Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China

When Chinese historians are able one day to ply their subversive trade without control or censorship, their judgment will surely be that their country should revere Deng Xiaoping way above his predecessor Mao Zedong. Mao led the Communist party to victory over the Kuomintang and the Japanese, and united China in the 1950s. He then plunged his country into the famine and bloody mayhem of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Deng carefully put the pieces of the smashed nation back together again and launched China on its recovery to become assuredly once again the world’s largest economy.

Ezra Vogel’s massive biography assembles the case for Deng (1904-97) with narrative skill and prodigious scholarship. Vogel, for many years a Harvard professor, published the bestselling Japan as Number One in 1979. His principal academic interest then turned to China and he spent some time in the late 1980s studying economic reform in Guangdong. The sources and acknowledgements he cites in this book indicate the breadth of his contacts and study, though when required to stray outside the world of conventional western Sinology he is less sure-footed. His knowledge of British and Hong Kong politics, for example, is pretty sketchy.

The book is not hagiographical but it does occasionally read a little like the Deng family’s authorised biography. Warts are mentioned from time to time but the overall picture presented usually discounts the blemishes. While we learn once again that Deng’s time as a young emigrant worker in France in the 1920s left him with a lifetime love of croissants, his later military exploits in the civil war are dealt with pretty summarily. Moreover, Deng’s rule in the south-west of China, including his native Sichuan from 1949-52, gets just a page and a half. It was sufficiently brutal to earn Mao’s approval. Larger landlords were attacked and killed. One day we will presumably learn more about Deng’s methods at this time; they were plainly not for the squeamish.

Deng’s role as Mao’s enforcer during the “anti-rightist campaign” of the 1950s is hardly mentioned. Half a million intellectuals were shipped to labour camps. His careful avoidance of personal trouble during the disastrous Great Leap Forward of 1958-61, which led to 45m or more deaths (he broke a leg playing billiards and used a sick note as an excuse for missing difficult meetings) was not heroic. Almost 10m of his fellow Sichuanese starved to death.

But it is Deng’s muddled view of the relationship between economic progress and political freedom that will always attract the most criticism. In his policy battles with the economic hardliner Chen Yun in the 1980s, he was always in the camp that contested the argument that if the party gave up control over the economy it would sooner or later lose control of the state. For Deng and his circle, stepping back from command economics was essential for growth and job creation, and without them the Communist party would certainly lose control of the state. Both propositions are probably true and China’s main existential challenge remains the issue of resolving this dilemma.

The problem was bloodily resolved in 1989 in and around Tiananmen Square, “a tragedy of enormous proportions”, in Vogel’s words. It is, maybe, unfair but inevitable that Deng’s life will be viewed by many through the prism of this catastrophe. Those of us who were in Beijing just before the crackdown should not have been carried away by the epic romance of what was happening in the streets. We should have listened more carefully to the seasoned hacks who told us it would all end in tears and that Deng’s whole career showed that he would never accept such a challenge to the authority of the Communist party.

One unnamed provincial first party secretary is quoted, by Vogel, as saying that Deng’s view of democracy was like Lord Ye’s view of dragons. “Lord Ye loved looking at a book with pretty pictures of dragons but when a real dragon appeared, he was terrified.” This well-known story about a mythical figure from China’s distant past is customarily told to draw attention to the inconsistency between words and actions.

Vogel chronicles very well Deng’s role in stabilising China after the chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), in which he and his family had themselves suffered, literally getting the trains running again, making people work together without reprisals, and re-establishing schools and universities. His initial success in preventing China capsizing led to his second ousting by Mao in 1976. The paranoid Mao was suspicious that the younger man would not support unequivocally the case for the Cultural Revolution, was jealous of his growing popularity and feared that he might, on Mao’s own death, become the Khrushchev to his Stalin, denouncing the departed tyrant.

When Hua Guofeng succeeded Mao later that year, he was soon persuaded to reinstate Deng, China’s best pragmatic manager. But Hua, who had shown great resolve in arresting Mao’s widow and the other members of the Gang of Four, proved no match politically for his wily rival. Deng’s sidelining and despatch of Hua is a masterclass in ruthless, though not vindictive, politics. Hua was stripped of authority, humiliated but not imprisoned.

Intellectually, it was Deng’s bold pragmatism, learning truth from facts, that triumphed over what was ridiculed as the “whateveritis” of Hua – whatever Mao had said or done must be the correct way to act. This approach led to the opening of China to the world, the reform of agriculture and industrial management and the years of stupendous growth. In 1978, the year that really saw the beginnings of change, China exported about as much in 12 months as it now exports in a day.

The first experiments were in Fujian and Guangdong, where the father of the man tipped to be China’s next leader, Xi Jinping, was provinicial party secretary. Vogel has written before about the economic adjustments and rural reforms in China under Deng, starting with the creation of a Special Economic Zone around the hitherto sleepy fishing village of Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong. Foreign investment was welcomed and foreign technology was brought in, copied and, of course, stolen. The commands of a controlled economy were partly replaced by markets and profits. Vogel tells this story authoritatively, culminating in Deng’s journey to the south in 1992 to give heart to the reformers and embolden his successor, Jiang Zemin.

Deng was never an ideologue and, as Vogel argues, it would be unfair to criticise him for failure to set out an overarching philosophy for what he was doing. Sometimes economic activity simply took off once central control was relaxed. Deng himself celebrated the spontaneous emergence of township and village enterprises.

How should we describe what has happened? It does not seem to have much to do with socialism, given for example that in the decade of fast growth after 1997, workers’ wages as a proportion of gross domestic product fell from 53 per cent to 40 per cent. Whatever the correct economic nomenclature, authoritarian party control was never abandoned. Perhaps it is best described as “market Leninism”.

Describing Deng’s art of governing, Vogel sets out a list of the principles that underpinned his rule. Several would have been embraced by other leaders, including his ruthless sacrifice of pawns to preserve the position of the king and his throne. First, he cut down the political reformer and party general secretary Hu Yaobang in 1987 for being too soft in dealing with student protests; then he destroyed Zhao Ziyang during the Tiananmen demonstration in 1989. Deng believed above all in preserving his own authority and that of the party. Whether that was essential to transform China will remain the subject of increasingly open debate. Whatever the answer, Vogel makes a strong case for according Deng the prize for lifting more people out of poverty than anyone else in history.

Lord Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust and chancellor of the University of Oxford, was the last governor of Hong Kong

Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, by Ezra Vogel, Harvard University Press, RRP £29.95, 928 pages

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