In Other Words

The Skeletons in Deng’s Closet

The new biography of the man who really transformed China is the most complete and ambitious ever. But does it leave out some black spots?

XINHUA/AFP/Getty Images
XINHUA/AFP/Getty Images

Deng Xiaoping is the most important 20th-century leader you know almost nothing about — unless you’re Chinese. While most people in the People’s Republic are perfectly aware that Deng deserves most of the credit for lifting them out of poverty and heaving China into the ranks of the world’s leading industrial nations, in the rest of the world Chairman Mao is the one on the t-shirt. No question about it: Outside of his homeland, Deng, who died in 1997, has to be the least celebrated of the modern era’s most successful statesmen.

There are many reasons for this. Mao became a global icon because the rhetoric of his Cultural Revolution dovetailed perfectly with a contemporary worldwide youth rebellion against authority, lending him an aura of outlaw chic that endured even after the world gained a much clearer understanding of the epic nature of his crimes. (In some circles, Mao’s frank enthusiasm for mass violence may have actually contributed to his appeal.) Deng’s market-oriented reforms, by contrast, were subtle and cumulative, the stuff of Davos speeches rather than rousing marches. It took a while for their full impact to become apparent, and the results, while astonishing, were not exactly calculated to appeal to the higher emotions.

And yet Deng led a long and remarkable life, packed with drama and global significance, one that deserves to be dissected in detail. So we must be thankful to Harvard professor Ezra Vogel for devoting a large chunk of his academic career to compiling a prodigious biography, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, the most ambitious account of the man so far. In writing this volume, Vogel has done an enormous amount of work. He appears to have absorbed the documents from every single Chinese Communist Party plenum since 1921. (I can’t say I envy him the task, but hey, someone’s got to do it.)

There have been several Deng biographies before this — from the curmudgeonly Benjamin Yang, the suave ex-diplomat Richard Evans, the meticulous analyst Michael Marti — but Vogel’s can be regarded as the most comprehensive and informative of the lot. (Maurice Meisner wrote a book of marvelous verve about Deng and his era, but it doesn’t actually contain that much in the way of biography.) Vogel has left no stone unturned, and this is mostly a good thing. But sometimes — in a 928-page book with chapter titles like "Economic Readjustment and Rural Reform, 1978-1982" — it wears. If you want to know the particulars of Deng’s career, you’ll be well-served here; if you want to know his life, you might find this book a bit frustrating. Vogel would probably object that it is the career that matters most, and of course that’s true — up to a point. But a biography, by the very nature of the beast, should also be a story — preferably one that doesn’t pull its punches. Brutal candor is a vital literary device. William Taubman set the standard with his fantastically well-researched yet bracingly sarcastic portrait of Khrushchev. Vogel, by contrast, is a bit too quick to skip over the rougher, blacker sides of his hero’s past. The massive ambiguities, the jaw-dropping plot twists, the spicy Sichuanese reek of an unlikely life never quite filter through.

Vogel has been traveling to China since the 1960s, and over the years he has cultivated close relationships with Deng’s relatives and leading members of the Chinese Communist Party, a level of access that has unquestionably enriched the book. When Vogel reveals something truly fresh about his subject, it’s usually not because of a document, but rather because insiders have shared their views. My favorite quote comes from Deng’s youngest son: "My father thinks Gorbachev is an idiot."

You could argue, in fact, that this casual remark is the keystone of the whole Deng story — and of the remarkably different paths taken by China and the Soviet Union. In 1956, already 30 years into an eventful career, Deng was the head of the Chinese delegation that traveled to Moscow for the 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the one where Nikita Khrushchev gave his fateful "secret speech" on Stalin’s personality cult. Like the other foreigners, the Chinese weren’t actually in the hall when Khrushchev gave his epochal reckoning of Stalin’s crimes and personal failures, but they learned the contents soon enough.  

Gorbachev, still a young whippersnapper at the time of the speech, later strove to emulate Khrushchev’s attempts at political liberalization while never quite managing to formulate a coherent economic policy. Deng — at the time of the speech already an experienced functionary with decades of bloody political struggles under his belt — drew the opposite conclusion. If your political system treats its leaders as deities, he realized, bringing them down to human size is likely to have a profoundly destabilizing effect. Better, instead, to leave the gods in place while focusing your energies on improving the people’s daily lot. When he came to power in the late 1970s, Deng correspondingly decided to put economics first. Even though he and millions of others had personally born the brunt of Mao’s wrath during the Cultural Revolution, he made sure to preserve the Chairman’s status as the superhero of the People’s Republic.

It proved an astonishingly successful strategy. The reforms that Deng and his party comrades unleashed in 1979 turned out to be the largest poverty-reduction program in human history. Over the past three decades, China’s embrace of markets has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. As Vogel writes, "When Deng became preeminent leader in 1978, China’s trade with the world totaled less than $10 billion; within three decades, it had expanded a hundredfold."

