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  • Of Leaders and Governance:How the Chinese Dragon Got Its Scales
  • Timothy Cheek (bio)
Ezra F. Vogel , Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011, 928 pp.

It may be best to begin this big book at the end. To find out what this hefty volume (some 700 pages of text and over 130 pages of appendices and notes) has to offer, the last chapter (chapter 24) serves well. Here Ezra Vogel spells out what his decade-long effort to chronicle the political life of post-Mao China's preeminent leader, Deng Xiaoping, has produced. The book begins with Vogel's promised mission: "I wanted to write a book to help Americans understand key developments in Asia" (xi). Chapter 24 enumerates the help Vogel has to offer his chosen audience, having taken the political career of Deng from the 1970s until his death in 1997 as his window into the transformations of Asia's largest country and now-dominant power.

For Vogel, Deng Xiaoping's life traces the transformation of China from the isolated, troubled, distinctly unprosperous, autarkic state socialist society of the early 1970s to the stable, prosperous, powerful, and influential international actor active in global organizations and financial markets that we see today. The story is not simple, but it is coherent. Vogel is a sociologist and so eschews easy rhetorical moves to reduce these changes to the influence of Deng or any single or few leaders. Vogel acknowledges, and the book details, the impact of numerous other factors: Chinese traditions of statecraft, the [End Page 235] scale and diversity of Chinese society, the nature of world institutions across these decades (pointing to the unraveling of Cold War-order binaries), and the openness of the global system to sharing technology and managements skills (i.e., the emerging neoliberal global market). He also points to the role of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) itself and the contributions of numerous active and intelligent Chinese and their ideas (693). Vogel even tips his hat to the work of Frederick Teiwes and Warren Sun, acknowledging that Deng Xiaoping did not start the "reform and opening" that began and defines this transformation; his predecessor, the somewhat colorless Hua Guofeng (Mao's immediate successor in 1976), did. And yet, Vogel believes it is worthwhile to focus on one person because Deng Xiaoping was "the general manager who provided overall leadership" (694).

The term "general manager" gives us entry into Vogel's purposes and suggests just which Americans he wants to address. The corporate management model is a useful metaphor for Westerners unfamiliar with the management duties of a party leader in China's authoritarian political system in the post-Mao period, which are something like those of a manager in a large corporation. Once again, Vogel is clear and articulate. Deng as general manager "helped package the ideas" and led his team to get them accepted; he "provided a steady hand at the top" to give people confidence through trying changes; he oversaw the selection and guidance of "the team of colleagues that worked together" to manage this transformation we call reform. Deng was a problem solver who helped forge a robust and capable administration that could implement plans and survive political and popular challenges. He led in setting priorities, but he delegated; he articulated the core ideas, but in a way the general public could appreciate. When controversies arose, Deng managed the process to minimize cleavages. He made sure public promises were realistic and likely to work for enough people to secure ongoing public support. He managed relations with other and competing units (states, but in this description it could easily be "firms") to protect his own unit and to avoid wasteful conflict and destabilization of the international system. In all, Vogel could be describing the virtues of one of his keiretsu (business group) leaders in Japan as Number One, his famous study of Japan's rise, published in 1979.

But I don't think Vogel is speaking to transnational corporations particularly, beyond the de-Orientalizing familiarity of "general manager" as a [End Page 236] corrective to the image of "Communist China's autocratic leader...


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pp. 235-244
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2020
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