Great Idea but Don’t Quote Him

Times Staff Writer

“To get rich is glorious.”

With that catchy slogan, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping is credited with unleashing a revolution that transformed a nation of Mao jackets and people’s communes into a land of Starbucks-drinking, Gucci-loving techies.

Deng’s phrase from the early 1980s has become a prophetic symbol in the West of the 21st century’s most dramatic economic turnaround, one so extraordinary that many believe the world’s largest communist country is poised to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy within five decades.

It also symbolizes a China where getting rich -- or at least showing off the trappings of luxury -- is in vogue. China is now the biggest market for BMW’s top-of-the-line 760Li luxury sedan, which carries a price tag of close to $200,000, nearly double the cost in the United States. Wealthy tourists staying at Commune by the Great Wall are housed in villas designed by Asia’s top architects, each with a private butler. Italian designer Giorgio Armani plans to open 20 to 30 new stores in China by 2008, joining other luxury brands rushing into the market.


And a country with a per capita annual income below $1,000 is minting millionaires at a rapid clip, with more than 236,000 by one count.

One problem.

Deng never actually said “to get rich is glorious.” Or at least no one can prove it.

Although many scholars and journalists -- including China expert Orville Schell and veteran CBS correspondent Mike Wallace -- helped immortalize Deng’s phrase, he never actually said, sung or muttered it, many scholars and other experts say.

“As far as I can see, the use of the slogan ... has been entirely in foreign reports,” says Bai Xueqiu, researcher at Beijing University’s Deng Xiaoping Theory Research Institute.

As such, the slogan may rank among “Play it again, Sam” and “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country” as among the world’s most famous misquotations that have morphed into popular culture.

Humphrey Bogart never urged Sam to “play it again” in the classic “Casablanca.” It was Ilse, Ingrid Bergman’s character, who said, “Play it once, Sam. For old times’ sake.”

And former GM President Charles E. Wilson actually said something far less quotable: “For years, I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.”

Of course, the authenticity of Deng’s quote could be regarded as merely academic, for arguments among intellectuals or questions in trivia games.

But the slogan has become ingrained in Western media, books, educational materials and other references to China. And Deng is revered in China. Deng Xiaoping Thought -- the theory behind socialism with Chinese characteristics -- is a core course for Chinese studying the humanities and sciences.

Do an Internet search on Deng and his most famous phrase, and you get nearly 1,800 citations in some of the world’s best-known media, including Forbes, Time and PBS. In recent weeks the mentions have soared amid widespread coverage of the 100th anniversary of Deng’s birth on Aug. 22. He died in 1997.

In a recent article on, Zhu Rong, a wealthy Chinese entrepreneur who had built a chain of eight restaurants in just a decade, was described as “just beginning to live Deng Xiaoping’s famous quotation that ‘to get rich is glorious.’ ”, a teacher’s resource guide published by the Asia Society, states: “People all over China responded to Deng Xiaoping’s statement that ‘to get rich is glorious’ and rushed to make money.”

After Deng’s death, Human Rights in China, a New York-based group run by Chinese exiles, issued a critical statement that said, “Mr. Deng’s vision for China was ‘to get rich is glorious,’ but this glory never extended to human dignity.”

Experts point to a confluence of issues -- including the secrecy surrounding the Chinese government and its leaders, linguistic confusion and media hype -- that helped put those words rightly or wrongly into Deng’s mouth.

Once the exhortation was picked up by the popular press and posted on the Internet, it created a history of its own.

“It’s sort of like a computer virus -- once these things get out in the public consciousness, the associations are made and it’s very hard to disentangle them,” says Schell, dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

Schell should know. His 1984 book on China’s economic revolution, “To Get Rich Is Glorious: China in the ‘80s,” is often mistakenly cited as being the first to link the phrase with Deng. In fact, in his book he associates the slogan with Deng’s revolutionary reforms but doesn’t directly attribute it to Deng.

Schell can’t recall where he first stumbled across the title for his best-known book. The authenticity of the quote, never widely linked to Deng within China, has received little scrutiny, even in academic circles.

When a member of a prominent China e-mail group inquired about the slogan’s origin a year ago, Schell went back to his book and dug through original source material to see whether he had fingered Deng as the source. He hadn’t.

Now, Schell believes he probably first encountered the phrase in media reports in China. He remembers having discussions with the Chinese about the slogan because it was “shocking” for a top Chinese leader to so explicitly promote the virtues of wealth.

“I actually have not been able to find him saying these precise words,” he says. “But it was clearly adopted as kind of an official slogan, and it grew out of the zeitgeist of [Deng] enthroning the capitalists.”

Turn back the clock, and it’s easy to understand how this piece of Deng mythology may have come about. In the late 1970s, China was still largely a poor, isolated country where roads were clogged with bicycles, televisions offered several versions of the government line and little else, and the government ruled the market.

But under the leadership of Deng and others anxious to retain their power, the Chinese Communist Party began promoting a new form of economic ideology that opened up their hidebound, centrally controlled economy to market forces.

With communism under attack around the world, the pressures on China’s leaders to define “socialism with Chinese characteristics” increased. The new China -- which still operated behind a thick shroud of secrecy -- had its own propaganda machine, supported by party-backed newspapers and television stations. Workers were urged to “get rich by working.”

