The Man Who Re-Invented China

Review of Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, by Ezra F. Vogel (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011)

China in the early 1990s was in a precarious situation. Lingering public resentment over the government's crushing of the Tiananmen Square protests in June 1989, coupled with the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, made the future of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uncertain. It was in this period of crisis that Deng Xiaoping launched his "Southern Tour" in spring 1992. Although many within the Party, alarmed by world events, called for the slowing down of economic restructuring and the loosening of ties with the West, Deng, by visiting some of the most developed cities along China's coast, argued that continued dominance by the CCP required the acceleration of market reforms. Deng's famous assessment, "to get rich is glorious," inspired a wave of entrepreneurialism that still grips China today.

Cover of Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China by Ezra F. Vogel
Cover of Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China by Ezra F. Vogel.

What led Deng Xiaoping, the leader of the world's largest Communist Party, to embrace capitalism so fervently? Unfortunately, the answer remains elusive. Not only did Deng leave little in the way of a paper trail, but he also did not share the contents of high-level Party discussions with his family members or staff. Despite these difficulties, Ezra F. Vogel's Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China provides much insight into the man responsible for arguably the greatest revolutionary change in Chinese history (347). Making use of Chinese-language biographies, official summaries of daily Party meetings, as well as interviews with children of many key players, Vogel presents a Deng best described by three adjectives: nationalistic, pragmatic, and authoritarian.

The China of Deng's youth was one of chaos. Born in 1904, Deng saw the optimism of the 1911 Revolution quickly descend into the anarchy of the Warlord Era (1916-28) and the humiliation of continued imperialist aggression. In 1919, during the May 4th Movement, Deng participated in anti-Japanese boycotts held in Chongqing. Despite being only 14 at the time, Deng's actions shaped the course of his life. Vogel asserts, "From this moment on, Deng's personal identity was inseparable from the national effort to rid China of the humiliation it had suffered… and to restore it to a position of greatness" (17). This desire to "save" China led Deng away from his hometown at the age of 16 and toward France, where he met Zhou Enlai and joined the CCP. For better or worse, Deng saw in the CCP an organization capable of bringing about national renewal.

Deng was devoted to the Party, but the Party itself proved to be a rather fickle lover. Deng suffered his first demotion in 1931 during the Chinese Civil War (1927-49), when he was accused of not being "aggressive enough" in attacking enemy troops (29). After the 1949 Revolution, Deng served in close proximity with Zhou and Mao Zedong as finance minister and vice premier. According to Vogel, Deng's faith in Mao was firm until the disaster of the Great Leap Forward (1958-61), when an estimated 16-45 million died. He doubts grew during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when Deng was purged from the Party for being a "capitalist roader" and forced to work in the countryside as a tractor repairmen. Once the initial turmoil of the Cultural Revolution subsided, Deng was called back to Beijing in 1974, only to be purged again in spring 1976 for allegedly organizing protests that occurred following the death of Zhou. Even after Mao's death that September and the subsequent arrest of the radical Gang of Four, Deng's position in the Party was not secure.

It was while jostling for power with Hua Guofeng (Mao's successor) during the remainder of the 1970s that Deng finally came into his own. Against Hua, who argued that the Party needed to support "whatever" Mao had supported and oppose "whatever" Mao had opposed, Deng stressed the need to "seek truth from facts." By 1978 China's per capita income was just $40 and the amount of grain available per person was less than it had been in 1957. At the same time, the "little dragons" of South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore were all experiencing spectacular growth. In this climate, Deng's pragmatic calls for "professionalization" and economic reform found resonance, and Hua was sidelined by 1980. Unlike Mao, who was a romantic idealist, Deng was a pragmatic realist. Under Deng's tenure, markets, not willpower, were the key to China's modernization.

Despite his belief in a market economy, Deng remained a committed Communist until his death. "If anything was sacred for Deng," Vogel writes, "it was the Chinese Communist Party" (262). However, what drew Deng to the Party was not his commitment to Marxism, but his appreciation of Leninist democratic centralism. In Deng's view, only an authoritarian organization such as the CCP could implement the policies necessary for China's development.1 It was Deng's faith in the centrality of the Party that propelled him to end the Democracy Wall in March 1979 and, later, to violently clamp down on the Tiananmen Square protests. Deng's family reported that "despite all the criticism he received, he never once doubted that he had made the right decision" (626).

Interestingly, Vogel argues that with hindsight, many Chinese are apt to agree. After witnessing the instability that befell the former Soviet Union and much of Eastern Europe after the collapse of socialism, a case can be made that Deng's harsh response saved China from experiencing a similar fate (638). Today, many Chinese are willing to accept the corruption and authoritarianism of the Party given the stability and economic growth it provides (635). Such a perspective may not jibe with those from the West, but it does seem that Deng was right to believe in the transformative power of the Chinese Communist Party. Of course, what role the CCP will play in China's future remains to be seen. But for those interested in learning more about China's present, Vogel's study is a delightful read.

1 Accordingly, Deng labeled Mikhail Gorbachev an "idiot" for trying to change the Soviet political system (423).