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Deng: China’s tarnished visionary

by Jeff Kingston

DENG XIAOPING and the Transformation of China, By Ezra F. Vogel. Belknap Press, 2011, 876 pp. $39.95 (hardcover)

Deng Xiaoping is one of the most influential men in modern history and here his dramatic story, one intertwined with elite intrigues in the Chinese Communist Party, is recounted in detail by one of the most eminent scholars of Asia.

Deng was thrice purged, but managed to climb back each time, becoming de facto leader from 1978 until 1992 even though he never held the titles of leadership. He promoted wide-ranging economic reforms that led to remarkable growth and modernization, a process that has vastly improved the lives of “hundreds of millions of Chinese.”

Regarding the debate over whether Deng was more despot than reformer, Ezra Vogel emphasizes the successful consequences of his economic reforms, but does not shy from criticizing his failures. The portrait that emerges is of a visionary authoritarian who helped his nation overcome the self-inflicted wounds of Mao Zedong and achieve enormous economic advances.

Deng knew that his legacy would be tarnished by his direct involvement in the 1989 crackdown at Tiananmen Square. In Deng’s view, China needed the Party to guide modernization and hold the nation together so it was imperative that the government assert its authority by any and all means. The lesson he drew from Eastern Europe was that the Party had to hold firm and not concede to protesters’ demands. While Vogel condemns the brutality and violence that ensued, he makes a case for putting the Tiananmen tragedy into perspective, portraying it as a necessary evil and one that pales compared to the horrors Mao inflicted.

Although agreeing with the students’ grievances about the lack of political freedoms, widening disparities and corruption, Vogel also dismisses them as the “hothouse” generation, espousing an idealism unmatched or tempered by experience. Even so, “the students could not have imagined that the political leaders would eventually resort to armed force, and that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would shoot unarmed citizens on the streets of Beijing.”

The brutal crackdown sent an unmistakable message that messing with the Party is a very dangerous gamble against the odds.

Despite an obvious admiration for Deng’s sweeping achievements, Vogel holds him responsible for the bloodshed, asserting there is no evidence that Deng hesitated to order armed troops to clear Tiananmen Square or ever regretted his decision. Vogel points out that some demonstrators were shot by soldiers adjacent to Tiananmen Square on Chang’an Boulevard and at the Great Hall of the People, but the “greatest resistance and the greatest violence on the night of June 3 and the early morning of June 4 took place on a main street four miles west of Tiananmen Square, near Muxidi Bridge.”

Vogel cites estimates of as many as 2,600 deaths and several thousand wounded.

The two chapters on “The Beijing Spring” and “The Tiananmen Tragedy” help us understand the context and consequences of the 1989 challenge to Party rule. The demonstrations were a spontaneous grieving over the sudden death of Hu Yaobang, whom Deng elevated to general secretary and then maneuvered out of power because he was too soft on student demonstrators in 1986. The public was angry that the government was not according the popular Hu sufficient respect. The resulting protests from mid-April 1989 “represented an implicit criticism of Deng Xiaoping’s unwillingness to do more to promote democracy.”

Concerns over inflation and the threat to government employees on fixed salaries (and the students who aspired to such jobs) fueled outrage over economic reforms inasmuch as “the least moral people in Chinese society, those working for themselves and those willing to exploit public resources for personal benefit” could enjoy opulent lifestyles. These protests morphed into a broader indictment of Party rule and widespread corruption. Vogel also suggests that Deng was embarrassed and angered by the protesters for brazenly occupying the square during Gorbachev’s visit, ruining planned celebrations over “the end of the Sino-Soviet rift on Chinese terms.”

Zhao Zhiyang, general secretary of the CCP at the time, resigned rather than imposing martial law, opting to be on what he believed was the right side of history at the expense of getting on the wrong side of Deng. He languished under house arrest until his death in 2005.

Another consequence of Tiananmen was the promotion of patriotic education in order to shore up the Party’s legitimacy and national unity. Western sanctions aimed at punishing Chinese leaders for the Tiananmen crackdown fueled a patriotism drawing on the narrative of national humiliation and, ironically, made criticism of the Party unpatriotic.

Exclusion from the World Trade Organization, denial of hosting the Olympics in 2000, criticism of human rights abuses of Tibetans and Uighurs, support for Taiwan and denial of Chinese claims to disputed islands were all represented as examples of anti-Chinese prejudice and a concerted effort to keep China down. Vogel notes that “among these efforts to teach patriotism, nothing was more effective than the revival of anti-Japanese propaganda.”

Next year marks the 40th anniversary of normalization of Sino-Japanese relations, but it is the 1978 Treaty of Peace and Friendship pushed through by Deng that produced results. Vogel highlights the importance of Deng’s historic visit to Japan in October 1978 in improving relations and opening the spigots of loans, investments and technology transfer that helped launch China’s modernization. As Vogel notes, “No other country played a greater role in assisting China build its industry and infrastructure than Japan.”

Deng’s visit to the Kimitsu Steel Factory across Tokyo Bay was an eye-opener as the output of this single plant amounted to half of China’s entire steel production. Japan’s development state was a model for China, and “senior Japanese leaders … knew personally what horrors Japan had caused” and thus were eager to make amends. Official loans and grants amounting to some $25 billion over the next three decades were quasi-reparations and an investment in Japan’s future.

Deng helped China recover from the nightmare of Mao’s inept and brutal rule, but in the 1950s he played an instrumental role in cracking down on intellectuals and was also involved in implementing the Great Leap Forward, a disastrous error causing a famine that claimed more than 40 million lives. Subsequently Deng was purged for his refusal to endorse the Cultural Revolution, a stance that enabled him to promote reconciliation after Mao’s death in 1976.

Vogel emphasizes that Deng was astute in foreign policy and was a gifted manager of China’s economic reforms, knowing how to select and guide teams, provide incentives, twist arms and drag the country out of backwardness. Deng revived education and overcame huge obstacles -ideological and material — to launch the greatest economic boom in history.

In Vogel’s opinion, “It is doubtful that anyone else then had the combination of authority, depth, and breadth of experience, strategic sense, assurance, personal relationships, and political judgment needed to manage China’s transformation with comparable success.”

Now China’s leaders face similar challenges as in 1989 — freedom, corruption, nepotism and Party legitimacy — but now also have to deal with environmental degradation and providing social security and health care for a rapidly aging population, a consequence of the single child policy introduced under Deng.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.