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Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China

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849 PAGES, ISBN: 978-0674055445, HARDCOVER

Reviewed by Edward Friedman

This most important political biography of Deng Xiaoping argues that only Deng’s unique leadership strengths made China’s extraordinary economic rise possible. Senior scholar Ezra Vogel focuses on the period from 1969 to 1992. During Mao’s vigilante violence against and purges of people perceived as disloyal to Mao and his dogmas, a period known as the Cultural Revolution, Deng was sent to a rural factory, supposedly to review his political errors. Instead, Deng, Vogel finds, tried to figure out where Mao had gone so terribly wrong and what could be done to reverse China’s fortunes.

Based on a command of prior scholarship, revealing memoirs, and unique interview access to Deng’s family and supporters, Vogel offers a richly detailed and nuanced analysis of Deng’s relation to and involvement in intraparty struggles both from 1969 to 1977 and from 1981 to 1989. Vogel teaches many new and crucial things. This work is a major contribution.

Vogel also has much to teach on Deng’s central role in Chinese foreign policymaking, offering numerous insights. The chapters on China and Taiwan, the USA, Việt Nam, and Russia are all very good indeed, but the chapter on Japan is absolutely magnificent. Vogel not only depicts how deeply involved the Japanese were in the early years of China’s post-Mao economic takeoff, but he also shows how much Deng and his colleagues borrowed their growth policies from Japan and others in East Asia. That is, there is no unique China model.

Vogel’s exciting study is very much worth the while of any specialist in Chinese politics. Its 800 or so pages offer vivid and profoundly informed analyses of Chinese policymaking, both domestic and foreign. Grappling with the marvelous material that Vogel has unearthed is imperative for all specialists.

But it is not so clear that this biography is of such value for the educated generalist who is more interested in the larger picture rather than in political particulars. Vogel’s omissions and categorizations construct a con- text that misleads.

One would never know from this biography that Mao’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP) copied Stalin’s policies and institutions, that Mao was considered China’s Stalin, and that Deng was a zealous henchman in Mao’s purges, murders, and inhumanities to the point that Deng won the trust of China’s Stalin. The author seems not to have probed these institutionalized cruelties in his interviews. Mischaracterizing the system also produces distortions in describing the period after the CCP conquered state power in 1949.

In February 1956, Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, denounced the crimes of the Stalin era in order to help put Soviet Russia on a far less in- human course than Stalin’s. However, Deng, Vogel tells us, concluded only that Khrushchev’s attack on Stalin’s systemic abuses of fundamental human rights could “weaken the authority of the . . . Communist Party” (39). To Mao, “Khrushchev had savaged Stalin’s reputation” (140).

Soon thereafter, as Mao came to stress mobilization of the will instead of incentives and education, Deng’s commitment to modernization turned Deng, in the politics of China’s Maoists, into China’s Khrushchev, someone who might one day choose to criticize Mao’s policies of irrational economics, mass murder, and violent vigilantism. Deng might do this in order to legitimate a better economic road ahead for China (193). To hold power in a CCP of Stalinists and Maoists, Deng had to tread carefully so as not to challenge what Vogel euphemistically labels, “the traditional orthodoxy,” a phrase that obscures the Stalinism that infused the CCP and its power holders, including Deng (213).

In 1957, when Mao launched a vicious campaign against more liberal Chinese, Deng was put in charge (90). Most of the victims died in labor camps, China’s Stalinist gulags. Vogel records that by the 1970s, Deng no longer wanted to destroy educated talent (201). But Vogel does not tell us that Deng, in power after 1977, blocked a blanket forgiveness for these innocent victims of the monstrous Stalinist campaign that Deng himself had led. This dark, defining Stalinist context is not illuminated by Vogel’s interview access.

The book offers no evidence of any interest by the author in asking questions that would clarify or add details to an understanding of Deng’s role in their cruel Stalinist practices. Vogel’s misleading contextualization of Chinese politics cannot convey the continuing Stalinist practices among China’s ruling groups; a situation soon infused by chauvinistic hates and thought management intended to get Chinese to believe that only the Stalinist party could save Chinese from foreign forces supposedly out to keep China down, to control China, and to block its return to glory.

Deng’s role in the Stalinist system likewise is hidden in discussing the deadly Great Leap Forward policies of 1957–58 that killed at least 35 million Chinese trapped in a system of Stalinist totalitarianism, brilliantly shown in Yang Jisheng’s book, Tombstone.1 Vogel simply notes that Deng was an “obedient official” who by 1960 was involved in efforts to save China from “the excesses of the Great Leap” (42). Once again, Vogel seems not to have sought to learn what Deng actually did, this time between 1957–58 and 1960–61, in order to prove himself a zealous Maoist-Stalinist actively promoting mur- derous policies.

Euphemisms and little interest in Deng’s Stalinist deeds obscure how power works in China and where China may be heading. Vogel does not probe the 1977–1981 struggle over Mao’s legacy in which liberal reformers hoped to move China out of its Stalinist ways. Vogel merely asserts that Deng was “pragmatic” in siding with those who would “tighten control” to prevent a “breakdown of order” (250). Although Vogel accurately reports that senior liberal intellectual Yu Guangyuan saw Deng’s siding with the Stalinist old guard in this initial post-Mao struggle as a key turning point (257), Vogel apparently did not enquire into the causes and consequences of Deng’s alliance with the Stalinists, a term Vogel never uses. Instead, for Vogel, Deng merely would not weaken “the party’s authority” (260). Such terminology obscures harsh and repressive continuities.

The book suffers similarly in the description of Deng right after he ordered the 1989 slaughter of democracy supporters in Tiananmen Square. From then until Deng reignited growth early in 1992, he had to defeat the economic preferences of Stalinists who saw economic reform as following the path of Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev—the last leader of the USSR—that is undermining the arbitrary monopoly of power held by the single-party dictatorship. However, in politics, Deng embraced Stalinist continuity.

Vogel does not probe how Deng could have won in arguing with CCP anti-Khrushchev Stalinists. In what Deng saw as a great reversal in the USSR, the Communist Party fell because conservative party officials prevented Khrushchev from persevering with his economic reforms. How then did Deng persuade his allies, senior Stalinists, to allow him to unleash economic reform energies in China as never before seen in a Leninist party dictatorship? Vogel isn’t interested. His descriptions of inner-party struggles in the two decisive periods, 19771981 and 19891992, have none of the rich, new knowledge of Vogel’s great research on inner-party struggles from 19811989.

In sum, Deng’s economic boldness in 1992 changed China and the world, just as Vogel’s wonderful book argues. But Vogel misleads readers by not clarifying how much Stalinism and chauvinism were institutionalized in the CCP by Deng’s policy choices and allies. Ignoring all this reality, Vogel’s vision of China and its future seem overly optimistic. Deng’s legacy to the Chinese people and the world may not be as glorious as Vogel suggests, unless Vogel is right that China will do best when a politically dis- engaged Chinese people happily welcome super-patriotic Stalinists dominating politics. That perception is not a view shared in China by Han victims of land theft, Han workers virtually enslaved in mines, Han people who rage at corruption and polarization, Uighurs, Tibetans, Christians, spiritualists, political reformers, and promoters of human dignity.


  1. Yang Jisheng, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012).

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