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.