Over the past few decades, an increasing number of scholars have come to interpret Western history less as a linear progression and more as a periodic cycle punctuated by crises, of which our current economic disaster is the most recent. Yet even in the realist precincts of social science, some still long for a classic narrative structure, progressive motion, and world-historical heroes.
They have had slim pickings. In the early 1980s, attention fell briefly, unsatisfactorily, on Japan. As Japan’s growth flatlined, and the once-promising Soviet Union dissolved, the hero-meter edged toward China. Given China’s meteoric rise since that time, the needle has had little reason to wander. Employing projections from Chinese trajectories, academia generates serial predictions of China’s dominating the century, while interpretations of recent Chinese history bend slightly to explain and meet those projections. And for those who believe in the current and historical narrative of China’s linear progress, there is no greater patron saint than Deng Xiaoping.
Not without reason: Any Western academic who depends on access to Chinese officials and archives, any businessman who profits from China exports, must acknowledge a debt to the man who, at great personal risk, tirelessly, singlehandedly at times, tore down Mao’s barriers to the West. For many China hands and expats who actually witnessed the Chinese transformation from Mao to the present it became the defining event of their lives — to observe, to support, to participate in the mass-scale redemption of a great people. (I defy anyone who visits China to remain completely immune to that awe, excitement, and optimism.) Finally, for much of the Chinese elite and for a fair amount of poorer-but-patriotic young Chinese, Deng is the Ur-stone, the starting point where China finally stood up — for real this time — cast shame and fear aside, and began implementing its 19th-century nationalist dream of becoming a rich country with a strong army.
Ezra F. Vogel, emeritus professor at Harvard and former director of Harvard’s Fairbank Center for East Asian Research, has written a formidable biography that should please all of these audiences. In his preface — 24 pages acknowledging most major China hands, the D.C. policy crowd, a vast multitude of Chinese officials and Deng princelings, along with a sprinkling of dissidents for flavor — the comprehensiveness of Vogel’s interviews and archival research is presented as iron-clad. The result, laid out in 714 pages, not including appendices and footnotes, does not disappoint, nor does Vogel’s subject:
On August 18, 1980, a Chinese citizen gave one of the most biting and comprehensive criticisms of Chinese officials made during the entire Deng Era. In scathing terms, he accused them of abusing power; divorcing themselves from reality and the masses; spending time and effort putting up impressive fronts; indulging in empty talk; sticking to rigid ways of thinking; overstaffing administrative organs; being dilatory, inefficient, and irresponsible; failing to keep their word; circulating documents endlessly without solving problems; shifting responsibility to others; assuming the air of mandarins; reprimanding and attacking others at every turn; suppressing democracy; deceiving superiors and subordinates; being arbitrary and despotic and practicing favoritism; offering bribes; and participating in other corrupt practices. The citizen? Deng Xiaoping.
Is it possible for any businessman — Western or Chinese — who has dealt with the Chinese bureaucracy to read that paragraph without grinning in pure joy? How remarkable that, 31 years on, under Vogel’s hand, Deng still has that electrifying effect. Yet there is one serious caveat: Vogel, an unerringly powerful and reasonable writer, admires his subject to the point where he finds himself hewing to the straight Communist-party line at unexpected moments — a bit the way Deng, near the end, found himself defending horrific decisions with rancid dogma. In short, this is a great — and somewhat flawed — book about a great — and deeply flawed — leader.
Vogel focuses on Deng’s top-down transformation of China, but does not neglect Deng’s personal history: his early radicalization, his ascent in the party during the Guomindang and Japanese wars, his famous ups and downs in accordance with the whims of the mercurial Mao, and his brilliant rise to power over the hapless Hua Guofeng. Throughout, Vogel uncovers scattered premonitions of the China that Deng would create.
For example, Deng’s brief experience in France not only gave him convictions, and possibly contributed to his eventual genius in foreign relations, but also brought home to him China’s backwardness and spurred his belief that China should study foreign ways. One of Deng’s first acts when he came to power was to force his officials to see the West for themselves, thus creating a political consensus for allowing foreign investment in China’s Special Economic Zones.
