Two mighty rhetorical questions conclude this enormous biography of Deng Xiaoping (1904-97): “Did any other leader in the 20th century do more to improve the lives of so many? Did any other 20th-century leader have such a large and lasting influence on world history?” The answers emerge from this comprehensive, minutely documented book, but not as predictably as Ezra F. Vogel, a Harvard University emeritus professor of social sciences, assumes.
After Mao’s death in 1976, Deng became the champion of the economic reforms that transformed the lives of many, but not most, Chinese. (Vogel observes that Mao’s immediate successor, Hua Guofeng, was the initiator of the reforms.) Deng had long been a central figure in the Communist Party. Vogel rightly says that “for more than a decade before the Cultural Revolution” — 1966-1976 — “no one had greater responsibility for building and administering the old system than Deng Xiaoping.” Yet, most of Deng’s life and career takes up only a quarter of Vogel’s 714 pages of narrative.
By 1978, Deng had become China’s “paramount leader.” It follows, therefore, that apart from his long period of house arrest and banishment during the years 1967-73, and during another year in 1976-77, when Mao again removed him from the political scene, Deng must share the blame for much of the agony Mao inflicted on China and the Chinese. He certainly bears the major responsibility for the Tiananmen Square killings in 1989.
It is a curiosity of “Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China” that Deng the man is almost invisible. There is a well-known list of his personal characteristics: he played bridge; liked bread, cheese and coffee; smoked; drank and used spittoons. He was unswervingly self-disciplined. Though Deng left no personal paper trail, Vogel ably relates what is known.
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.
In late 1966, Vogel tells us, Deng was accused of “pursuing the capitalist road.” 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.
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. Ceausescu was the only Eastern European leader whose troops had fired on civilians.
Vogel calls Tiananmen a “tragedy,” and quotes Deng brushing aside doubts from colleagues that using troops to smash the uprising would disturb foreigners; “Westerners would forget.” Actually, it is young Chinese for whom the demonstrations in over 300 cities are a dim fact absent from their history lessons. Vogel’s account of the crackdown is largely accurate, although he omits the shooting down on Sunday morning of many parents milling about at the edge of the square, searching for their children. In this, as in other parts of this narrative, Vogel could have spoken with journalists who were there, and not just read their accounts. (I declare an interest; I saw these events.) What is disappointing is Vogel’s comments about why “the tragedy in Tiananmen Square evoked a massive outcry in the West, far greater than previous tragedies in Asia of comparable scale.”
Part of the answer, Vogel correctly says, citing another scholar, was the real-time television in Tiananmen. Then he perplexingly adds that viewers “interpreted” what they saw “as an assault on the American myth that economic, intellectual and political freedom will always triumph. Many foreigners came to see Deng as a villainous enemy of freedom who crushed the heroic students.” Furthermore, Vogel contends, for foreign reporters the Tiananmen uprising “was the most exciting time of their careers.” Such comments are unworthy of a serious scholar. He states flatly that “Deng was not vindictive.” If he means Deng didn’t order his adversaries and critics killed, that is true — as far as individuals are concerned. But Deng never shrank, either in Mao’s time or his own, from causing the murder of large numbers of anonymous people.
The most valuable part of Vogel’s account is his survey of Deng’s economic reforms; they made a substantial portion of Chinese better-off, and propelled China onto the international stage. But the party has obscured the millions of deaths that occurred during the Maoist decades. In the end, what shines out from Vogel’s wide-ranging biography is the true answer to his two questions: for most of his long career Deng Xiaoping did less forChina than he did to it.
Jonathan Mirsky is a journalist and historian specializing in China.