Review of “Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China” by Ezra F. Vogel

I have tried to understand China by reading about her political economy and her history. Among others, I have read histories (in order of birth) of

The biography of Deng I read, however, essentially stopped at him taking power. As such it provided a good early biography, but was silent on later events. Therefore I asked what the best up-to-date biography of Deng Xiaoping. I got an answer, and I read it.

Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China is an insightful, thought-provoking, and disappointing book. I am glad I read it. I give it four stars.

Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China is the first detailed, western-written book on high level personal politics during the post-Mao era. There’s much that’s new in this book, and it changes the way that I understand the factions of the post-Mao era.

The book makes clear that the high-level leadership team of the People’s Republic saw the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution as symptomatic of where one-man rule would take personality. That is, the the problem of Mao Zedong was not that Mao was alive, or even in leadership, but that he had acquired so much power among so many elements that it was impossible to stop him until after tens of millions of people died. This makes sense: in recent European politics, Vladimir Meciar was an important democratically elected leader of Slovakia while Slobodan Milosevic was a war criminal who died in prison: the difference between them was the systems they ruled in, rather than their temperment or personality style.

Given that, Deng’s work in displacing Hua Guofeng — China’s Gerald Ford — was more involved than I had thought. It was not merely the question of “opening” China v. keeping China closed, as Hua had begun engagement with both the west and the communist bloc. Rather, members of Deng’s own generation (including Chen Yun and Ye Jianying) sought to keep Hua in power precisely because he was week. What’s even most surprising is that Deng’s first designated successor, Hu Yaobang, also missed the Hua years.

The central event of Deng’s term may have bene the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989, which Vogel discusses both directly and obliquely. Vogel, who calls it the “Tiananmen Tragedy,” draws a direct comparison to the Tiananmen Incident of 1976. The ’76 events at Tiananmen Square (closer in time to the ’89 events than the ’89 events are to us) was a mass protest against the rule of the aging Mao Zedong and the Gang of Four by workers, students, and cadres. Like the ’89 events, the ’76 events had as their proximate cause the death of a beloved leader who had been persecuted by the Surpeme Leader (Zhou Enlai by Mao Zedong, Hu Yaobang and Deng Xiaoping).

For those looking for ominous parallels, the leadership team in charge of China during the ’76 protests were dead or in prison within six months.

Of course there were differences: the ’89 protests were larger in scale, and the government’s reaction was more violent. Indeed, confirming my earlier suspsicions after read wikileaks cables, Vogel states that the government lost control of Beijing out to the Third Ring Road – a 30 mile beltway around Beijing.  (For comparison, the DC Beltway is 64 miles long.)

For the most part, Vogel does an excellent job in his discussion of the events. Vogel criticizes the notion that the protestors were primarily interested in democracy as a form of government. Rather, Vogel interprets the protests were organized against inflation, against totalitarianism, and against anti-bureacraticism.

Zhao Ziyang, Deng’s designated successor at the time the protests began (and who would spend the rest of his life under house arrest, secreting dictating his memoirs), blamed his own policies for leading to inflation as a primary cause. The role of inflation as a cause of social stress is well known, and the fight over inflation may be a especailly important in Chinese politics.

Additioanlly, China in 1989 was still a totalitarian regime for educated youths. Vogel’s writing here is clear, so I’ll just quote from it:

But in 1989, with a shortage of trained graduates in key industries and government offices, government policy still mandated that graduates be assigned their jobs. Since one’s job assignment was based in part on what the political guides who lived with the students wrote in the “little reports” in each student’s secret records, the political guides became the symbol of government surveillance. The political guides were rarely as well educated as the students on whom they were reporting; some were suspected of favoritism and flaunted their authority to influence a student’s future. Many cosmopolitan, independent-minded students detested the constant worry about pleasing them. “Freedom,” to them, meant eliminating these political guides and being able to choose their jobs and careers on their own.

This focus on individual liberty was exacerbated by the fact that “intellectuals” (those with at least a high school education) were the primary losers of the economic reforms of the early and mid 1980s. While local entrepreneurs were providing jobs, creating goods, and revolutionizing the countryside, the decline of the regulatory state combined with the totalitarian control of city life to create an explosive situation:

Party and government workers, state enterprise employees, and others with fixed salaries were furious to see rich private businesspeople flaunting their material wealth and driving market prices higher, threatening the ability of salaried workers to pay for their basic food and clothing needs. The problem was exacerbated by corruption: township and village enterprise workers were enriching themselves by siphoning off needed materials and funds from state and public enterprises; independent entrepreneurs were making fortunes, in part due to government loopholes; and “profiteering officials” were finding ways to use society’s goods to line their own pockets as the incomes of law-abiding officials stagnated.6 Migrants beginning to stream into the cities also contributed to the inflation problem.

