Almost two decades after Deng Xiaoping’s death in 1997 at the age of 93, his enigmatic quality remains strong. He has been the subject of a number of weighty biographies in recent years, the most epic of which was US political scientist Ezra Vogel’s in 2011, and each, including the book under review, has had to wrestle with how best to explain the contradictions his long career exemplifies. Felled from power three times, but every time resurrected from almost certain political death, Deng was so admired for his sponsorship of economic liberalisation reforms from 1978 that he was made Time’s man of the year in 1979. A mere decade later, however, he was labelled the Butcher of Tiananmen for his role in the bloody suppression of protests. Deng’s career eludes easy labels such as reformer or repressor, victim or persecutor. He was, at different times and in different circumstances, all of these.
As this biography shows, one explanation lies in his very tough early years. He was a Party member since the age of 16, and upon his return from studies in France and the Soviet Union would become an underground activist and guerrilla leader. Deng’s formative period therefore was spent in a world without sentiment, where colleagues were instruments in a strategic game of high stakes in which the ends justified the means and there was no space for strong personal attachments. He was, from first to last, a survivor. The single characteristic constant throughout Deng’s army and civilian government career is the view of fellow human beings as expendable when serving a greater cause. The soldiers he sent to certain death in brutal military campaigns in the Chinese civil war, the dissenters he dispatched to their fate in the anti-rightist campaigns in the 1950s, and the students he allowed to be shot by soldiers in 1989 were all part of this recurring pattern.
Alexander Pantsov and Steven Levine have been able to mine the Russian archives for their book, which gives it a more intimate flavour than Vogel’s vast but sometimes emotionally uninvolving work. This is best seen in their description of the crucial relationship between Deng and Mao Zedong. Mao needed Deng’s administrative abilities, despite his repeated frustration with him, and Deng, even after Mao’s death, was never able to finally distance himself from his former patron and persecutor. Perhaps Deng viewed Mao instrumentally as someone he had no deep loyalty or intimate connection to, but whom he had to find a means of working with. And Deng at least survived the Mao years, which is more than can be said for so many elite leaders of his generation who had a chance to be the Chairman’s successor but ended up perishing.
Despite the useful narrative of his long, complex career that this biography offers, once again our protagonist defies easy labels. This is only fitting. Deng himself refused grand titles when he finally became the most central and important leader after Mao’s death from 1978. This reduced observers to describing his role as that of “paramount leader”, a term still applied to him, but one that had no real formal existence. This study does make one thing abundantly clear: Deng’s genius was to supply the grand frameworks by which China runs to this day – socialistic marketisation and pragmatic reform aimed at improving people’s livelihoods. Current Chinese leaders continue to work within this framework, and that alone is unambiguous testament to his enduring contribution to modern China.
Kerry Brown is professor of Chinese politics and director of the China Studies Centre, University of Sydney.
Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life
By Alexander V. Pantsov and Steven I. Levine
Oxford University Press, 640pp, £22.99
Published 25 June 2015