Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China

Jonathan Fenby values a life of the man who began the People's Republic's economic metamorphosis

October 6, 2011

Deng Xiaoping holds a unique place among Chinese leaders. He had a greater influence on the world than Mao Zedong, even if, without Mao, there would have been no Deng. By bringing the most populous nation on earth into the international system as a major trading partner (and then a major source of funding for the US federal deficit), he did much to create the economic world we inhabit and set the People's Republic on the path to overtake the US in crude GDP terms in the next decade or so.

At the same time, he preserved Communism as the ruling system in his homeland, especially after the decision to send the tanks in to Beijing on the night of 3-4 June 1989. His success dealt a significant blow to the seemingly victorious post-Cold War march of Western values and the belief that economic progress would inevitably bring multi-party democracy. His basic purpose was clear - to rebuild China as a great power under the leadership of the movement he had served since he joined the Communist Party in the early 1920s. If anybody still nurtures the illusion that Deng was a closet liberal, this book will bring them back to reality.

For all the changes he championed and the vicissitudes of his life, the diminutive, blunt Deng has received much less biographical attention than Mao, which makes Ezra Vogel's huge account particularly welcome. The product of 10 years of work by a leading China scholar, it is essential reading for anybody who wants to understand the evolution of China to the status it occupies today. It offers an enormous compendium of material about the lifelong Communist whose story, even more than that of Mao, reflects the dramatically varying fortunes of his nation in the 20th century.

After joining the Communist Party during a spell as a student and worker in France, Deng spent two decades fighting Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists; and then, into the Mao era, he acted as the Great Helmsman's faithful lieutenant. He supervised the purge of real or imagined opponents in the 1950s after the short-lived liberalisation of the "Hundred Flowers", and then kept his mouth shut over the disasters of the Great Leap Forward and the famine that killed more than 40 million people around 1960. He was himself almost purged twice in the Cultural Revolution but Mao spared him the ultimate price because, as he put it, "we need him" as an eventual successor. After the passing of the Great Helmsman, Deng deployed his enormous political skills to proclaim the need to find "truth through facts" and set a bankrupt nation on the road to the China we know today.

Vogel is an admiring biographer who presents a treasure trove of new information that will delight modern China scholars for years to come. However, one sometimes feels that he goes too far in presenting events from Deng's perspective. The little man's ruthlessness is there in the depiction of events but is not brought out.

In accepting Deng for what he was, Vogel gives the reader a realistic view, albeit one that dwells in the realms of top-level policy and politics, where Deng was a master at building shifting coalitions and outmanoeuvring opponents. But there is little about the evolution of China lower down the scale. In that, Vogel follows the top-down view that has pertained in China since the First Emperor 2,300 years ago and thus leaves the flaws in the Deng legacy unexplored - in particular, the way in which his political conservatism has meant a half-finished legacy riddled with structural flaws that make the future more uncertain than the immediate past.

The problem for the new leadership that will take over in Beijing a year from now is that the people at the top wield less authority than the system requires and that the Deng model has delegated authority to an array of interest groups. Just as France faces the problem of having a republic shaped to fit its founder, Charles de Gaulle, who would have no successors of his stature, so China now has the difficulty of living in a Dengist mould without the heavy-smoking, spittoon-using, bridge-playing, football-loving leader who changed it and the world.

Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China

By Ezra F. Vogel

Harvard University Press 928pp, £29.95

ISBN 9780674055445

Published 29 September 2011

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