To Get Rich Is Apocryphal

Christian Science Monitor joins in the recent frenzy of debunking misattributed quotations with ten political misquotes, from Sarah Palin’s “I can see Russia from my house” to John F Kennedy’s “I am a jelly doughnut.” Among them is a contribution from Deng Xiaoping:

Western journalists in search of a shorthand for China’s dramatic economic turnaround will almost invariably trot this one out. But, oddly enough, it doesn’t show up much in Chinese publications, and nobody has managed to find the original source where Deng allegedly said it.

The phrase was popularized by the writer Orville Schell in his 1984 book “To Get Rich Is Glorious: China in the ’80s.” But Schell never actually attributed the words to Deng, telling the L.A. Times’s Evelyn Iritani in 2004 that it merely “grew out of the zeitgeist” of China’s economic reforms.

That said, it’s almost impossible to verify or debunk any quotation attributed to a dead Chinese leader, as China’s Communist Party is extraordinarily adept at revising history so that it meets the political needs of the present.

From the cited L.A. Times article:

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 ….

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.