Surviving Mao, Revamping a Nation

Copyright The Wall Street Journal
From the outset of his hefty biography of the second most powerful leader in the history of modern China, Ezra Vogel wants readers to know that writing about Deng Xiaoping was not easy.

As a figure who for decades swam with the sharks—and survived—at the highest levels of Chinese politics under an emperor-like Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping (1904-97) relied on a prodigious memory rather than prepared texts when he spoke; he left behind no notes or personal papers; and in most matters he scrupulously observed party discipline. Even as he suffered through three purges, Deng was said to have refrained from speaking with his wife and children about political matters.

Such limitations on the aspiring biographer have not prevented Mr. Vogel from producing a lively portrait of the man who, the author believes, may have had the greatest long-term impact on world history of any 20th-century figure. Mr. Vogel argues that Deng was responsible for lifting 300 million Chinese out of poverty and launching a process of unprecedented urbanization that, during his era alone, saw 200 million people migrate to towns and cities from the poor countryside. While doing so, Deng “guided China through a difficult transition from a backward, closed, overly rigid socialist nation to a global power with a modernizing economy,” Mr. Vogel writes. The reforms that Deng engineered, Mr. Vogel argues, “rank among the most basic structural changes since the Chinese empire took shape during the Han dynasty over two millennia ago.”

Kyodo News/Associated Press

The book is certainly not without defects. One wonders how the author’s privileged access to sources deeply invested in the prestige of China’s system and in the person of Deng himself may have contributed to a result that too often reads like an authorized political narrative, however richly informed. The diminutive man from Sichuan Province whom Mao described as a “needle inside of a ball of cotton” is sometimes lionized more than analyzed in the book, coming across as a truth-seeker who never favored friends and always placed China’s interests above all.

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