6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 23 February 2012
Ezra Vogel's biography of Deng Xiaoping is a work long overdue within the numerous literature on modern China, and a work in every way entirely worth the wait.
As the most consequential Chinese leader of the past 3 decades, or arguably within the world, Deng Xiaoping had long been entitled to a thorough, and scholarly biography, and finally such a work is here.
As many may be previously familiar with the later parts of Deng Xiaoping's life, his downfall in the Cultural Revolution, and his return to power in 1978, here more detail is given to his earlier life in Sichuan Province, and his crucial early years as a student in Paris.
That is not to say that any detail is spared on the later more crucial parts of his life, such as his return under Mao and later Hua, and his period at the helm from 1978-1989. Here we learn the difficulty of the path he navigated between hardline conservatives such as Chen Yun, who were ambivalent toward economic reform, and the difficult process of opening up and maintaining the authority of the party.
This biography in some ways repudiates the commonly held notion that Deng was a capitalist in disguise. A key insight offered was that he was initially influenced by the new economic policy implemented in the USSR in the early 1920s, which was a much milder version than the socialism implemented by Stalin, and later Mao.
We also learn, that Hua Guofeng was the first to initiate Special Economic Zones, and had an inkling toward reform, even if he did not say so, but ultimately lacked the leadership pedigree inherent in Deng, making Deng's outmaneuvering of Hua inevitable.
More than just a chronicling of his economic reforms, the book contains a chapter on his flexible political vision, One Country, Two Systems, Hong Kong Tibet and Taiwan. This details the success of the return of Hong Kong, which despite the expiration of the lease, the British still wanted to continue to administer, and his generous offers at reconciliation with Taiwan and the Dalai Lama.
The above chapter should be given thorough reading and re-reading by any sympathizers with Tibetan and separatism, as it exposes the generous opportunity missed by the Dalai Lama and his hardline exile community in Dharamsala.
We learn that the Dalai Lama's offer of return was the most generous he was ever likely to get, residence in Lhasa and Beijing, being made a Vice Chairman of the National People's Congress, and the autonomy they had long sought. Only this offer was rebuffed to demand more autonomy than was being offered to Hong Kong, and extension of the TAR to include all Tibetan areas in neighboring Chinese provinces.
While many China hands will be familiar with Deng's economic achievements, which are impossible to understate, this book also underscores his foreign policy achievements, which were equally remarkable.
Deng set about full reconciliation with the US and the USSR, and on both counts, achieved reconciliation entirely on his terms. Deng's foreign policy in itself was every bit as remarkable as his economic achievements.
What we have is a thorough biography and chronicling of the life of Deng in all aspects, and rather than being simply a biography of the man, it is also in itself, a standalone history of modern China.
Truly essential reading for any China enthusiasts, regardless of the immersion in the subject.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 6 June 2013
Taking into account the large number of published Amazon reviews I limit myself to seven points, from my perspective of studying political leaders and advising them. But, first, an overriding observation:
In the discussion on the role of leaders in history, Deng clearly is a paradigmatic case of a leader who changed the trajectory into the future of a major country with crucial global repercussions. China could have developed differently but for the impact of Deng, who crafted "basic policies, which resonated with the economic needs and wishes of the people [that] continued to guide policy-making for decades" (p. 685). This was not deterministically ordained, but happened because of Deng, despite much opposition which nearly gained the upper hand.
Deng was an outstanding foundational ruler, changing the dynamics of China by a kind of "revolution from within," while maintaining the unity of the country and of the party as the basis of capacities to govern. When compared with Gorbachev the grand-strategy of Deng is all the more impressive, assuring both dramatic economic growth and overall political stability. The case of Deng clearly demonstrates that individual leaders can sometimes, if they have fitting qualities and the context provides facilitating conditions, impact significantly and even critically on the future.
To move on to seven more specific points:
1. Deng developed large parts of his approach while in exile during the Cultural Revolution, illustrating the benefits of periods of withdrawal and thinking, as pointed out by Toynbee and shared with other foundational rulers, such as Mandela.
2. He laid the bases for China becoming an economic and soon a geopolitical superpower and dramatically raising the welfare of the population - by increasing reliance on market processes and opening China to the global economy, while maintaining central controls. What he introduced, with the assistance of many advisors and actors, was a "socialist market economy" which was not only very successful, but elastic and open to further development fitting changing situations by Deng's successors.
3. A lesson of broad applicability central to the book is the need for high-quality thinking in terms of long-term futures, with all uncertainties, as essential for successful foundational rulership. But this requirement contradicts the short-term preferences built into consumption-oriented cultures, requiring overcoming in one way or another tensions between "nowtime" democratic political pressures and the duty of political leaders to look out after future generations. Deng did so successfully, thanks to the party regime and some Chinese traditions.
4. All civilizations, including modern Western culture, bias and distort understanding of other civilizations. Within Chinese civilization maintaining the unity of the country is a top priority. Lack of understanding of this and other crucial points resulted in disproportional Western criticism of the "Tiananmen Tragedy." Vogel avoids the misperceptions and exaggerated reactions characterizing much of the West and especially the United States, evaluating instead the episode judiciously (especially pp. 636-639).
5. Given its history, civilization, size and other main features, it is a delusion to expect China to become a Western-type liberal democracy and it is a serious mistake to recommend that it should become one. But other, partly unique, forms of democracy may develop in China with time, as indeed postulated by Deng.
6. Deng understood the critical importance of science and technology for the future of China, importing relevant knowledge, sending many students abroad, consulting outstanding experts including especially Chinese scientists living in the USA, and advancing university teaching of science and technology.
7. Upgrading the quality of leadership was a main concern of Deng, including mandatory retirement age, leadership teams, self-criticism (if not imposed forcefully), cultivating successors, competitive meritocratic examinations (having a long Chinese tradition, but modernized), careful selection taking into account knowledge and experience, high-level party leadership schools, and more.
To conclude: All countries and humanity as a whole are cascading into radical novel and in part inconceivable futures, making foundational rulers essential world-wide. Therefore the experiences of Deng, as well presented in this book, are very relevant to the concerns of political leaders and their advisors, and to the study of leadership as a whole.
All in all, the book is fascinating, in part because of its subject matter but also thanks to the author. In contrast to some other reviewers, I think it is well edited and regret it is not longer. This book deserves more than five starts. I strongly recommend it to students, politicians, executives, thinkers and activists interested in China and the future of the world as a whole. All the more so, this biography is obligatory reading for all who want to understand foundational leaders or aspire to become one.
Professor Yehezkel Dror
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem