Few people may have heard of Montargis, a small town 110 km south of Paris, with a population of around 15,000 and an economy based on farming and light industry. But today, Montargis has made the headlines as it is the first city in Europe (and probably in the whole Western world) to have named a square after the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.
In fact, on September 20, in an official ceremony attended by the mayor of Montargis, Jean-Pierre Door, and the vice-premier of the People’s Republic of China, Liu Yandong (刘延东), the square in front of the city’s railway station has been renamed “Deng Xiaoping Square.”
But why has the city decided to name one of its squares (and an important one, too) after a Communist dictator? Is the town looking for Chinese investment and trying to ingratiate itself with Beijing? Are the people of Montargis fond of Communism? Or do they simply admire Deng Xiaoping, the great statesman and reformer, despite his lack of democratic spirit?
The answer to these questions lies in events dating back nearly a century. In fact, this small, inconspicuous town happened to play a paramount role in the development of Chinese and world history.
Montargis, Deng Xiaoping, and the Chinese Communist Party
In the early 20th century, China was in turmoil. In 1912 the Qing Dynasty that had ruled China since 1644 was overthrown, and the Republic of China (ROC) was proclaimed. China was searching for a new identity and a new polity after Western powers and internal crises had disrupted the old society, economy, and government. The most fundamental question for most Chinese intellectuals was how to save China from ruin, how to restore her past greatness, and liberate her from foreign aggressors. Many Chinese, full of patriotic fervour, felt that the country must modernise in order to defend herself. They just did not know how.
By the early 1900s most young Chinese considered the old system of education based on the Confucian classics outdated and inadequate. They were eager to learn from the West in order to strengthen China. Li Youying belonged to this generation of Western-oriented Chinese. He was educated in Montargis, and in 1912 he set up there the Chinese Association for French Education. The purpose of this Association, which was supported by the town’s Mayor and other Chinese intellectuals such as Cai Yuanpei, was to help Chinese students go to France to receive a Western education.
Because of lack of funds, however, the Association could not finance the studies of the programme’s participants. Therefore, the “Work-Study Movement” was launched. Students studied and worked part-time so that they could pay for their studies and daily expenses. This was the period of the May 4th Movement, with its patriotic and often radical spirit of progress. Many youths were willing to go to the West in order to receive an education and later return to China to contribute to the development of the fatherland.
A precondition for living in France was, of course, some knowledge of the French language. In 1919 Wu Yuzhang (吴玉章), a member of the Chinese Revolutionary Party (the precursor of the Guomindang), opened a French school in Chongqing. It was in that school that the young Deng Xiaoping and his uncle enrolled (Goodman 1994, p. 24).
In 1920 Deng was one of the few students selected through examinations who was allowed to study in France. On September of that year, Deng and his fellow exchange students boarded a French ship, arriving around three months later, on December 13, in Marseilles. Deng lived in France for 6 years, from the age of 16 to the age of 21, an important formative period in the life of a young man. He did not love France. But he had a first-hand experience of a modern industrial society, something that may have led him away from ideology, towards the economic pragmatism which made him a great reformer in the last two decades of his life.
Inadvertently, the sleepy, bourgeois Montargis thus became a centre of radical leftist movements. Some of Asia’s most prominent politicians would begin their political activism there (apart from Deng Xiaoping, in that period France hosted a number of future world leaders such as Ho Chi Minh and Zhou Enlai).
Due to their poor French and their lack of previous education, many Chinese students found it hard to enroll at a French university, and so they ended up looking for work to survive. In 1921, Deng found a job at Le Creusot Iron and Steel Plant, and in 1922 he moved to Montargis. The town had by then become something like an incubator of world revolution. Montargis was the home of the French branch of The New People’s Study Society, a radical Communist group founded in 1918 in China by Cai Hesen and Mao Zedong. Deng studied at the Montargis Institute and worked for a rubber factory, and at the same time he became increasingly involved in leftist activism.
Deng stayed in Montargis until June 1923 (though he occasionally travelled through France), when he went to Paris to work for a Renault factory in Billancourt (ibid. pp. 25-26). During his long stay in France, he became one of the leaders of the Chinese Communist movement. In 1922 he joined the European branch of the Socialist Youth League of China. The League later developed into the European branch of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which Deng seems to have joined as early as 1924. He worked together with Zhou Enlai on the publication of Communist magazines, and his activities were so conspicuous that the French police began to keep an eye on him. In 1926, he left France for Moscow (ibid., p. 27).