Perhaps no one in the twentieth century had a greater long-term impact on world history than Deng Xiaoping. And no scholar of contemporary East Asian history and culture is better qualified than Ezra Vogel to disentangle the many contradictions embodied in the life and legacy of China's boldest strategist. Once described by Mao Zedong as a "needle inside a ball of cotton," Deng was the pragmatic yet disciplined driving force behind China's radical transformation in the late twentieth century. He confronted the damage wrought by the Cultural Revolution, dissolved Mao's cult of personality, and loosened the economic and social policies that had stunted China's growth. Obsessed with modernization and technology, Deng opened trade relations with the West, which lifted hundreds of millions of his countrymen out of poverty. Yet at the same time he answered to his authoritarian roots, most notably when he ordered the crackdown in June 1989 at Tiananmen Square. Deng's youthful commitment to the Communist Party was cemented in Paris in the early 1920s, among a group of Chinese student-workers that also included Zhou Enlai. Deng returned home in 1927 to join the Chinese Revolution on the ground floor. In the fifty years of his tumultuous rise to power, he endured accusations, purges, and even exile before becoming China's preeminent leader from 1978 to 1989 and again in 1992. When he reached the top, Deng saw an opportunity to creatively destroy much of the economic system he had helped build for five decades as a loyal follower of Mao-and he did not hesitate.--From publisher information.
Deng is not an easy man to write about, due to the nature of his work, his government, and the fact that he didn't take notes and instead memorized everything. Many Chinese government archives also remain off-limits.
After spending less then a hundred pages on the first fifty years of his life, the next six hundred are devoted to his rise to power, diplomatic relations, and economic reforms. His leadership and reforms were not wholly certain - he had to outmaneuver the bloodthirsty 'Gang of Four', and one of Mao's chosen successors in order to gain power. But then, he took a collaborative approach, and refused to recreate a personality cult.
Deng did not merely throw open the gates and declare 'free markets' as Gorbachev did. Instead, he prepared his power base, experimented on a small scale with cities, worked carefully with foreign governments to create favorable conditions and a well-trained and equipped workforce. His most famous quote, taken from a country proverb, that the color of the cat doesn't matter so long as it catches mice, is a signature of his leadership. Pragmatism before ideology. "Don't argue, try it. If it works, let it spread."
Deng brought China prosperity, but not democracy. It is disconcerting to note that Deng was a key figure in some of Mao's worst excesses. The most unfortunate blot on his memory is the Student Uprisings and Tiananmen. He retired soon after. But he is not unique in that regard. Nearly every Asian country in the 20th century (to say nothing of any country) has had its own troubles.
But a more firm testament to his memory came later - when he went to visit the cities of the Special Economic Zones he helped create, as a sort of post-retirement vacation, he was still spontaneously welcomed as a hero and an 'uncle/grandfather' to the people. After all, one can give his policies the credit of saving hundreds of millions of people from poverty.
There is still much to be done, and the continued monolithic power of the CCP is by no means certain - its economic rise is continuing. It has surpassed Germany and Japan with ease, and now is second only to the United States in GDP. Deng brought China forward and made it prosperous. It will be seen if someone as visionary as him makes it free.
The author does not address one interesting moral question in detail. The massacre of at least 400 students and others during the 4 June 1989 incident was clearly morally reprehensible. If China was actually at risk of breakup, with a return to the clashes of right and left, I wonder what would have, could have, been the human cost. This is a form of algebra that western countries don't normally use, but it was certainly one uppermost in Deng's mind.
Vogel has written this book so that those of us in the
USA who are not China scholars can readily understand the complex ways in which China has evolved over time and the decisions made by it's leaders that would not happen here due to the cultural
differences and the way in which the governments work.
Deng comes across as a brilliant and courageous man who is confidant and strong enough to follow through with his beliefs. I think he has made a huge
contribution to his country. Most of my life I always looked at China from the Mao perspective. There are
many challenges for the ruling party and it's huge and
diverse population and geography, but the changes
that have and are taking place are quite remarkable.
A great read and highly educational for me and I cannot thank Ezra Vogel enough for writing this wonderful book which many Americans should read.