More than any other individual, Deng Xiaoping made China’s modern rise possible. History is replete with examples of great leaders who made their mark through force and conquest. Far rarer, at least in the public mind, are those leaders who earned their reputations not through feats of arms but through their positive transformative actions while in power. Deng Xiaoping, whose life spanned most of the 20th century, was such a leader.
Deng spent much of his career in the shadow of Mao Zedong, the revolutionary leader who was the driving force in bringing the Chinese Communist Party to power in 1949 but then proved to be a disaster as a national leader, repeatedly plunging his country into chaos through his quixotic policies, his erratic vision, and his cavalier disregard for the welfare of the common people. Purged for the third time in 1976, as Mao approached death, Deng emerged from the convulsions of the Cultural Revolution to become China’s supreme leader in fact if not in name. In the space of less than 15 years, from 1978 to 1992, Deng set China on the course that has regained for it the wealth and power it enjoyed through much of the last two millennia. This course, if sustained, could position China to challenge the economic and military position of the United States as the world’s leading superpower.
Quite a few highly competent biographies of Deng have been written over the years. Many were published during the 1990s, when the full impact of his openness and reform policies was becoming dramatically evident. To one degree or another, all of these works have suffered from the limitations of the source material: abundant official documents, but almost no personal papers. (Deng relied on his excellent memory, and left no paper trail.) More often than not, these biographies necessarily focused on particular aspects of Deng’s long career, adding useful insights but falling short of a well-rounded portrait of the man.
In an authoritative biography of Deng, Harvard sociologist Ezra F. Vogel, a renowned specialist on China and Japan who rose to international prominence in 1979 with the publication of Japan as Number One: Lessons for America, has attempted the difficult task of providing a comprehensive look at the experiences and influences that shaped this remarkable individual. He has succeeded superbly. To compensate for the dearth of personal written material, Vogel drew on extensive interviews he conducted over several years with Deng family members, former associates, officials, scholars, former ambassadors, and Chinese and foreign political leaders to add texture to his assessment of Deng’s career.
Regrettably, there is still a paucity of information about Deng’s formative years. Born in 1904 to a family in a rural village, Deng apparently excelled in school. In the 1920s he lived for about five years in France as a destitute student, during which time he joined the Chinese Communist Party. After he left France in 1926, he spent a year studying in the Soviet Union.
When Deng Xiaoping rose to power in the 1970s, he was of an age when many Western politicans would have withdrawn into retirement.
Upon his return to China, the party sent Deng in 1929 to lead an effort to establish a Communist base in Guangxi Province, where his initial small successes were negated when the local warlord used his superior forces to overrun Deng’s cohort. Deng submitted a self-criticism of his failures, which was used against him decades later during the Cultural Revolution. He was then dispatched to join the Soviet base area carved out by Mao Zedong’s military forces in the southeastern province of Jiangxi. While there, Deng developed a strong admiration for Mao. In an episode that gave him valuable protection in later years, he was punished by the party’s central leadership for, among other offenses, allegedly heading a “Mao faction.” This was the first of the three purges he suffered during his career. We know too little about these episodes, as well as Deng’s performance during the Long March (1934–35), the war of resistance against Japan (1937–45), and the first two turbulent decades of the People’s Republic of China, which was formally established on October 1, 1949.
In a book of more than 800 pages, only 30 are devoted to Deng’s life from his birth until 1969, when, amid the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, he was banished after two years of house arrest to work as a machinist in a tractor repair station in Jiangxi. (Though Deng and his family suffered abuse and indignities during this purge and again in 1976, Mao protected Deng from efforts by radicals to expel him from the Chinese Communist Party. “Mao twice purged Deng, but he never destroyed him,” Vogel writes. “He set him aside for possible later use.”)
The skimpy treatment of Deng’s early history is no fault of the author, who diligently mined previous biographies, archives, and interviews for what little material was available. But Vogel’s research does provide a wealth of detail about the most important period of Deng’s career, from 1969 to 1992, after which ill health and physical frailty forced him into the background. He died in 1997.
By the time Deng emerged as China’s most influential leader, in the late 1970s—at over 70, he had reached an age when most Western politicians would have withdrawn into retirement—he became the first Chinese leader in more than 150 years to combine the necessary power, experience, and vision to thrust China onto a successful modernization trajectory. Vogel’s book provides extensive insights into how Deng was able to use his experience, his network of associations among China’s aging revolutionaries, and the force of his personality to direct China’s course, all while allowing others to hold the top government and party titles.
What are the traits of this unusual man who succeeded where so many before him had failed? Whereas Mao, like Lenin, was a pamphleteer and prolific writer, churning out lengthy tracts setting out his vision, Deng’s strength lay in organization and implementation. He shared Mao’s revolutionary credentials, but not his economic vision for China’s future. He saw in Marxism-Leninism an ideology that combined organizational discipline, military forces under tight party control, and a practical commitment to bettering the lives of the working class. The victory of the October Revolution in Russia in 1917 provided practical confirmation that a small, tightly organized party could be the motive force for overcoming insuperable odds to seize the reins of power. Deng’s belief never wavered that unchallenged rule by the Chinese Communist Party was the only method that could provide the stability necessary for China to grow and prosper.
