Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China
Harvard University Press 2011
Of all the crimes Mao Zedong stands accused of, being boring was not one of them. Alas, for biographers of Deng Xiaoping; Deng’s experience surviving decades of warfare and political intrigue taught him to keep his mouth shut, tell people what they wanted to hear, and never leave a written record. What we know of him is therefore derived from his path through the Chinese bureaucracy – Deng the manager as opposed to Deng the man.
Ezra Vogel, former professor at Harvard and respected East Asia scholar, admits as much in his new biography, “Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China,” and he spends most of his time on Deng as a political operator. Vogel even skips some of the most dramatic parts of his life; there is no mention, for example, of any of the seven assassination attempts on Deng.
Following Deng through purge after purge does leave the reader in awe of his canniness, but there is little explanation of his behavioral contradictions. Here is a military commander who gutted military spending, whose last military decision was to allow soldiers to fire into crowds of unarmed students. How did he manage to write apologetic letters to Mao asking for his job back even as his son lay paralyzed by Red Guards?
Vogel offers pure-minded patriotism mixed with a high degree of flexibility as the explanation, which is fine. But Deng’s legendary flexibility was a double-edged sword, and Vogel is far too willing to pass lightly over some of the more questionable aspects of the man’s record.
Deng the tyrant?
Take Vogel’s treatment of the Tiananmen Square incident. There are plenty of essays condemning the decision, but there are a number of respected Deng apologists who argue that the student movement was structurally unable to back down thanks to its “veto” system, backing Deng into a corner. Vogel could have left the debate – concerned as it is entirely over counter-factuals – stand.
Instead, he aggressively attempts to protect Deng’s reputation. First, Vogel says, it is too early to judge “the long-term impact” of Deng’s decision – a morally problematic line of defense. Second, he notes that leaders in South Korea and Taiwan killed more protesters than the PLA did. Finally, he accuses the West of hypocrisy: “For the Westerners, the killing of innocent students protesting for freedom and democracy in Beijing was a far worse crime than the decisions of their countries that had brought about the deaths of many more civilians in Vietnam, Cambodia, and elsewhere.” This is both logically confused and historically inaccurate. Western protests against the Vietnam War were sustained, vociferous and violent, and played a role in ending both US involvement and Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. Excepting the enduring arms embargo, Western reactions against the Tiananmen crackdown had a relatively short half-life, and the diplomatic freeze ended with the first Iraq War.
The 1989 incident was not the first time Deng cracked down on protest, and it is on his repeated suppression of resistance to single-party rule that his political (as opposed to economic) legacy must be judged. Deng was unquestionably preferable to the Gang of Four, but this isn’t saying much. But the common justification for Deng’s authoritarian bent – the need to avoid the sort of chaos that ensued after the collapse of the Soviet Union – is not without flaws. Vogel says that Deng observed the anti-communist revolution in Poland and concluded that rallying around the Party was the only way to avoid chaos. But in retrospect, Poland, now one of Europe’s fastest growing economies, didn’t appear to need the firm hand of the Party. Deng was also dismayed by the fall of Romania’s Ceacescu, an oppressive monster and an economic incompetent at that. Seems more likely that Deng just didn’t get European politics.
Vogel also uses Deng’s fear of disintegration as an excuse for one of the most potentially dangerous long-term decisions he made, namely the substitution of crypto-xenophobic nationalism for Maoist dogma in China’s education system. Deng mostly wanted to avoid military conflict, but part of his legacy is a new generation of Chinese youth that are demanding more, not less, confrontation.
China should be grateful to Deng, no question, and so should the rest of the world. But the man made mistakes. After decades of growth, his economic legacy needs no further polishing; we look forward to a more critical work on his political ideas.