Book review: 'Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China'

    Written by: Ilhan Niaz
    Posted on: July 10, 2012 | Post your comment here Comments | 中文

    Ezra F. Vogel - Review of book Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China by Ilhan Niaz

    Ezra F. Vogel

    Book Information:
    Author: Ezra F. Vogel
    Title: Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China
    Publisher: Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, the United States of America
    Pages: xxiv + 876
    Price: US $ 39.95 (Hardback)
    ISBN: 978-0-674-05544-5

    Ezra F. Vogel’s Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China is one of the finest biographies to have been written about any 20th century leader. It is a very important biography as it brings to life a leader about whom not much is known to non-Chinese audiences, especially in the West and the English-speaking world. Vogel manages to engage with his subject at an empathetic level and analyzes Deng Xiaoping’s successes and failures in a meaningful and effective manner. At nearly 900 pages, of which about 700 constitute the main text, Deng Xiaoping is rich in detail and covers all important aspects of Deng’s extraordinary life. More interesting to a broader audience than the details of Deng’s life and times, however, is that Vogel succeeds in communicating Deng’s style of leadership and how it laid the foundations for the transformation of China. Regarding that style of leadership, four particularly vital dimensions of it were Deng’s humility and willingness to learn, his acceptance of responsibility, his pragmatism in dealing with internal and external problems, and, most critically, building a solid administrative system capable of maintaining order while delivering progress.

    To elaborate Deng’s extraordinary humility and sense of proportion one can cite any number of examples but two emphatically stand out. One is that during Deng’s 1978 visit to Japan, his hosts remarked that much of Japanese culture was derived from China. Deng graciously responded that now China was the student and Japan was the teacher for it was the latter that had succeeded in modernization. Deng clearly understood the dangers of cultural narcissism and the terrible price that China had paid for its complacence and arrogant insularity during the 1800s when confronted with European imperialism. The other example that stands out was Deng’s refusal to create a cult of personality, a temptation that leaders tend to succumb to quite easily. Instead, Deng embraced his own transience and realized that China needed an institutional mechanism through which the greatest strength of Western constitutionalism – the periodic, peaceful and legitimate transfer of power from one set of leaders to the next – was adapted to Chinese conditions. In undertaking this reform of China’s culture of power, in which rulers, including Mao Zedong, clung to office until they died or were overthrown, Deng established term limits, encouraged the grooming of successors and built a consensus within the Communist Party in favor of orderly succession every ten years.

    This willingness to curtail his own power and avoid self-aggrandizement reflected Deng’s sense of responsibility towards both the people and the Party. The finest illustration of this was Deng’s adamant refusal to disassociate his person or the Party from Mao Zedong, even after the latter’s passing away. One of the most memorable parts of the book under review relates to Deng’s press conference during his 1978 visit to Japan. One of the reporters asked Deng what he thought “about the horrible things Mao had done to his country” (304). Deng replied that “These were not just Mao’s mistakes, they were all our mistakes. Many of us made mistakes, we lacked experience and had poor judgment…We are very poor, we are very backward. We have to recognize that. We have a lot to do, a long way to go, and a lot to learn”(304).

    Deng realized that in order to become strong, advanced and wealthy, China had to be pragmatic in dealing with outsiders. What this meant was proceeding with normalization of relations with countries from which China needed to learn. Thus territorial, political and ideological disputes were to be put on the back burner, while trade, scientific, educational and cultural exchanges, and communications, were to be made priorities. Deng’s grand strategy was to alter the balance of capability in China’s favor over the long-term (100 years), and to allow the gradual accumulation of knowledge and wealth to increase China’s options in dealing with its neighbors and the rest of the world. Deng came to realize, partly on account of his interaction with ASEAN and Japanese leaders, that a vociferous, saber rattling, revolutionary China, merely facilitated its own strategic encirclement while undermining its own economic and social development. Even on issues as deeply emotive like Taiwan and Honk Kong, Deng was ready to compromise, be it in the form of “one country, two systems” or not allowing US arms sales to Taiwan to sabotage normalization of Sino-US relations. The only conflict that Deng sanctioned was the brief punitive war against Vietnam, which had the desired effect of helping the Vietnamese realize that the Soviet Union would not come to their rescue if it entailed risking a land war deep in Asia.

    Deng’s greatest strength and contribution to China’s transformation was that he was a prodigiously gifted and experienced administrator. Deng restored meritocracy to China’s education system, military, and civilian bureaucracy and operated on the principle that the quality of governance was a function of the quality of the servants of the state. Without an effective, enlightened and highly motivated state apparatus, it would not be possible to achieve economic growth, social development, and genuine scientific progress. Deng devoted a considerable portion of his time and energy to operating a sound administration and seeking out the right people for the right jobs. In making his selections for important positions Deng valued expertise, ability, hard work, probity, and a capacity for self-education, over and above personal loyalty. This was in sharp contrast to the Mao era during which class origins and loyalty to the ruler were regarded as being fundamentally more important than education, ability and relevant experience.

    Overall, Vogel’s Deng Xiaoping is a biography worthy of a great leader who brought order to chaos, prosperity to poverty and enlightenment to darkness, and in so doing, set China on track to reclaim its historic position as the preeminent power in Asia. Deng Xiaoping’s legacy is that while China still has a long way to go and a lot to learn, it is neither poor nor backward and has become an integral part of the international system. For anyone who wants to understand China, its ongoing transformation, and domestic institutions, Deng Xiaoping is a must read.

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