A Great Leap Sideways

On Deng Xiaoping and Chinese history…

So I have been slogging my way through Ezra Vogel’s Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China for the last year or so, maybe longer.  It is a tome equal to the import of Deng’s impact on the twentieth and even twenty-first century.  What makes the biography so fascinating is how much access, however controlled, the author had to primary sources of Deng’s notes, commentaries, and Communist Party records.  Instead of being merely a celebrity biography, the work gives you detailed insights into at the very least a sanitized account of the rapid and complex transformations of the post-Cultural Revolution China.  To say that the Cultural Revolution was a tragedy for humanity, not just for China, is still a dramatic understatement.  Thousands of years of history vanished in smoke.  The intellectual and developmental devastation of Maoism continues to haunt the country.  Deng Xiaoping, instead, comes off in this biography as one of the most profound pragmatists of human history.

Reading the story of the failed Taiping Revolution amidst reading this biography also provides an extra level of insight – where Hong Rongan dreamed of modernizing China, giving it a native government focused on industrial development, modernization, and peaceful relations with other nations, Deng in many ways fulfilled those goals, albeit while fostering regimes that killed hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, on the periphery of the Sinosphere.  Certainly, I do not find Deng to be a truly sympathetic character, however great a genius of leadership.

For a case study of that genius, consider Deng’s approach to foreign policy.  They say only Nixon could go to China, but the cautious rapprochement between the two countries would not have been possible without the influence of Deng and other reform-minded partisans.  One of the lessons that Deng can teach leaders at all levels now is through his efforts to be as forthright as possible, even when it is necessary to conceal ultimate goals for political necessity.  Coming into power as the CCP transitioned from the iron will of Mao and his inner circle towards a very different following generation of cadres, Deng skillfully manipulated partisan ideologues into accepting reforms that prevented Chinese stagnation along Soviet lines, while also dealing with external crises and attempts from “reactionary” doctrinaire Maoists who valued Marxist-Leninist-Maoist orthodoxy above competence, practicality, and realistic solutions to the issues facing a society as enormous and varied as twentieth century China.

Nearly everything familiar about contemporary China can be traced back to Deng’s era of leadership.  In many ways he was a reverse of Franklin Roosevelt, de-escalating nationalization and distributing authority outwards from an increasingly hidebound and doctrinaire central party structure that threatened to trap China in a stagnant, dogmatic system.  I have not finished reading the entire biography, but currently I am at the portion discussing the development of the “one country, two systems” approach to the transfer of sovereignty, reverting Hong Kong back to PRC control from the United Kingdom.  Deng had every opportunity to be a hardliner, and was dealing with Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady who successfully pulled her own land back from the tubercular death throes of socialism and stagnation.  His solution, which is still in at least partial effect more than twenty years after the handover of control, was to assure the successful local power elites that they would not suddenly find themselves sucked dry by a corrupt and inefficient Communist bureaucracy along old Imperial Chinese lines, and instead played off of the powerful effect Hong Kong had as an entrepôt between the commercializing and industrializing mainland and the wider world of global capitalism and the developed economies of the West.

Like many of my entries so far, I wish that I had more time to discuss this book and this individual and his place in human history, but I at least want to close this post with a recommendation to check out the book.  If you are interested in the roots of contemporary China as it moves into the more autocratic, centralized era of “Xi Jinping thought” and even want a good primer on why the Mao Dynasty/CCP-era of China runs on the thoughts of its “paramount leaders,” few are as thorough and well-researched as Ezra Vogel’s.  It is an almost impossible task to gain a real understanding of China as it has become, but to learn its history in the highly dynamic time frame of the second half of the twentieth century, this is a good starting point.  The writing, while dry at times, is also peppered with amusing anecdotes about Deng Xiaoping’s interactions with world leaders and is relatively free of heavy doses of overt propaganda, for or against the oppressive reality of the Chinese Communist Party.