As a young Communist operative, Deng also lived in the Soviet Union briefly during the 1920s New Economic Policy, a form of state capitalism. Deng would promote a similar model during the 1980s: dissolving the collectives, while declaring family farms “socialist” — i.e., kosher for Communists — and quietly releasing the entrepreneurial energy of household businesses. Deng was disarmingly straightforward on the macro level: Socialism does not mean poverty, he said, although “some will get rich first.”
Deng’s authoritarianism was also evident early on: In 1926, he was writing that “centralized power flows from the top down. It is absolutely necessary to obey the directions from above.” Later, he would speak of democracy within the Chinese Communist Party, and, in 1978, he briefly supported Beijing’s Democracy Wall — a place where citizens could put up posters criticizing the government. But as the posters grew more daring — attacking Mao, and even Deng himself — he ensured Wei Jingsheng’s arrest and the fall of the Democracy Wall. Vogel quotes a provincial official: “Lord Ye loved looking at a book with pretty pictures of dragons . . . but when a real dragon appeared, he was terrified.”
By 1987, intraparty democracy was nowhere to be seen and Deng simplified his original equation: “Do not yield to the feelings for democracy.” Vogel’s evidence suggests that when Deng had spoken of political reform, it had largely been a reaction to Mao. Deng subsequently deemed the legal system capable of preventing a single individual from dominating, and thus he had no use for the checks and balances of democracy. As political freedoms evaporated under Deng’s revised constitution, he launched a nationwide campaign against spiritual pollution, followed by another against bourgeois liberalization. He introduced the one-child policy, with its mass abortions, sterilizations, and predictable female infanticide. In addition, Deng made it clear that he would not become “China’s Khrushchev” by delegitimizing Mao’s memory. While Deng would restore politically suspect Chinese officials, the demons of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution would go unpurged — and they burn in the Chinese psyche today. If the temple of Marxism was now neglected, he enshrined Chinese patriotism in its place. Those who followed Deng stuck with the template. Vogel believes that Deng ultimately had no ideological objections to private enterprise and accepted competition as its driving force, but was determined to keep the Communist Party in control.
Vogel’s personal support for Deng’s approach finds its way into the text. For example, commenting on the influx of foreign factories into capitalist pacesetter Guangdong Province, Vogel writes: “Guangdong’s progress cannot be explained simply by ‘opening markets,’ for many countries with open markets did not achieve the progress that Guangdong made. Instead, in Guangdong, a Communist organization that less than a decade earlier had engaged in class warfare became an effective vehicle to promote modernization.”
Yet one wonders if even Deng would have made this claim. Did other Asian countries with open markets do so badly? Weren’t foreigners simply trying to get a toehold? Foreign perceptions of unprecedented opportunities of scale in the China market — isn’t that precisely the same impetus that has driven foreign businesses to overlook massive start-up losses over the last several decades? Don’t ethnic Chinese do well pretty much everywhere — the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia — regardless of whether they are organized by the Chinese Communist Party? And if the entrepreneurial energy of the Chinese is somewhat heroic, why should the party take the credit? These questions shed light on the odd flatness of a few of Vogel’s middle chapters — particularly those that deal with the regulation of township and village enterprises. There is nothing particularly heroic here; much of what took place during the Deng era consisted of commonsense subtraction of preposterous regulations that never should have existed.
It might also be asked whether Deng truly understood the full possibilities for corruption in an alliance between authoritarian ownership and unfettered capitalism. For example, Deng freed the Chinese military to enter the private sphere, with horrendous spinoff effects — such as Operation Aurora (a military-dotcom hacking spree that violated the privacy not only of governments but also of Western corporations, on an epic scale), and the use of Chinese military hospitals as illicit organ-harvesting centers victimizing Uighur activists and followers of Falun Gong (I estimate that 65,000 prisoners of conscience were murdered through these means in the decade immediately following Deng’s death).
