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