small-scale industry.