As China and its growing economic and military might becomes ever more salient in a world where Western muscle diminishes by the passing month, those trying to develop a better understanding of China would be well advised to start with Ezra Vogel’s masterly biography of the architect of China’s ascendancy, Deng Xiaoping. The book portrays the Chinese leader and his colleagues as intelligent, industrious and brutal men (we could not find any women Chinese leaders in the book). Whilst the book was published a decade, its analysis of how the Chinese leadership functions is just as useful today as it was a decade back. Two excellent reviews by Jonathan Mirsky and John Pomfret capture the three critical facets of this biography.
The first aspect of the book is the chronological path taken by an extraordinary leader who was both brilliant and ruthless at the same time. As Jonathan Mirsky writes: “Deng came from a small-landlord family in Sichuan Province, yet his formal education, apart from his time at a local school when he was a child, consisted mainly of a single year, 1926, of ideological indoctrination at Sun Yatsen University in Moscow. For five years before that, he lived in Paris, where he received a practical, and enduring, education inside the infant Chinese Communist Party, serving under the leadership of the young Zhou Enlai.
After Paris and Moscow, Deng went back to China, and before long had ceased being “a cheerful, fun-loving extrovert.” He commanded a small force against warlords, was defeated and may have run away. Eventually, he joined the “Mao faction,” rising and falling with its inner-party fortunes. During the Long March of 1934-35 Deng attended the meeting where Mao took supreme power, and after the Communist triumph in 1949, he served as party commissar for the army that occupied Tibet, although he seems not to have set foot there. In the southwest Deng organized the land reform program of 1949-51 “that would wipe out the landlord class.” Mao praised Deng “for his success . . . killing some of the landlords.” (As part of a national campaign in which two million to three million were killed, “some” seems an inadequate word.) In 1957, Deng oversaw the “anti-rightist campaign,” a “vicious attack on 550,000 intellectual critics” that “destroyed many of China’s best scientific and technical minds.” As for the Great Leap Forward of 1958-61, when as many as 45 million people starved to death, Vogel provides no evidence that Deng objected to Mao’s monomaniacal policies. Frank Dikötter’s well-documented book “Mao’s Great Famine,” however, shows that Deng ordered the extraction of grain from starving peasants for the cities and export abroad.”
The second aspect of the book is Deng’s realisation in the 1970s that China needed to change – it needed to open up to the broader world and liberalise its economy – if it was going to prosper. As Jonathan Mirsky writes: “Under house arrest in Beijing until 1969, he was transferred to Jiangxi Province to work half days in a factory. Red Guards harassed his five children, and the back of one of his sons was broken when he may have jumped from a window after the guards frightened or bullied him. Mao permitted Deng to return to Beijing in 1973.
Vogel contends that during his internal exile Deng concluded that something had gone systemically wrong with China: it was economically backward and isolated from the international scene; its people were poorly educated. China under Deng became an increasingly urban society. And following Deng’s view that corruption crackdowns limit growth, many officials, Vogel writes, “found ways not only to enrich China, but also to enrich themselves.” The result, he says, is that China is more corrupt than ever and its environment more polluted.”
John Pomfret writes: “When Deng finally returned to power for good in 1977, he avoided any direct criticism of the man who united China under the red flag of communism. Here again, Vogel provides great insight into how Deng succeeded in dismantling Maoism, liberating China’s economy from the shackles of its ridiculous ideology and maintaining the man as a hero to the Chinese people…Deng’s formula for success, as Vogel puts it, was simple: “Don’t argue; try it. If it works, let it spread.”
Vogel calls Deng “the general manager” of China’s latest revolution. As he pushed and pulled his country into the modern world, he was careful not to get out in front of the changes. He used younger officials such as Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang for that. (He ended up sacrificing both.) In fact, as Vogel reports, Deng wasn’t even at the forefront of some of the most important political and economic moves — such as the 1976 arrest of the Gang of Four, including Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing, and the decision to launch market-oriented special economic zones in the south that became hothouses for capitalist-style experimentation.
Vogel also provides enlightening details of Deng’s efforts to use ties with the United States and Japan to China’s advantage. While Mao opened China to the West as a way to counter the Soviet Union, Deng realized that American and Japanese technology, investment and knowledge would be keys to his country’s advance. They were. Indeed, no nation has been more important to China’s modernization than the United States — a fact that no Chinese official has ever acknowledged.”
The third and most intriguing aspect of China’s rise is the ambivalent attitude of its leadership to knowledge and modernity. Mirsky writes: “While Deng believed that science and technology were important — as have many Chinese reformers since the late 19th century — he feared that the humanities and social sciences could be seedbeds of heterodoxy; he never hesitated in punishing intellectuals, whose divergent views could “lead to demonstrations that disrupt public order.” It is telling that for Deng perhaps the worst development in the Communist world after Tiananmen was the execution on Dec. 25, 1989, of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife.”
Vogel comes across as an unabashed admirer of Deng. So if your heart skips a beat when you read about brutal leaders you might want to give this book a miss but in doing so you will miss out on reading about the greatest economic transformation in the modern world.

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