By the mid-1980s, major U.S. television networks were in a battle to land an interview with Deng, considered the architect of China’s reforms but with little visibility outside his country.

Enter Wallace -- sometimes erroneously cited as the real author of Deng’s phrase.

In a 1986 episode of “60 Minutes,” the first major interview Deng granted to a Western broadcaster, Wallace asked: “To get rich is glorious. That declaration by Chinese leaders to their people surprises many in the capitalist world. What does that have to do with communism?”

Deng’s reply: “To get rich is no sin. However, what we mean by getting rich is different from what you mean. Wealth in a socialist society belongs to the people.”

Although Deng didn’t actually say “to get rich is glorious,” Wallace believes that the Chinese leader acknowledged ownership of the words by not challenging the question. “He certainly never said, ‘No, no, I never said that,’ ” Wallace says.

In the interview, Deng emphasized that wealth in a socialist society meant “prosperity for the entire people” and must not lead to a situation in which “the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.”

Deng “saw a danger in that, a political danger, which is another reason why he would not have said fa cai, to get rich,” says Sidney Rittenberg, an American business consultant who helped Wallace land the Deng interview.

Rittenberg, who spent nearly four decades in China as an interpreter to Mao Tse-tung and others and was jailed during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, believes Deng may have chosen to let Wallace and others believe he had said the phrase because it had become such a powerful sales pitch for China in the West.

“ ‘To get rich is glorious’ is really an exaggeration,” he says. “But it conveyed the idea that a big change was going on.”

Bai Xueqiu, the Beijing University researcher, said she did locate numerous instances in which Deng made statements such as “You won’t be well off just because socialism’s name is glorious” or “To get rich through diligence is appropriate.”

Does it bother Bai that Deng’s historical record may be inaccurate, at least in the West?

“I think he would see that, although he never spoke these words, he had such thoughts, including getting rich legally, common prosperity, becoming spiritually prosperous. Based on his original meaning, I think he could identify with this slogan,” she says.

For those wishing to adhere to the facts, however, this is a less than satisfactory conclusion. Should thousands of publications, book authors and academics -- including the Los Angeles Times -- issue a slew of corrections?

China scholars are divided.

“I think it always matters if a quote is misattributed,” Schell says. “But it isn’t as if the idea was not part of his universe. Moreover, the slogan grew out of everything he said and did.”

UCLA Professor Richard Baum says it is wrong to attribute that slogan to Deng if, in fact, he never used it. He believes that journalists, particularly in the West, have adopted the phrase because it validates their view that capitalism is a superior ideology. In the process, he says, the true intent of China’s economic reforms have been lost in translation.

“The idea was not that some people would get rich and others can cry about it, but eventually that everyone would be there,” says Baum, director of the Center for Chinese Studies.

Those seeking final clarity will be disappointed, warns David Goodman, a professor of international relations at the University of Technology Sydney in Australia and author of a book on Deng.

Even if someone surfaced in China tomorrow with a Deng speech containing the phrase, Goodman would be skeptical. That’s because the Communist Party has a history of historical revisionism, including the rewriting of Mao’s selected writings and speeches and the doctoring of photographs and film.

“There is an element of smoke and mirrors that is a part of Chinese politics,” he says.

Some Chinese think too much conspicuous consumption is poisoning the nation. Might Chinese revisionists now renounce the saying, particularly if no one can prove it anyway?

This year, after the Chinese-language version of Forbes magazine published its first China celebrity list, led by Houston Rockets basketball star Yao Ming, with a reported income of $14.6 million, there were a round of denials.

Many nervous celebrities downplayed their alleged wealth. State-run publications called the ranking “sheer nonsense.”


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Not getting it right

Other well-known misquotes:


“Elementary, my dear Watson.”

Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson

Holmes never says this in the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Real quote:

“Excellent,” I cried. “Elementary,” said he.

-- “The Crooked Man”


“That government is best which governs least.”

-- Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson never said it; Henry David Thoreau used it in an essay on civil disobedience first published in 1849.


“Music hath charms to soothe the savage beast.”

-- William Shakespeare

Real quote:

“Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast.”

-- William Congreve, “The Mourning Bride”


“I never met a man I didn’t like.”

-- Actor Will Rogers

Real quote:

“I joked about every prominent man in my lifetime, but I never met one I didn’t like.”


“Beam me up, Scotty.”

-- Capt. Kirk of “Star Trek”

He never said it on the show, although Kirk did say, “Beam us up, Mr. Scott.”


“Go west, young man. “

-- Horace Greeley

Greeley quoted this but gave credit to the actual author, John Babsone Soule.


“Nice guys finish last.”

-- Baseball manager Leo Durocher

Real quote:

“Take a look at them. All nice guys. They’ll finish last. Nice guys. Finish last.”


“He who hesitates is lost.”

-- Joseph Addison

Real quote:

“The woman that deliberates is lost.”

Addison’s 1713 play “Cato.”


Sources: “They Never Said It” by Paul F. Boller Jr. and John George; Oxford Dictionary of Quotations; Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations; Times research


Los Angeles Times


In later stories, Los Angeles Times style changed: Beijing University is called Peking University.

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