The Real Deng

Copyright The New York Review of Books

When a scientific experiment uncovers a new phenomenon, a scientist is pleased. When an experiment fails to reveal something that the scientist originally expected, that, too, counts as a result worth analyzing. A sense of the “nonappearance of the expected” was my first impression of Ezra Vogel’s Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China. The term “human rights” does not appear in its index, and it turns out that this omission was not an oversight of the indexer. Systematic nonconsideration of human rights is one of the book’s features.

Mao Zedong died in September 1976. From 1979 until the years just before Deng Xiaoping’s own death in 1997, Deng was, in fact if not always in title, the top leader of the Communist Party of China, of the People’s Liberation Army, and of the Chinese government. He is known outside China, especially in the West, mainly for his decision in 1989 to send field armies with tanks into the heart of Beijing to carry out what came to be known as the “Tiananmen Massacre”: a bloody suppression of unarmed students and other citizens who were demonstrating peacefully in and around Tiananmen Square. Not everyone in the world has looked unfavorably on Deng’s decision. On February 22, 2011, at the height of the “Arab Spring,” Libya’s dictator Muammar Qaddafi had this to say about it:

People in front of tanks were crushed. The unity of China was more important than those people on Tiananmen Square…. When Tiananmen Square happened, tanks were sent in to deal with them. It’s not a joke. I will do whatever it takes to make sure part of the country isn’t taken away.

Deng’s example of the utility of massacre had not been lost on Qaddafi.

Vogel, an emeritus professor of social sciences at Harvard, retells the story of the massacre in a chapter he calls “The Tiananmen Tragedy,” which ends with a meticulous—and, it seems, angst-ridden—review of all the ways one might evaluate the “tragedy.” In the end Vogel comes down to the following:

What we do know is that in the two decades after Tiananmen, China enjoyed relative stability and rapid—even spectacular—economic growth…. Today hundreds of millions of Chinese are living far more comfortable lives than they were living in 1989, and they enjoy far greater access to information and ideas around the world than at any time in Chinese history. Both educational level and longevity have continued to rise rapidly. For these reasons and others, Chinese people take far greater pride in their nation’s achievements than they did in the previous century.

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