DENG XIAOPING AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF CHINA.
By Ezra Vogel
Belknap, Harvard, 876pp.
Reviewed: 18 February 2012
From one man’s navigation through six decades of Chinese politics, we can learn much about the choices we humans make about how our societies are to be governed. Blow away the fog of ideology, and Deng Xiaoping’s choices, loyalties and betrayals could as well take place in ancient Rome or modern Washington as in Beijing. Deng’s personal saga of the acquisition, application and retention of power might attract a future Shakespeare, but we contemporary readers are here offered primary sources and extensive documentation on a man who, more than any other, delivered 20th Century China into the form we see today.
All the evidence suggests that Deng, since his days as a 16-year old Communist student in France in the 1920s, sought power for an altruistic purpose – the advancement of the Chinese people and the Chinese nation. His greatest personal contribution may have been to value pragmatism above ideology. But the one principle on which he would not budge was that all power in China must be centralized through the Communist Party. Communist ideology provided some core principles objectives, but its main function was to define discipline and solidarity within the Party.
In 1979, in response to growing national agitation for greater democracy, Deng promulgated his “Four Cardinal Principals” that were simply four different ways of saying “Obey the Party, no matter what”. Deng fought bitter battles within the Communist Party leadership to promote economic liberalization, but did not hesitate to crack down hard, whether on life-long Communist colleagues or on Western-influenced student dissidents, whenever he sensed any serious threat to the power and authority of the Party.
One of these principles enshrined “Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought” as national ideology. In reality, Deng himself was barely a conventional Marxist, and he is most remembered for his work to undo the national economic and cultural catastrophes of myopic Maoism. But his Leninist conviction on the central role of the Communist Party never wavered even when nepotism and corruption among the Party elite caused deep resentment among the population. A few junior crooks could be shot, and senior ones humiliated, but the Party’s hold on power must not be challenged.
Deng’s survival through savage intra-Party struggles and ultimate rise to the top is an epic in itself. He had been an aggressive but astute military leader in the civil war that brought the Communists to power in 1949, and 1957 Chairman Mao put him in charge of implementing the “Anti-Rightist” purges against intellectuals and doubters, which intimidated a generation of China’s educated classes and paved the way for Mao’s most destructive campaigns, the “Great Leap Forward” and the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”.
Deng himself was purged three times under Mao, but managed to survive by grovelling just as much as required, without losing his life or, apparently, his self-respect. This was a feat akin to surviving at the court of King Henry VIII. Deng’s reputation for effectiveness and Party loyalty meant he always had protectors when he needed them, whereas many equally loyal but less judicious Communists were destroyed utterly by Mao, or in his name.
Any organization that sets itself above the law, as the Chinese Communist Party has always done, may fall to subversion by dominant individuals. By the late 1960s Mao Zedong had established a virtual monarchy (as have many “socialist” dictatorships). The Constitution of the Peoples’ Republic can be changed by any National Peoples Congress, so provides no reliable institutional constraint on personal dictatorship, as demonstrated by China’s national shame of the Mao era. After Mao, power had to be reconstructed on foundations that had been deeply fractured, and by individuals who in many cases had been induced to betray each other.
Deng Xiaoping emerged by 1978 as the one figure with the deep personal support base and the tactical skill to bring many factions together into a viable, common program that bypassed the leftist conservatives. Step by careful step, he and his allies began introducing essential economic reforms such as the de-collectivisation of agriculture, restoration of education, permission of private enterprise, and opening to foreign trade and investment.
Deng in later years enjoyed recognition as “paramount leader” or “supreme leader”, but he never held or claimed Mao’s absolute authority, and he largely avoided the dangers of a personality cult. Deng would cautiously place chosen people in key positions and wait for an alignment of events that favoured his next challenge to opponents within the Party.
The internal debate between liberalizers and conservatives never ended. Deng would rarely jeopardize Party unity for a short-term goal, but never gave up on his long-term strategy for China’s economic development. Even when officially retired in the mid 1990s, he used a well-publicised “family holiday” to the southern provinces to bring pressure to bear on his successor, Jiang Zemin, to push on with economic reforms against the resistance of conservatives such as the veteran advocate of central planning, Chen Yun.
Internationally, Deng was often preoccupied with perceived threats from the Soviet Union. On Mao’s behalf, he had participated in bitter negotiations of the early 1960s when China rejected the notion of a Soviet-led Communist Bloc.
His first crackdown on democratic activists in 1979 took place over the same days that he was insisting China launch an attack on Vietnam as punishment for its invasion of Cambodia, which Deng saw as a ploy for Soviet encirclement of China. China’s leadership was divided on that point, so a gesture to the conservatives was needed and the noisiest dissidents were locked up. His second crackdown, at Tien An Men Square in 1989, took place as the Soviet Union was collapsing, the Berlin Wall was about to fall, and Communist Parties were being bundled out of power across Eastern Europe. Conservatives in Beijing were able to convince Deng, by then in his mid-80s, that the Chinese Communist Party was also under threat, and he took it as a direct challenge to Party rule.
There’s no evidence that Deng Xiaoping had any interest in broadening democracy for China, although there were times when he acted and spoke to mobilize liberal intellectuals, at home and abroad, so as to put heat on more conservative Communist colleagues. He was not immune to insult. His crackdowns on democratic movements came after some public criticisms of Deng himself. Deng had promoted the capable and popular liberal Party leaders Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang for their reforming vigour and openness, but when Hu and then Zhao provoked strong reactions from conservatives whose support Deng needed at the time, he ended both their careers with very public humiliations – sacrifices on the altar of Party unity.
This is a massive tome. Vogel is a veteran sinologist who has accessed a wide range of Chinese and foreign sources, including some personal interviews with surviving key players or those close to them. He assembles insights never available to those of us who were trying to cover these events as they occurred.
Because of the Party’s vigilance, sinologists are often reluctant to jeopardize future access to their privileged sources. Vogel abstains from challenging the Communist Party’s central claim that China can have only Leninist one-party rule, or chaos. He notes, however, that memoirs of key figures, including former liberal Premier Zhao Ziyang and conservative politician Deng Liqun, could not be published in China, but were published in Hong Kong.
I found a few factual errors in matters that I was familiar with, and some editing errors, but this is a handsome hardback production at a price half one might pay for some ephemeral paperback textbook. Both as a serious contribution to the history of contemporary China, and as an often dramatic universal political narrative, this deserves a place on many bookshelves.
Richard Thwaites was ABC correspondent in Beijing in the years Deng Xiaoping achieved pre-eminence in China’s leadership, 1978-83.