A review of Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, by Ezra F. Vogel

The China widely bruited as the next hegemonic power is the product of 150 years of false starts, repeated disappointments, and astonishing violence. During the 19th century China was often at war with foreign countries but internal warfare was far worse; the famous Taiping Rebellion alone claimed tens of millions of lives. China's imperial system collapsed in 1912 and decades of internal chaos followed. The eight years of war between China and Japan—July 1937 to September 1945—displayed a ferocity comparable to the German-Soviet front in Europe.

After the China-Japan war, the civil war resumed, and there were millions of casualties. In 1950, the new People's Republic of China invaded Tibet and battled armed resistance until 1959. Turkic peoples in the northwest of the country also fought Chinese rule and they, too, were bloodily suppressed. Mao Zedong (1893-1976) then turned against the Chinese people themselves. He initiated the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s, a brutal campaign of collectivization and man-made famine that took more than 40 million lives. In the 1960s, he started the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which cost more lives and wrought more destruction. Mao's death in 1976 triggered a brief, but intense, power struggle, from which a 75-year-old man named Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997) emerged as the country's dominant political figure.

Now Ezra Vogel has taken on the daunting task of explaining how Deng, inheriting the mess Mao had made, set China on a radically new course. "Reform and opening up," as Deng called his policy, is into its fourth decade and few will argue with Vogel that Deng's program has had an enormous influence. Vogel brings a formidable background to his depiction of Deng's efforts. Now emeritus professor at Harvard, he has been a sociologist, a China—focused intelligence officer, and an industrious "Pekingologist," that is, someone who pays close attention to the inner workings of China's Communist Party and the political system it has created.

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Vogel devotes but a few score of his almost 900 pages to Deng's activities before the consolidation of his position in the late 1970s. Deng became a Communist when he was 18. By 1930, he had allied himself with Mao Zedong's faction inside the party and he rose rapidly. He survived the Long March and the intra-party purges associated with it. He commanded troops in the protracted Communist-Nationalist civil war. After the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, he was an unwavering Mao loyalist and, in 1957, the chairman made him the party's highest-ranking administrative official, general secretary.

Vogel leaves us to fend for ourselves if we wish to discern Deng's mindset. One instructive episode occurs during his leadership of the Chinese delegation to the famous Soviet Communist Party Congress in 1956 where Nikita Khrushchev, Joseph Stalin's successor, powerfully criticized Stalin's crimes—not so much the ones Stalin had committed against tens of millions of Soviet citizens, but those against members of the Communist Party. Vogel does not quote Khrushchev but one can easily find and read what Deng heard Khrushchev say about Stalin:

Stalin did not tolerate collegiality…he practiced brutal violence…his character was capricious and despotic…he demanded absolute submission to his opinion…whoever opposed him was doomed to moral and physical liquidation…Stalin showed in a whole series of cases his intolerance, his brutality and his abuse of power…he chose the path of repression and physical annihilation.


Khrushchev called Stalin's personality cult "an expression of the most dissolute flattery, an example of making a man into a godhead."

All of this was more than merely reminiscent of Mao Zedong. Deng was appalled and, when he returned to China, he joined Mao in a spirited defense of Stalin; indeed, Deng himself wrote the pro-Stalin polemics that marked the initial phase of the Sino-Soviet split. But Deng was more than a polemicist; he was also a practitioner. Vogel does not reflect on what Mao and Deng saw in each other nor, more important to his book, on the deeper personal qualities that Deng would later bring to his own post-1978 program. "Deng, the implementer," Vogel writes, "had always been more practical and realistic than Mao, the philosopher, poet, and dreamer." A partnership of dreamer and doer, indeed: as Mao's chief operating officer, Deng was deeply involved in many murderous episodes of the 1950s, culminating in the "Great Leap Forward."

Still, for Vogel, the first four decades of Deng's career are not as interesting or as significant as the last three. The murder and mayhem just happened. Vogel's tone is flat, but it is also morally obtuse. Put plainly, Deng's infatuation with Mao's philosophy, poetry, and dreams helped to destroy tens of millions of lives.

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But what of Deng's sense of himself? For decades, he had seen comrades perish and suffer. More than once, Mao had capriciously demoted him and sent him into rough and dangerous internal exile. Deng's son was beaten into paralysis while imprisoned by the Red Guards and the father of his third wife was killed in a "land reform" campaign. Many turned on the party, but Deng's faith in its historic mission endured. Indeed, when he had the chance, Deng directed a "historical evaluation" of Mao that pronounced him "seventy percent right." The 30% wrong was the campaigns he had directed against party members, threatening the party's hold on power. Thus, many good party members victimized by Mao were to be "rehabilitated" if dead or, if still alive, returned to positions of influence. As for the rest of Mao's legacy, it is by Deng's order that Mao still looks out over Tiananmen Square and his face still appears on the country's currency.