Deng thus unquestionably expanded the realm of personal freedom for many Chinese, even as he ruthlessly defended the ascendance of the Communist Party and deferred fundamental democratic reforms. In June 1989, Deng chose to suppress the student demonstrations in Beijing and other cities with a brutish display of force that has stained his reputation ever since. But economic liberalization continued — not least because he had demonstrated his credentials as a defender of the Communist Party to his conservative critics. As Vogel shows with great verve, Deng’s "Southern Tour" in 1992, when he sang the praises of the Special Economic Zones that he had launched at the end of the 1970s, galvanized the economic reformers and enabled them to gain a crucial edge over their opponents. The Chinese have never looked back, and today the world marvels at the results.

Deng spent the first half of his 76-year career in the party as a Mao acolyte — and he followed his master in the somewhat cavalier disregard with which he held human life. (As Vogel notes, during Deng’s long years as a military commissar he had a reputation as a man who was not shy about expending his soldiers’ lives when the occasion demanded.) But somewhere along the way — perhaps during the catastrophic Great Leap Forward that took the lives of some 45 million people at the end of the 1950s — Deng lost his illusions about the chairman’s infallibility. In 1961, Deng gave a speech to the party faithful in which he proclaimed his allegiance to an old proverb from his home province of Sichuan: "It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice." This was Deng’s way of appealing to the party to put economic efficiency ahead of revolutionary spirit — a call that Mao correctly understood as a challenge to his own approach. It was a difference of opinion that later got Deng into near-lethal trouble in the Cultural Revolution, and again after Zhou Enlai’s death in 1976. Altogether Deng was purged three times by his enemies — and each time he returned to accumulate even greater power.

Vogel quite rightly puts a lot of work into the period immediately following Deng’s third comeback in 1977, after party notables engineered the overthrow of Mao’s ultra-doctrinaire widow Jiang Qing and her allies (the notorious "Gang of Four"). According to my count, Vogel devotes a whopping 263 pages of his 928-page narrative describing the events of 1978-1979, when Deng finally achieved his status as China’s top leader and embarked on the reforms. Without saying so publicly, he got many of his ideas from other East Asian countries that had already blazed the path of authoritarian, market-oriented modernization, including (perhaps most ironically) the "renegade province" of Taiwan.

Americans instinctively associate the values of experimentation and reform with youth, but Deng was in his mid-70s when he embarked on this breathtaking change of course. Vogel does a masterful job of reconstructing a great deal of the political minutiae that went into the turn-around.

However, he’s less masterful when it comes to reconstructing some of Deng’s less savory moments as a leader. To name but one example, Vogel describes the 1957 Anti-Rightist Movement, which Deng oversaw on Mao’s order, as a "vicious attack on some 550,000 intellectual critics branded as rightists" that "destroyed many of China’s best scientific and technical minds and alienated many others." Deng, he tells us, "was disturbed that some intellectuals had arrogantly and unfairly criticized officials who were trying to cope with their complex and difficult assignments." Huh? Nowhere does Vogel explain that the victims of the campaign were tortured, hounded into suicide, or sentenced to terms in labor camps or internal exile that sometimes ended decades later.

To be sure, there is good reason for a biographer to focus on the way his subject saw the world; we would miss much of Deng’s story if we only listened to his critics. The problem here is that Vogel bends so far backward to explain the party’s logic on, say, the Tiananmen crackdown or Tibet that it sometimes becomes difficult to understand why anyone might possibly think differently. About one instance in the early 1980s, when Deng harshly dismissed some liberal talk from party intellectuals, Vogel primly informs us that "Western notions of a transcendental God that could criticize the earthly rulers were not part of Chinese tradition." Maybe I’ve missed something here, but Deng and his comrades spent their entire lives reshaping Chinese society according to the esoteric theories of a German Jewish intellectual. Chinese tradition? Oddly enough, whenever Vogel brings up the subject, it’s the party that gets to decide what constitutes Chinese values. The critics somehow never do.

Vogel is not always officious. He does mention some of the darker sides of the story. It’s just that he is often a bit too eager to tiptoe around them. He describes Deng’s ascendance to the status of preeminent leader in 1978-1979, entirely without irony, as the moment "when Deng began to push aside Hua Guofeng for the good of the party and the country." He tells us that some of the critical texts put up to public view on Beijing’s Democracy Wall, the place where a remarkable spirit of pluralism was allowed to flourish for a few months starting in late 1978, "were posted by other young people who were inspired by their newfound freedom but, having lived in a closed society, lacked the experience and wisdom to inform or temper their judgments." People’s Daily couldn’t have put it better.

There’s no question that Vogel has gone farther than anyone else to date in telling Deng’s story. For that he is to be applauded; there is a whole hoard of valuable material here that we probably would not have gained otherwise. But it’s still not quite the whole story. I wonder, at this rate, if it will ever be told.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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