Deng’s pragmatism is well known. For those of us who witnessed the ideological excesses of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), including the glorification of the “little red book” filled with excerpts from Mao’s articles and speeches, and the narrowing of China’s cultural expression to a few red operas and revolutionary songs, Deng’s no-nonsense practicality was a refreshing change. Yet it also represented a weakness in his understanding of human nature. Once Deng was clear in his own mind about what needed to be done to accomplish important goals, he was impatient to the point of intolerance with those who saw things differently or had other priorities.
In the lead-up to the Tiananmen Square protests, Deng was contemptuous of the respected astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, who advocated greater freedom of expression and a more open political system, because in Deng’s mind loosened strictures would undermine China’s ability to sustain its rapid economic growth. Two of Deng’s handpicked and highly competent choices to become general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Hu Yaobang (1980–87) and Zhao Ziyang (1987–89), lost his confidence because he regarded them as lax in enforcing domestic stability.
Deng’s backing for the suppression of the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in June 1989 (which were precipitated by Hu’s death after his forced resignation two years earlier) was predictable. He had no use for people he saw as impractical visionaries with no idea how to translate their high-minded ideals into the policies and actions that could overcome China’s backwardness and poverty. He was unapologetic about quashing what had developed into a high-profile challenge to the authority of the Chinese Communist Party. Once stability was restored, he lent his personal authority to the effort to overcome the resistance to his economic policies exerted by conservative ideologues who had become entrenched in influential positions in the party after the Tiananmen events. This was his last hurrah.
Diminutive in stature and unassuming in his personal style, Deng was a study in contrasts. He possessed neither photogenic good looks nor charisma, and he showed no taste for playing the role of an inspirational national leader, preferring to exercise his influence from behind the scenes. He never sought or held China’s topmost party and government positions, his highest titles being chairman of the Central Military Commission and vice premier. Yet on his visit to the United States in 1979 he displayed a flair for public relations, wearing a cowboy hat without embarrassment and acting with assurance in his public appearances.
What he lacked in looks and charm, Deng made up for in self-confidence and decisiveness. In my capacity as the deputy to Ambassador Leonard Woodcock in the U.S. Liaison Office and later the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, I was present on two occasions when Deng resolved disputed issues of great consequence. The first was his decision in December 1978 to proceed with establishing diplomatic relations with the United States even though the Americans had confirmed explicitly that the U.S. government intended to continue arms sales to Taiwan. After the establishment of U.S.-China diplomatic relations in 1979, this issue quickly resurfaced as a core problem in the relationship, prompting the negotiation of the third U.S.-China Joint Communiqué, issued on August 17, 1982. This communiqué contained the issue for a decade, but U.S. arms sales to Taiwan re-emerged as a particularly vexing sticking point in the 1990s and remain one today.
The second instance of Deng’s decisiveness was his approval in May 1979 of an agreement settling the private claims of American citizens against China for property confiscated following the Chinese Communist Party’s assumption of power, under terms that were vigorously opposed by elements within the Chinese government. In giving his assent, Deng overrode a cabinet-level official who had argued against the terms in a key meeting. After the meeting, a foreign ministry official rushed up to me urging that we quickly get the agreement signed because of the danger the decision would be reversed.
In both instances, Deng subordinated short-term considerations to longer-term strategic goals. He recognized that there was no prospect for a quick resolution of the Taiwan arms sale issue. As Vogel plausibly speculates in his biography, Deng probably recognized that the implementation of China’s new economic reform policies would labor under a significant handicap without access to U.S. knowledge, capital, and technology, especially in the initial stages. In all likelihood, an additional motivation was Deng’s concern about Soviet inroads in Vietnam; in a brief, bloody invasion in February 1979, Deng had attempted to teach the Vietnamese a military “lesson.” He may well have felt that the new diplomatic relationship with the United States would deter Soviet retaliation on behalf of Moscow’s Southeast Asian client.
In the case of the claims settlement, the $81 million China paid to the U.S. government for distribution to American claimants was trivial compared to the benefits provided by the 1979 trade agreement, for which the claims settlement was a precondition. The trade agreement granted most-favored-nation treatment to Chinese imports to the United States and greatly facilitated the rapid expansion of bilateral trade.
For those of us who as U.S. government officials participated in or monitored many of the developments in China and in the bilateral relationship Vogel describes, he has illuminated events in ways that would have been invaluable to us had we had such a clear picture at the time. The transformation of China that Deng set in motion is likely to confront the United States with its most significant foreign-policy challenge over the next several decades. We are fortunate indeed that Vogel has written this timely and highly informative biography of Deng Xiaoping, which provides a wealth of insights into one of history’s great leaders.
* * *
J. Stapleton Roy is the director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He has served as the U.S. ambassador to Singapore (1984–86), China (1991–95), and Indonesia (1996–99), and as U.S. assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research (1999–2000).
Reviewed: Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China by Ezra F. Vogel, Bellknap/Harvard, 2011, 876 pp.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons