Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China
By Ezra F. Vogel
(Belknap Press, 876 pp., $39.95) 

Revolutionaries get all the attention, but reform is much harder. A reformer has to reshape a rigid structure without breaking it. Before Deng Xiaoping, only Kemal Atatürk in the twentieth century managed to do this. Others, like Nasser and the Shah of Iran, left key parts of the old system intact, or, like Gorbachev, destroyed the regime in trying to save it.

The China that Deng inherited from Mao Zedong was just such a brittle system. Power was hyper-centralized, with all actors below the supreme leader fearful and jealous. Society was divided into virtual castes, carrying class labels that defined who were members of the “people” and therefore qualified to benefit from the new order, and who were bad elements, fated by descent from landlords and capitalists to be persecuted for generations. The peasants were locked down in the rural countryside by the household registration system. Narrow-minded apparatchiks orchestrated all thought and culture. The economy was detached from the rest of the world and immured in poverty by a system of inefficient collective farms and state enterprises. In its foreign policy China stood at odds with both superpowers.

Deng had helped to create this system. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he ran the daily work of the Chinese Communist Party as secretary general, oversaw the Anti-Rightist Campaign, which punished over half a million intellectuals for voicing criticisms of the Party, and contributed to the economic readjustments after the Great Leap Forward that brought China back from the depths of famine to its normal level of deprivation. He was out of power from 1966 to 1973, a victim of the Cultural Revolution, and back briefly in office in 1974-1975 to help manage the economy before being purged again.

Ezra Vogel surveys the first seventy-four years of Deng’s life relatively briefly, in the first five chapters of his huge book. But it was during the sixteen years from late 1978, when he became the primus inter pares of China’s leadership group, until 1994, when he ceased participating in politics because of illness, that Deng remade China into what—despite further changes after his death in 1997—it essentially remains today: a new kind of authoritarian political system, adaptive and resilient, managing a semi-capitalist economy, open to the world, with a growing middle class and a wide ambit of personal freedom, but with power still held tightly in a small number of hands, and facing a growing wave of challenges that are decisively repressed.

It is often said that Deng was wise in his sequencing of reforms. In contrast to Gorbachev, he prioritized economic reform and postponed political change. Among economic reforms, he started with the more dispersed and lower-risk rural economy before moving into the concentrated and politically volatile urban economy. In opening China to the world market, he started with the more entrepreneurial coastal areas before moving to the conservative inland areas. The modest reforms that he allowed in the political system were focused on creating legal institutions and avoided moves toward political democracy. To the extent that he allowed experiments with democratic practices such as elections, Deng limited them to the lowest levels of the political system where they presented no threat to Party control.

These decisions seem smart in retrospect, but they were controversial at the time. Vogel’s fine-grained account provides new insights into the political struggles that surrounded them. Deng was not a supreme power-holder like Mao. He had to bring along a coterie of senior comrades who were authentically in doubt about how to save the regime from collapse after the disasters of the Mao era. Above all, Deng had to contend with Chen Yun, a man of about his own age and authority who had been the chief economic planner in the 1950s, and who like Deng was restored to prominence after Mao’s death. One of the virtues of Vogel’s analysis is that he understands the thinking of Deng’s rivals as well as he does Deng’s own. Chen saw danger in Deng’s experiments. He thought imported technology would cost more than China could pay, and that enterprise reform would produce raw materials shortages, and that rapid growth would trigger inflation. He had many followers, good arguments, and mainstream ideology on his side, and he was often right, at least in the short run.

To avoid a debilitating power struggle, Deng had at times to yield to Chen and at times to experiment quietly and then show the results. In 1980-1982, for example, he acceded to an economic slowdown demanded by Chen, and in 1988 he reversed a hastily conceived decision to end price controls on most goods when it triggered panic buying. Deng often sacrificed followers who had gotten out ahead of the leadership consensus in the belief that they had his support. Chen Yun’s dissatisfaction with the liberal political atmosphere fostered by one of Deng’s favorites, Hu Yaobang, was a key reason Deng agreed to dismiss Hu from the post of general secretary in 1987. This event unwittingly laid the fuse for the Tiananmen student movement two years later, which started when students came out in the streets to mourn Hu after his sudden death from a heart attack.

But Deng also supported leaders who were willing to try risky policies. The Party secretaries in Anhui and Sichuan in the late 1970s, Wan Li and Zhao Ziyang, allowed the peasants to manage the land at the household level, in effect breaking up the rural collectives. When this led to a surge in grain output, the policy was extended nationwide. Both officials were promoted, Wan eventually to the position of head of the National People’s Congress and Zhao to the posts of premier and then Party general secretary.

