Deng's China

15/01/2012

Ezra F. Vogel has written a timely biography of Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997). Without doubt, the Deng heritage is highly relevant to present day China. Its leaders are still pursuing the four modernizations (of education, science and technology, industry, agriculture and defense).

They carefully strive for balancing rapid growth with financial stability. They are pragmatists “seeking the true path from facts”; communist ideology is left on the backburner. But the primacy of party power remains paramount. This too is part of Deng’s legacy.

Deng Xiaoping was born to a wealthy family in the Sichuan province in southwestern China. At 16 he made it to France for further studies, but had to earn his living the hard way. Deng quickly became active in a communist youth organization. To escape arrest he moved to the Soviet Union in 1926 and was admitted to the Sun Yat-sen University in Moscow. The following year Deng was dispatched back to China.

Deng became a confidant of Mao Zedong and was commanding the second field army during the final showdown with the Guomingdang forces in 1948. After the communist takeover he was three times demoted by Mao, but always made a comeback. Finally in 1978, after the death of Mao, he became China’s acknowledged leader in everything but name.

The author has interviewed many of Deng’s intimates, including family members, and has gained access to a surprising amount of inside documentation. This abundance has occasionally tempted him to overexploit the material. For long stretches the reader feels lost in a mass of only marginally relevant detail. There is also a lot of repetition. A good editor would have made a substantial difference, not least by reducing the hefty size (876 pages) of the book.
All this does not detract from the inherent value of the tome. The patient reader will gain invaluable insights in the ways China is governed. Deng did not have absolute power, but had to resort to persuasion and elaborate machinations to get his way in the end. He preferred to stay in the background, using his personal contact network to build a majority, which supported his views. Only when the time was ripe did Deng act decisively, putting his personal prestige on the line.

In 1987, the “liberal” Hu Yaobang got the sack as first secretary of the communist party. During the Tiananmen crisis, another “liberal”, the prime minister Zhao Ziyang, was sidelined and ended up in house arrest. Both men were handpicked by Deng and subsequently dismissed. The quenching of the Tiananmen upheavals in the spring 1989 was a defining moment for the Chinese leadership. In the decisive moment Deng joined the conservatives, and ordered the violent suppression of the demonstrations.

In contrast to most strongmen, power was not an end in itself for Deng. He held a remarkably low profile and steered clear of all the trappings of a supreme leader. Nevertheless he strongly felt, that the power of the party was the only bulwark against dreaded anarchy. Wright or wrong, Deng saw no way for a peaceful liberalization of China at Tiananmen. Zhao begged to differ; alas the inevitable democratization process was deferred indefinitely.

More than two decades after Tiananmen, the Chinese leadership still clings to the pragmatic policies devised by Deng. Among intellectuals, democracy and the associated liberties seem to enjoy a lot of support — the hardliners are apparently on the defensive. Even so, a new Tiananmen moment is not on the cards. To close the growing affluence gap between the cities and the countryside remains a formidable challenge. The extensive privatization of agricultural land would be a pivotal step in a reform program. No wonder that the party bosses are hesitating.