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In the meantime, an ailing and indecisive Mao, unable to trust his wife and her cohort, anointed as his heir Hua Guofeng, a man without allies. Yet Mao would not throw Deng out of the party. "Leave him his party card to show his descendants and to see how he will behave in the future," Mao decreed. It was now a matter of waiting for Mao to die--and waiting to see whose power base was most effective. "I am prepared for the worst," said Deng. He got the best of it. Within a month after Mao's death in September 1976, the Gang of Four was under arrest. Deng staged his third and last comeback the next year.
In Paifangcun there is a cactus-like plant whose hundred-year blooms are an omen. When the flowers burst forth in 1979, the village knew whose good fortune they portended. By then the greatest son of the village was firmly in control of Beijing, having outmaneuvered Hua Guofeng and eased the Maoists out of power. Millions of peasants were allowed to cultivate private plots, sell surplus crops and invest in village factories. Soon Chinese peasants were not only adequately fed--no small thing in a country where 80% of the people still lived on the land--but more than a few were able to build houses and fill them with television sets, refrigerators and clothes washers.
For a moment dissent was allowed to flourish in the "Beijing spring" of 1979; hundreds of the walking wounded from the Cultural Revolution plastered public spaces with denunciations of Mao and even of Deng. Before long, that spectacle triggered Deng's deep distrust of spontaneous mass movements. Had not the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution turned into cataclysms? The Beijing spring was cut short, and the champions of political reform were imprisoned.
By 1984, economic reform was being introduced in the big cities, so much so that Old Guard Marxists began to decry the "spiritual pollution" of cosmetics and discotheques. But Deng persisted, likening the effect to mere "flies that come through an open window." By the late '80s, however, economic liberalization had spilled uncontrollably into political yearnings; soon labor unrest and student demonstrations for greater freedom panicked Deng. He sacked his popular heir apparent, party chief Hu Yaobang, for pushing political reforms. By this time the only title Deng held was honorary chairman of the Chinese Bridge Association (he had refused all high posts since his 1977 comeback, and in 1989 gave up the critical job as head of the Central Military Commission). Still, Premier Zhao Ziyang admitted to the visiting Mikhail Gorbachev that all major Politburo decisions had to be approved by Deng.