Dictator's Death Bias: Pinochet Scorned, Deng Xiaoping Mourned
The late Jeane Kirkpatrick was well-known for distinguishing the difference between authoritarian governments and totalitarian governments. The Washington Post also distinguishes: it's harsher on right-wing authoritarians then on left-wing communist dictators. Coverage of the death of right-wing Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was all focused on the "dictator's dark legacy" and how he'd escaped punishment. But upon the death of Chinese dictator Deng Ziaoping in 1997, the Post emphasized how he opened China to outsiders and liberalized the economy (alongside news events like the murderous crackdown on student dissidents in Tiananmen Square in 1989). The first front-page article did not wonder why no one had brought Deng to "justice."
In a story simply headlined "A Chilean Dictator's Dark Legacy," Monte Reel and J.Y. Smith focused heavily on the left-wing brief against Pinochet, Richard Nixon, CIA infiltration, and fear of communism. Note the absence of any talk of democratization and economic liberalization:
Gen. Augusto Pinochet, 91, the former Chilean dictator whose government murdered and tortured thousands during his repressive 17-year rule, died yesterday at a Santiago military hospital of complications from a heart attack, leaving incomplete numerous court cases that had sought to bring him to justice.
Pinochet assumed power on Sept. 11, 1973, in a bloody coup supported by the United States that toppled the elected government of Salvador Allende, a Marxist who had pledged to lead his country "down the democratic road to socialism."
First as head of a four-man military junta and then as president, Pinochet served until 1990, leaving a legacy of abuse that took successive governments years to catalogue. According to a government report that included testimony from more than 30,000 people, his government killed at least 3,197 people and tortured about 29,000. Two-thirds of the cases listed in the report happened in 1973.
It is fair and accurate, not to mention just, to lay out the oppressive and murderous record of Pinochet. But it is also interesting to note that reporters seem to have a much warmer regard for communist dictators. Who would attempt to compare the death toll under Pinochet to the death toll in communist China during Deng's reign, not to mention his role in the party hierarchy before he consolidated power? But on February 20, 1997, a Nexis search showed the Post headline was bland: "China's Deng Ziaoping Is Dead at 92; Respiratory Failure Cited; Rites to Exclude Foreigners." Reporter Steven Mufson provided a much more balanced picture of a liberalizing dictator (and Clinton administration compliments). There was no attempt made to count the murdered bodies or tortured prisoners:
Deng Xiaoping, who oversaw China's economic transformation and ordered the bloody crackdown on democracy demonstrators in 1989, died Wednesday night of respiratory failure at the age of 92, China's official news agency announced.
His death marks the end of an era for China. One of the last survivors of China's communist revolution, Deng had guided the country out of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, flung open China's doors to the outside world and loosened the grip of central economic planning while insisting that the Communist Party's monopoly on power go unchallenged.
Last seen in public three years ago, looking frail, Deng had gradually faded from China's political scene, and a Reuter news service report Wednesday, before his death was announced, said that his once powerful personal office had been disbanded. Deng died at 8:08 a.m. EST of complications from a lung infection, although the official New China News Agency noted that he had also suffered from the advanced stages of Parkinson's disease.
A 459-member funeral committee headed by Deng's handpicked successor, President Jiang Zemin, issued a statement that spoke of the "incomparable esteem and profound grief of the whole party, the whole army and the people of various ethnic groups throughout the country."
The Chinese flag over Beijing's Tiananmen Square was lowered to half-staff, and a six-day mourning period was declared.The national television anchor announced Deng's death and an overview of his life on the morning news program today. Afterward, Beijing streets were calm as people began going to work. The broadcast statement also said that no foreigners will be invited to the burial ceremonies.
In Boston Wednesday, President Clinton said he was saddened to learn of the death of China's paramount leader, calling Deng an "extraordinary figure on the world stage over the past two decades." His statement described Deng as "the driving force behind China's decision to formalize relations with the United States." He said Deng's 1979 visit to the United States had laid the foundation for a rapid expansion of relations and cooperation between the two countries. "Mr. Deng's long life spanned a century of turmoil, tribulation and remarkable change in China. He spurred China's historic economic reform program, which greatly improved living standards in China and modernized much of the nation," Clinton said.
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said in London that the United States "obviously views Deng Xiaoping as a historic figure," but she noted that Deng's record prompted a "mixed assessment." She mentioned the role he played in normalization of ties with Washington, but also noted his handling of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
Ironically, part of the difference in coverage is that Pinochet loosed the reins of power, and ultimately, his opponents took power, as they do in Chile today. But China's communist remain in their dictatorship, so it's easier for Western journalists to see a placid, mourning nation. Mufson's 1997 story on Deng acknowledged: "With a lack of open expression in China of criticism of the Communist Party, it is difficult to gauge the depth of discontent people feel even as they enjoy the fruits of economic reform. But initial popular reaction to the news was quiet." Nevertheless, Mufson ended the story with a Chinese worker lauding Deng's achievements.