A New Biography of Deng Xiaoping (continued)

By John Boyd

“One cannot imagine that he would have failed to grip
what looks like a drift into near-confrontation with the Powers.”

The author (Yale Graduate School, 1960-62) is grateful to the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. The extracts below are from a review in the China Report Vol.50, No.3, of Professor Ezra Vogel’s biography of Deng Xiaoping. John Boyd served in Beijing, Hong Kong, Washington D.C and Tokyo.

This book [Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, by Ezra Vogel, Harvard University Press] will not be easily surpassed, whether as biography or as interpretation of Chinese political culture. Thomas Carlyle would have loved Deng, the great man who shifts history, author of the real Chinese Revolution. China’s achievement and prospects were transformed between 1978 and the new century, with profound and continuing consequences – this reviewer would argue hugely beneficial – for us all. The process is of course incomplete and there are gaps. It comes out of China’s long struggle to modernise from the mid-Qing onwards, through the subsequent ‘century of humiliation’ and of course the Mao period.

Commentators now in their seventies can or should remember the condition of China in the mid-twentieth century. The pay off from Mao’s Great Leap was starvation and desolation, visible in many ways to young Beijing-based diplomats, travel restrictions notwithstanding. In the Cultural Revolution customary operation of Chinese society became impossible. The individual and cultural toll was great and the damage to China’s reputation near fatal.

These events were a huge setback to the attempt, going back a century, to modernise China’s administration, bring its technology up to world standard and strengthen its society to deal with external pressure. In assessing Deng one should never forget what went before. Nor does Ezra Vogel. And one should never underrate the technical challenge for reformers of working towards profoundly different politics within an all-encompassing and self-serving Party system. The stress lines were clearly visible in wall posters of the Red Guard period. I remember my first sight – in a written attack on Deng – of the cats/mice proposition, the pragmatists’ charter. His reflections drawn up for the 1978 Party Work Conference deserve to be revisited regularly.

And, as Vogel makes fully clear, Deng’s intellect was backed by formidable determination. No one could fail to be impressed by the speed of mind, the strength of memory which made briefing notes unnecessary, the complete focus and clarity.

Vogel deals superbly with both the personality and the tangled politics. The book is a model of impressive reading and research, lucid exposition and seriously useful information. Vogel has taken full advantage of the now extensive availability of Deng material in China, but he uses it with rigour and restraint. The book is a fine account of Deng the man; but also, perhaps even more valuable, a great guide to the key challenges in modernisation. Efforts to settle the balance between technological progress, based on expertise and reward, and the political envelope continue to the present. Can this be resolved? Deng dealt triumphantly with scientific advance and economic restructuring but failed to deliver fully – as he had presumably hoped – on political modernisation (always within a stable framework) and a permanently untroubled relationship with the outside world.

But the achievement if incomplete is formidable and hugely important to the rest of us. Deng drew lasting conclusions from his early overseas exposure. He could always read foreigners and their intentions. His conclusions were always his own. His greatest internal achievement was survival. His greatest external triumph was the visit to Carter’s USA. His pragmatism in handling the normalisation of relations with the Americans was extraordinary. Deng was a match for his US interlocutors. And no one else in China had the skill and authority for the crucial calls. The same obviously applies in broad terms to Hong Kong. That resolution remains remarkable. Looking back one salutes the objectivity of Cradock, the long vision of Youde, the political touch of Geoffrey Howe and the realism, in the end, of Margaret Thatcher. But the imaginative framework and key formula were Deng’s.

“One should never underrate
the technical challenge for reformers
of … an all-encompassing and self-serving Party system.”

Domestically Deng was never other than tough, as Party competitors and feather-bedded PLA generals found out. No crypto-liberal he. But he was admirably clear and robust in refusing to endorse Mao’s Cultural Revolution or allocate politically correct space to ‘class struggle.’ Vogel also brings out the continuity and strength of Deng’s view of the 1960s-70s Soviet threat whether to China or more widely. He warned constantly against limp Western responses.

In terms of China’s long history, the modernisation which speaks particularly to me is scientific and educational. To Deng goes the credit, even before he became Paramount Leader, of restoring the standing, role and individual fortunes of China’s scientific community – the road to China’s revived reputation as a creative innovator, with the quality of its research now highly respected again in the academies of the West. This has incidentally strengthened the hand of enterprises like the Needham Research Institute in Cambridge whose job it is to chart the long history of China’s mathematics, astronomy, engineering, medicine and much else.

But Vogel does not overlook the gaps. Deng was interested in political reform, at least on his terms. There was an agenda, if cautious, before the 1987 Party Congress. There was interest in a clearer boundary between State and Party. The limits were never fully tested. Had Deng lived or worked longer things would surely have moved forward. Who knows how far? Certainly no one other than Deng could have carried this off. Be that as it may, Tiananmen, a tragedy from any point of view (and, true to the historian’s high calling, Vogel sticks to the facts) destroyed any will to experiment.

Nevertheless the reform agenda is not dead, even if it has slept a little. The focus now must be to build on the recent Third Plenum which gave out important political signals – strongly recalling Deng’s classically reformist Third Plenum of 1978. But in a context in which the Chinese leadership as a whole remain focused (Westerners would say obsessively) on the right balance between political relaxation, jobs and stability, it remains to be seen how quickly and ambitiously those now at the top will develop the reform case.

The other difficulty, currently very visible, is tension in China’s political relationship with the outside world. Deng dealt decisively to settle relations with Russia and America. He invested in better relations with Japan. He clearly hoped, not unreasonably, for faster progress towards Taiwan reunification (though there has been significant practical convergence). The situation in the Pacific worked on so hard by Deng has more or less unravelled. Others have their responsibility too, but one cannot imagine that he would have failed to grip what looks like a drift into near-confrontation with the Powers or a loss of rapport with regional partners who should in principle be China’s collaborators or allies.

Vogel’s book will long be required reading for those seeking enlightenment on the full China, including dynastic China. It speaks volumes about the modernising challenge to a deeply traditional society. It avoids superficial conclusions and makes real the hazards and daunting complexity of Chinese political life. Deng was disgraced three times. Nevertheless he was operationally indispensable and was able to bring back to the table his extraordinary administrative gifts and historical imagination. Everything in Deng’s record suggests to me that at the present point in time he would have approved of the current reshaping of China’s economic model, an effort to steady relations with the Powers and the regional neighbours and a continuing attempt to enlarge the political space for the citizens but step-by-step and eschewing disorder. Even more persuasively, he would have supported the deployment of China’s overseas investment strength. Europeans do not take this for granted but, for their own reasons, applaud it.

Vogel’s fine account of these topics and their back history will occupy a worthy place alongside the great scholarly interpretations of China in the round – John King Fairbank, Jonathan Spence, Rod MacFarquhar, Jonathan Fenby — and, I would add personally, Mary Clabaugh Wright on (appropriately) ‘The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism.’


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