As post-1989 say an end to rapid inflation, and end to totalitarianism, and the establishment of a modern regulatory state, perhaps the Tiananmen Protestors were successful in their objectives?

If the protestors were successful, one would expect the man who opposed them to have failed, and Deng Xiaoping might have. To me this is the biggest revelation of this book: Deng was shut out of government as completely post-Tiananmen as Mao had been post-Great Leap Forward. Just as biographies of Mao have to wonder when the best time for him to retire would have been, a good argument can be made that Deng should have stepped down in 1987.

High-level officials either saw the Tiananmen incident as an example of a bumbled overreaction, the consequences of bad policies, or both. Hu Yaobang had used earlier student protests of 1987 as a method of cementing his own popularity with the party and the people. If Deng had allowed this transition to take place, he could have maintained primary in a system where the next ruler was a close long-term companion with similar views. Indeed, the only official who seems actually in favor of it is Li Peng (the adopted son of Zhou Enlai who argued for a crackdown at the time), who appears to be so out of China’s leadership he had his diaries published by a the same company that published Zhao Ziyang’s memoirs! (Vogel also mentions that since the time of the protests, the terms used for it in the government have evolved from Counterrevolutionary Riot, to Riot, to Mass Disturbance, to Event, implying a slow “reversing of the verdicts”).

The other stand-out figure from the 1987 protests was Jiang Zemin, who met protesting students in front of a “mass audience.” When he was heckled, Jiang invited the hecklers to the stage to criticize him directly. After they did so, Jiang emphasized that democracy is a result of the development in society, and in English stated that the essence of democracy in America was:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Jiang reciting the Gettysburg Address in English wasn’t just a cheap parlor trick: it simultaneously demonstrated a serious understanding of what democracy looks like while also emphasizing that building a society in a process driven by “intellectuals” (thus emphasizing the critical role of students and the bureaucracy in Chinese civilization) as opposed to mass movements.

If Deng had selected Jiang as a future replacement earlier, he could have started the Jiang administration earlier and cemented the role of the modern regulatory state.

Vogel cites the old Chinese saying, “the Soviet Union’s today is our tomorrow,” in the context of the Tiananmen protests. It is interesting to think of the great impact that the Soviet Union had one Chinese thinkers. Vogel states that Deng Xiaoping was in the class and same study group as Chiang Ching-kuo. At the time they were studying in Moscow, Russia had moved from War Communism (central planning) to the New Economic Policy, intended to be the first stage of socialism (market-based reforms aimed at increased production). The reforms that Deng and Chiang completely revolutionaized daily life, based on a Soviet model that in the USSR had been killed by Stalin. Indeed, Vogel observes the trend of the Communist Party to re-establish continuity with the Xinhai Revolutionary era, when the Communist Party operated on the directions of Moscow in a United Front with KMT.

Vogel’s amazing work is nearly ruined, however, by his almost random lapses into ridiculous propaganda. My impression after reading this book is that he does this to flatter specific soureces. This is most obvious at the beginning and end of the book, where the Deng hagiography is greatest

“He possessed the natural poise of a former wartime military commander.”

“He made it clear that he did not represent on locality, one faction, or one group of friends.”

But it occurs most often when Vogel is speaking generally, and so a careful reader can ignore it. Sometimes the text is coded, such as this reference to Mao Zedong (in which “errors” are mistakes within the party, and are explicitly not “crimes”):

In his later years Mao was to commit devastating errors, yet he remained a brilliant political leader with deep insight and bold strategies.

And this reference to Lin Biao, which seems internally inconsistent. Is Lin a hypochondriac, is he suffering from a head injury, or he is suffering from PTSD? These options seem mutually exclusive:

Lin Biao, a reclusive hypochondriac after his head injury in World War II…

Chiang Ching-kuo is often the target of Vogel. Whether in this sentence, which is so beyond wrong it is stupid:

When he was informed of Deng’s proposal, however, Chiang Ching-kuo was defiant: he repeated his intention to increase the military budget, build up his fighting forces, and eventually retake the mainland.

to the repeating of insults:

Deng explained that Chiang Ching-kuo could be extremely cocky.

to an Orwellian erasing of history. For instance, in the discussion surrounding this photo:

Vogel notes that Li Peng was with Zhou Enlai at Tiananmen Square. He completely ignores the identify of the first facing straight into the camera: Wen Jiabao (China’s current Prime Minister).

As Vogel does not let these propagandistic statements guide the narrative, the simplest explanation seems to be that he is repeating lines given to him by sources, in hopes of flattering those sources and gaining access to more information later.

This disappointing note is perhaps shared by the similarly hagiographic: The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China, It weakens an otherwise great narrative and forces the reader to be very cautious about what the author’s agenda is.

So Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China is an insightful, thought-provoking, and aggravating book. Recommended!