b i o g r a p h y & m e m o i r g r a h am hutchings
Life of the Party Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China
By Ezra F Vogel (Harvard University Press/Belknap Press 876pp £29.95)
Ask a non-Chinese layman for some of the key dates in China’s modern history and you are likely to get several of the right answers: 1911, the year the last dynasty collapsed; 1949, the year Chairman Mao founded the People’s Republic; 1966, the year he launched the Cultural Revolution; 1978, the start of the post-Mao economic reforms; and 1989, when the People’s Liberation Army bloodily suppressed the protests in Tiananmen Square.
So far, so good. But there are many exceptions to this list, including one that even China hands may not come up with quite so quickly: 1992. That was when Deng Xiaoping, then in his eighty-eighth year, managed to break the post-Tiananmen stranglehold on economic policy exerted by the conservatives in Beijing. As a result, he set China on a course of rapid growth that has transformed the country – and is in the process of doing something similar to much of the rest of the world.
This alone makes Deng a fit subject for a weighty, probing and judicious biography, which is just what Ezra F Vogel has produced. A distinguished scholar of East Asia and emeritus professor at Harvard, he has laboured long on this assessment of the life of a remarkable man who was close to the centre of all but the first of the turning points above.
It can be said of Deng, perhaps with more accuracy than of any other twentiethcentury leader, that his legacy is his country.
China’s leaders today are still doing everything they can to deliver the rapid economic growth Deng demanded in 1992, while curbing the baleful side effects, including environmental destruction, corruption and growing inequalities. And not until next autumn will a new leadership take over in Beijing the key figures of which were not personally elected by the strongman of Chinese politics. Though of a very different generation, the new elite will not readily abandon ‘Deng’s line’, best described as ‘let’s make China rich and strong as soon as possible’. Nor will they be keen to challenge another aspect of Deng’s legacy: the violent crackdown on the student-led protests of 1989, which Deng ordered and which remains one of the most sensitive political issues in China today.
As someone fortunate enough to have worked in China during the last ten years of Deng’s life, I witnessed at first hand the effect of the raw power he exercised. He made his mark from the centre of Beijing to the distant frontier regions,
Deng: looming large from the poorest parts of China to the rich periphery of Hong Kong, Taiwan and far beyond. When, on one occasion, I saw him walk into a room in the Great Hall of the People to greet worthies from Hong Kong, he exuded ‘presence’, despite his advanced age, and customary plain, ‘revolutionary’ attire. He delivered a pithy, unscripted speech – the emperor had deigned to appear and confer favours, before quickly vanishing behind a screen again.
Deng was born into a world of decline.
China’s reformers had long been aware that the West, followed by Japan, was far more powerful than the ailing Qing dynasty. They were less sure of what to do about it. Young men such as Deng, born in Sichuan in 1904 into a small land-owning family, threw their lives into study and politics (the two often were barely separable), the better to rescue their country. In Deng’s case, this took him to France, where, at the age of sixteen, his studies and work – including a spell at a Renault car factory in Paris – were soon eclipsed by revolutionary political activities. He joined the overseas branch of the infant Chinese Communist Party and built relationships with other key figures, including Zhou Enlai. Study in Moscow followed before Deng returned to China in 1927 to further the Communist revolution at home.
Vogel glosses over this first phase of his subject’s life. Somewhat peculiarly, he does the same regarding the second and third phases, in which Deng played an important role in almost every episode leading to the Party’s triumph in 1949 and during the first twenty years of Communist China. The book begins with a fourteenpage preface dealing mainly with sources, before devoting a mere thirty pages to the first sixty-five years of Deng’s life.
And what a life it was, irrespective of his subsequent influence. Deng took part in the Long March, played a crucial role in the military campaigns that delivered the Communist victory, held senior positions in the Party, and enthusiastically persecuted critics in the Anti-Rightist Movement of 1957 before falling from grace in the Cultural Revolution, when Mao declined to criticise him by name but branded him as the second most important ‘capitalist roader’ in the Party. Deng and his wife, Zhuo Lin, were sent to Jiangxi province for the next four years. His five children were criticised, and his oldest son, Deng Pufang, under constant verbal attack by Red Guards, fell from a Beijing University building, breaking his spine and leaving him paralysed.
Vogel canters through these extraordinary episodes until he reaches Deng’s return to Beijing in 1973. Then the book proceeds at a statelier pace. With some skill, the author dissects the great battles n o v e m b e r 2 0 1 1 | Literary Review 5