Vogel says that Deng had his reasons. Maintenance of the Communist Party's monopoly on power was one of the four objectives of his plan. Deng could not imagine a way forward without the party's dictatorship and thus he consistently suppressed advocates of political liberalization, most notoriously in 1989 when he ordered military forces into Tiananmen Square. Hu Jintao, now the head of both China's Communist Party and its government, was brought to Beijing by Deng in 1989; he had drawn Deng's attention after imposing martial law in Tibet to crush local dissent.

Deng believed that his program of "reform and opening up" in both its economic and political parts would save the party and perpetuate its rule even as it transformed the society. It was a gambit unprecedented in the history of Communist dictatorships, almost all of them now defunct. Does Deng's program make the case for Chinese exceptionalism? The Chinese Communist Party has been saved even as Chinese society has been radically transformed—thoroughly, unimaginably transformed. Deng's Long March is therefore no ordinary episode and it is well worthwhile trying to understand how it happened.

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Vogel is now 82 and the transformed China about which he writes so extensively is a vivid contrast to the first decades of the People's Republic, which he also knew. In truth, those of us who are not yet 82 but still old enough to remember that People's Republic find it hard to express our amazement to younger people whose first exposure to China is a recent one. Things are so much better now than they were then that it can seem crotchety and grudging to point out contemporary shortcomings. But all of us need to get beyond our amazement when we see the skylines of skyscraper-filled cities that were once provincial backwaters. The People's Republic no longer measures itself solely against its sordid past, and we should not either. Its own standard is its "peer competitors" of today.

By that measure, how should we regard the past 30 years in China? Vogel recounts a blizzard of things that happened during this period and his industrious scholarship does us the great service of tracking Deng's every move through the party's labyrinth. He shows how Deng skillfully played a weak diplomatic hand, prodding the United States, Western Europe, and Japan to fashion a grand strategy against the Soviet Union that would work to China's advantage. By offering China as an eager collaborator, Deng secured essential backing from the industrial democracies for his plans. Vogel also reminds us of the decisive presence, nearby, of "Confucian" and "Chinese" success stories—Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong—that Deng would draw upon for expertise and capital.

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The fundamental problem with Vogel's account is that it is another variation on the "triumphalist" theme originally spun by China's Communist Party and now performed around the world. All the triumphalist narratives derive from a claim first made by Mao Zedong in 1950: "Without the Communist Party There Would Be No New China." The slogan later became the basis for a catchy ditty often sung during the Cultural Revolution. Now, with revised lyrics of course, it is an international smash hit. At home, this unexamined assertion is used to buttress the party's bedrock claim to continuation of its monopoly on political power—that it has been the architect of New China, as no other group of people could have been. The party presents itself as the best solver of China's problems; it claims that it alone possesses unique understanding; it admits of no other possibility. The central question of contemporary Chinese politics is thus a contest over this claim: does China still need an all-powerful Communist Party? And this question immediately leads us to an underlying one: did China everneed an all-powerful Communist Party?

Today, we have both 60 years of experience with the People's Republic itself and a much deeper knowledge of China's modern history with which to engage these questions. We also have Vogel's book which, though certainly not written to promote previously unmentionable heresies, forces us to consider them on almost every one of its pages. In fact, when we place Vogel's account of Deng's time in power against what we know of China and the world, we cannot help being far less impressed than Vogel thinks we should be. In the first place, a blueprint like Deng's appeared in the mid-19th century when even the Taiping rebels drew up detailed plans for the renovation of the country. It is also now well understood that the so-called "self-strengtheners" of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were well along in major "reform and opening up" that was rapidly integrating China into the global economy even as major reforms were being implemented in education and governance. In fact, these processes were well-enough along so that, today, many younger Chinese historians question whether the last dynasty should have been overthrown at all. In the event, the leaders of the early republic, especially Sun Yat-sen, moved forward along the same track, and the decades prior to the founding of the People's Republic were filled with significant achievements.

Meanwhile, the first 30 years of the People's Republic are now seen as the disruptive and destructive decades they actually were. At best, we can say that Deng helped to restart history or, better, rejoin it. Fortunately for China, other places had not been so unfortunate in their leaders. Vogel describes at great length the critical role of money and advice and, most important, inspiration from Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan, Capitalist Roaders all. In sum, the correct formulation should be: "Without the Communist Party, New China Would Have Shown Up Decades Sooner"—and at but a tiny fraction of the cost in human and material destruction wrought by Mao, Deng, and their cohort.

In 1989 Ezra Vogel published a detailed 500-page analysis of how the first 10 years of Deng's program were faring in Guangdong, its showplace province. He called it One Step Ahead in China. More than 20 years later, in the ways that matter most, China has fallen many steps behind, and ominously so. In the end, Deng Xiaoping made it harder for China to catch up, even as he made it appear that China was sprinting ahead.