Deng was equally ill-prepared for other possibilities. As Vogel reminds us, Deng was indirectly brought into power by the 1976 Tiananmen demonstrations with their anti-Mao undertones. But when Deng’s legacy was similarly threatened in 1989 by the events at Tiananmen (Vogel calls it the “Tiananmen tragedy” rather than a massacre), Vogel follows an insightful discussion of the insurrection’s causes with this description: “What began as an unplanned peaceful outpouring of mourning for Hu Yaobang was transformed into parades, political forums, campouts, angry protests, hunger strikes, and clashes that spiraled out of control.”
To which “clashes that spiraled out of control,” exactly, does Vogel refer? Traffic disruptions? A broken window at the Hall of the People? Overloaded sanitary facilities? Or is Vogel indirectly referring to the three individuals who threw paint on Mao’s portrait? If so, he might mention that they paid a rather steep price. I met one of them after his recent release — the man can barely speak. If Vogel is referring to the troops who ultimately shed blood, he should be clear. Instead, in his discussion of Deng’s decision to clear the square by any means necessary, Vogel invokes a dizzying series of willfully evenhanded arguments: Deng was too tough, Deng was not tough enough; Deng was moving too fast towards democracy, Deng was moving too slow. Ultimately, these are revealed as obfuscations, when Vogel gives a long last word to the Chinese Communist Party defense: “In late May 1989, once the situation in Tiananmen Square began spinning out of control, the strong actions taken by Deng represented the Chinese people’s only chance for keeping their nation together. . . . China could not have stayed together had the leadership allowed the intellectuals the freedom they sought. . . . What we do know is that in the two decades after Tiananmen, China enjoyed relative stability and rapid — even spectacular — economic growth.”
The repeated claim that the Communist Party is responsible for economic growth (when Taiwan’s GDP did not decrease when it moved to a multi-party system) is now followed by the buzzword “stability.” Yet that “stability” was shattered exactly one decade after Tiananmen by the Communist Party’s crackdown on Falun Gong — indisputably the largest sustained action by Chinese security forces since the Cultural Revolution.
In several passages, Vogel questions the sincerity of the Western outcry over Tiananmen by invoking the muted reaction to the Guomindang’s murder of local leaders in 1947 and the Korean suppression of students in 1980. It is summarized by the following statement: “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.”
After casting doubt on the sincerity and validity of our concern, Vogel stakes a claim for his own humanitarianism: “All of us who care about human welfare are repulsed by the brutal crackdown on June 4, 1989.” Yet the deeper Tiananmen tragedy has little to do with Vogel’s framing of it. It never was about the number of dead students, or whether people were slaughtered in the square itself, or whether the Tank Man survived. The tragedy was that, at a time when freedom and political reform were advancing across the world, China was stepping backward. So the tragedy will be found in the opportunity cost, the lost years of an authoritarian China — a Web-based Democracy Wall that never happened, stunted intellectualism, justice never realized, dead never commemorated, and, most of all, a moral hunger forced to subsist on patriotic junk food. Ultimately, given China’s military trajectory, this is a tragedy that may pull us in as well.
Vogel has a bit about that on the last page — and it is tantalizing to think that his final admonition is aimed not only at us, but also at the Chinese Communist Party. It’s a slightly forced what-if, but Vogel has fairly earned the right to channel his subject. Vogel asks: What would Deng say about China’s superpower ambitions if he were still alive? “He would say that China should never behave like a hegemon that interferes in the internal affairs of another nation. Rather it should maintain harmonious relations with other countries and concentrate on peaceful development at home.”
Vogel is correct; every inch a soldier, Deng was no militarist. He cut troop levels nearly in half and reduced Chinese military expenditures from 4.6 percent of GDP down to 1.4 percent by 1991. How different from the rapidly expanding defense budgets that would follow.
But as long as we’re doing what-ifs: What if Deng had opened the door a crack — not just to competing capitalist enterprises, but to competing political parties? Perhaps Vogel wouldn’t need to bring Deng back from the dead, because we probably wouldn’t be headed toward conflict with China. And Deng Xiaoping could sleep the sleep of heroes.
– Mr. Gutmann is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of Losing the New China.