- Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China by Ezra F. Vogel
Although there are already at least over a dozen excellent biographies on Deng Xiaoping, Ezra F. Vogel’s recent book will prove a definitive one for a long time to come. Besides its comprehensive coverage [End Page 253] and rich analysis of Deng’s life and career, the book stands out because of at least three important features: first is its extensive use of and, in some cases, privileged access to written records and interviews; second is its detailed account and lucid rendering of the complex Chinese leadership politics from the late Cultural Revolution through Deng’s era; and third is its balanced and insightful assessment of Deng’s historical contributions to the recent transformation of China—arguably the most important event in the latter half of twentieth-century world history.
Because of taboos and secrecy surrounding the topic, Vogel, an internationally renowned scholar and an experienced intelligence officer on East Asia, is uniquely qualified and positioned to meet the challenge of studying a top Communist leader and the Party leadership politics. He laid solid groundwork by reading all the major biographies on Deng in Chinese and English and by conversing with their authors about the man. In addition to an exhaustive research of the written records, Vogel interviewed about two hundred individuals who had intimate knowledge of Deng in one way or another. They include not only members of Deng’s family, children of high-ranking officials who had worked with or under Deng, Party historians, scholars, and political dissidents in or from China, but also political and business leaders and scholars in Asian and Western countries who had met or studied Deng. He is also fortunate at Harvard University to have access to a special collection that houses many materials that are not available in libraries anywhere else. For example, we learn about Deng’s Zhuhai meeting in the southern journey in 1992 which forced the wavering Jiang Zemin to stand firmly with Deng. This is not mentioned in any official publications in Chinese sources because of its sensitive nature. The result is a meticulously researched book that is a synthesis of previous scholarship and new information and insights.
Chinese politics is known as the “black box” operations, and its leadership rivalry is, in particular, shrouded in mystery and secrecy. Yet Vogel, with a deep knowledge of the subject and privileged access to insider information, presents a rich and lucid picture of the intricate leadership politics. We are made to understand the complex relationships and interactions between Mao, Zhou Enlai, Deng, the gang of four, and other key officials involved during the late Cultural Revolution and those between Deng, Hua Guofeng, Ye Jianying, Chen Yun, Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, Jiang Zemin, and other major players in the reform era up until his retirement in 1992. Most readers will probably learn for the first time that Mao had a special relationship with Deng that dated back to the early 1930s, and that he had considered Deng [End Page 254] to be his possible successor in the 1950s, in 1975 when Deng was put in charge of the political bureau meetings, and even in the high tide of the Cultural Revolution, when Lin Biao was his designated heir apparent. They may also be surprised to learn that Hu Yaobang lost Deng’s support in 1985 before the student demonstrations in 1986 led to his downfall. Insider information and fresh insights are abundant regarding how Chinese leaders interacted on the human level and how Chinese politics functioned.
Vogel focuses on Deng’s career as a reformer after Mao had summoned him back from banishment in 1974. Deng’s early life and career as a revolutionary and as a builder of Mao’s system took only 33 out of a narrative of 714 pages. Vogel believes that the years of banishment in Jiangxi from 1969 were crucial for Deng to “ponder the nature of the reforms China needed and how to achieve...