Monday, May 1, 2017
Ezra Vogel : Deng Xiaoping and Transformation of Modern China
Professors at the Harvard University are often foremost in exploring new subjects for writing books; accordingly, during the last decade the Harvard University saw a frenzy of book writing on China. Much of this resulted in a fairly good number of books on Chinese economy, business, governance and politics. By comparison, Ezra Vogel's "Deng Xiaoping and Transformation of Modern China" is a scholarly and solid work of contemporary history and it brings out detailed political biography of Deng Xiaoping and his tryst with the destiny in the post-Mao China that was bedeviled by excesses of Cultural Revolution.
This work, running into 800 pages, is a political history of a period that saw a monumental change in the way China reshaped itself and challenged the world order. To a patient reader it is a lucid and detailed account of economic reforms Deng initiated in a China whose economic growth had stifled under a local brand of socialism nurtured by Mao. These reforms, within a period of thirty years, were to hurtle China ahead of all the big nations and pose a serious economic and strategic challenge to the mighty US. In 1977 at the time of the death of Chairman Mao, the country was in the throes of the ravages and the moral degradation brought about by the Cultural Revolution. It was almost a providential arrangement that a person of Deng’s skill, dedication and capacity for relative moderation was available to carry the mantle of leadership.
For several reasons Ezra Vogel’s job of writing the story of Deng’s leadership was a tough one. Chinese ways of chronicling leaders’ lives, normally stuffed with excessive praise, in accordance with the relative importance and hierarchies of leaders have to be understood first. Reconciling these difficulties with the western writers’ penchant for painting an intimate and informal portrait of the subject of the biography also has its own problems. At places, therefore, Vogel hurries through Deng’s personal details and delves deeply into inessentials and peripherals of drab policy making, presumably because the official records are full of such details. Despite these inadequacies of resources and materials required for a biography, Ezra Vogel has largely succeeded in presenting a portrait of Deng Xiaoping that is authentic and riveting. He is portrayed vividly, both as an eminent political leader of China and as a human being torn between the compulsions of a huge complicated governing machine and his own conscience.
A few points need to be made here on the portrait of Deng that stands out from Vogel’s long work. Deng may have lacked Mao’s charisma and other attributes but he was a man of details and of performance. He did not have Mao’s capacity to move masses and lend them a grand vision of future; but Deng had a pragmatism and a great sense of his times with which he could deliver and decide what was good for people. Mao held sway over people’s heart, and in turn people were ready to be led blindfolded wherever he led them, at times with disastrous results. Deng put road-map before his people, broadly agreed to a blueprint and basic tenets of execution, developed consensus among colleagues and followers and gave freedom to his people to show results. And this worked immensely well in a society that had suffered from absurdities and violence of Cultural Revolution.
Mao was a visionary and a dreamer and a poet who subsisted on books and a sense of history. Pragmatic Deng was not merely an astute administrator with a keen eye for details; he had an ability of peeping into the future and preparing for it. Mao had hardly traveled outside China and cared little for the world. Relatively, Deng had traveled extensively through the world and knew that he had to keep China appropriately on the world map through alliances and friendships. He had been to France as a student apprentice at the age of 15, worked there and cut his teeth working with the Communist Party there. He was also in Russia for a fairly long period and was conversant with communist movements in other countries. He had firsthand experience of war and conflicts during the Communist Revolution and served as Commissar with the Red Army, administering and managing the territories occupied by the Army. And after the Communist Revolution he occupied important positions in the government. All these stood in good stead for Deng when he became preeminent communist leader and administrator and made China an engine of world economic growth. Deng was a tough diplomat but knew how to cultivate personal relationships with heads of states and win friends. He took personal interest and initiative to improve relations with countries like US and Japan.
Deng had always been an efficient administrator and he initiated administrative reforms whenever he had been entrusted with important positions by Mao. Twice he fell out of Mao’s favor due to maneuverings and machinations of Mao’s close aides including politically ambitious Jiang Qing, Mao’s third wife who ruined several careers during the Cultural Revolution. Despite these disruptions, he survived and kept his spine straight.
Putting China on the path of high economic growth needed some economic reforms that ran counter to the socialistic. It needed adopting some aspects of open economy, abandoning system of collective farming, committing to international trade, system of incentives for agriculturists and farmers, encouraging FDI (Foreign Direct Investments), liberalizing system of administered prices etc. And yet Deng managed all this while retaining his hold on the Communist Party. Managing this change and moving on the high trajectory of economic growth needed deft political management. Although the economy was being run like an open economy, China still continued to loudly avow its socialistic credentials. Managing these contradictions and developing consensus among various factions tested Deng’s skills and mettle. And he succeeded.
Apart from economic reforms, Deng’s contributions proved outstanding in two important sectors. After Cultural Revolution and especially after he took over reins after Mao’s death, Deng moved decisively in reforming education sector, especially universities, higher education and research and development. He freed the universities of the socialistic leaders and their pernicious ideologies and promoted merit/performance based systems. If Chinese universities and higher education is gaining universal acclaim today, it is mainly because in late seventies and early eighties Deng took up an intense program of University Reforms and gave priority to research and development. His second important contribution pertains to creating internal mechanism for peaceful and consensual succession of political leadership from one generation to the other.
Private Deng was a family person, given to wife, children and grandchildren. Although not very educated himself, he had great respect for education. His wife was a university teacher and taught physics. During Cultural Revolution Deng was under political attack and his son was targeted and roughed up by red guards. He ended up being crippled for the rest of his life and Deng nursed him during his illness. Deng was not vindictive but nursed strong personal emotions for the excesses committed during the Cultural Revolution.
Clearly, Deng occupies a unique position in the History of China. Without him China would not have become a world leader. And yet, it seems that at times Deng’s role has remained somewhat ambiguous and even negative in certain aspects. Especially, in issues relating to political reforms, he failed to appreciate democratic and intellectual aspirations of a China that was in the process of momentous transformation. It appears that he was somewhat apprehensive, even timid when it came to issues of political reforms. May be, perhaps he had seen how political reforms unleashed by the Soviet leaders in eighties brought the mighty Soviet Empire to a tottering end. And this could be a reason why in 1989 he chose to crack down on the agitating students in the Tiananmen Square. Deng may have been much softer and far more positive than Mao; however, there is no evidence that he did anything to further the interests of liberalism and democracy in China. On the contrary he appears to have always stifled even the slightest dissent that he feared would snowball into demand fro political freedom. Historians and scholars still argue whether he could have handled the Tienanmen students' demonstrations in 1989 somewhat more competently. Further, intellectuals as a class in China never looked to Deng with any confidence the way they looked to Zhou. During the Great Leap Forward and Mao’s other earlier disastrous adventures, Deng does not appear to have made any attempts to protect liberals and critics.
Ezra Vogel’s book on Deng Xiaoping tries to capture all these and other aspects and presents a fairly balanced portrait of a great statesman, who brought China on the world map of high development. It's a work on political economy of Reforms in China that provides insights into interplay of forces that shape and mold the way we develop. It’s a book teeming with great details on how Chinese leaders managed the great challenge of tight rope walking between capitalism and communism.