OVER THE LONG run, Deng could proceed only by cultivating a moving consensus in the loosely bounded Party elite. Vogel shows that the political process in an authoritarian system is as complex and interactive as that in a democratic system. Analysts err who think that the Chinese system actually is democratic because of the complexity of its consultative, networking, and consensus-building processes, but some of the political skills are the same. Deng was good at picking problems to work on for which a consensus solution could emerge—focusing, for example, on the need to break a bottleneck in railway transportation caused by factional infighting. He was good at capturing the ideological high ground—by arguing, say, that “poverty is not socialism.”

Vogel has interviewed scores of insiders and quotes them (usually without attribution by name) on how something called “the political atmosphere” or “climate” would change in the course of emotional debates in secret meetings, and how a symbolic event or a theoretical article would “light a spark” and create a sense of momentum. This, in the end, was Deng’s pragmatism: not a rejection of ideology, but the use of it to render his initiatives acceptable to an elite who had devoted their lives and their sufferings to the cause and wanted to find ways of making it work. “Crossing the river by feeling the stones”—Deng’s often-quoted description of his policy process—was not just a method of finding policies that worked, but even more of persuading a querulous collegium to go along with them. By tacking and turning, as Vogel says, Deng “accomplished ... politically difficult task[s] without a debilitating split in the party and without personally becoming a target of attack by conservative officials.”

The strain of all this seldom seemed to tell on Deng. There was a strange but saving impersonality in his relations with other politicians. With rivals and critics his relationships were businesslike; he held no visible grudges. With aides and followers he lacked personal warmth. Personal loyalty was required only of military leaders, because coercive force remained the ultimate arbiter of power, as it was under Mao and still is today. Otherwise Deng “treated people as useful tools.” He fired his political allies when he had to—not only Hu Yaobang and (after Tiananmen) Zhao Ziyang, but also, and most painfully of all, his longtime friend, intimate ally, and personal representative Yang Shangkun, when, in 1992, he needed to clear Yang out of the way to help a man he barely knew, Jiang Zemin, consolidate power. Some found Deng’s willingness to sacrifice his supporters harsh, but it was healthy for the system. The emphasis that Mao had placed on personal loyalty was replicated all the way down the system with disastrous results. Deng’s style of leadership left room for policy battles without personal factions.

Deng once said he had three vices: “I drink, I spit, and I smoke.” Compared to the vices of his predecessor Mao, these were not very interesting. Unlike Mao, Deng was a family man with loving children and grandchildren. He spent the last ten years of his life trying to shed power. If the story of revolution is one of armies battling across a stormy landscape, the tale of reform—in some circumstances also a saga—is a story of meetings, memos, and nuanced signals in editorials in the official press. For this reason, a biography of Deng is inevitably a drier document than one of Mao, often verging on general political history and the study of public policy.

DENG CHANGED Mao’s political system in four ways that made it possible for the Chinese Communist Party not just to survive but to prosper. First, he instituted a system of retirement for high officials. Under Mao, top leaders were promoted and purged irregularly as Mao willed; Mao himself stayed in power until the day of his death. Deng wanted to regularize terms of office and retirements. In 1982, he established a Central Advisory Commission and used it to encourage nearly two hundred superannuated civilian and military officials to leave their frontline posts in exchange for stipends, housing, cars, drivers, access to documents, and participation in meetings of the commission. In 1985, sixty-four elderly members of the Central Committee were replaced with new middle-aged members. In 1987, although still in good health, Deng insisted on stepping down from his post as a member of the peak decision-making Politburo Standing Committee, taking Chen Yun and another senior leader, Li Xiannian, with him. But the younger leaders who now took over—among them Zhao Ziyang as Party secretary and Li Peng as premier—insisted for their own protection on a secret resolution that said that Deng and the other senior leaders would have the final say on crucial decisions. As a result, when the younger leaders split during the crisis in 1989, Deng and seven other elders were forced back to the center of power and made the crucial decision to crush the student movement with force.

Still, Deng refrained from resuming formal office. He continued to work toward a system of orderly succession by selecting Hu Jintao to join the Politburo as the member of the younger (fifty-ish) generation designated to succeed to power ten years later, when Jiang Zemin was scheduled to retire. When Jiang indeed retired in 2002 and Hu succeeded him, Deng’s strategy achieved its goal, even though Deng himself was gone. Party and state leaders now typically serve two five-year terms of office starting at about the age of sixty and retire at about seventy, as Hu Jintao is expected to do in October this year. Such a system contributes to stability by reducing the need to purge officials for either policy disagreements or poor performance, and by opening a path to power for ambitious younger politicians.

Second, Deng established an orderly, merit-based system for recruiting new leaders. Although he started the reforms with the help of people he had known for a long time, he quickly reached out for help to anybody he saw as performing well. He re-established the role of the Party’s Organization Department, which had been sidelined under Mao, in “cultivating successors.” He created a system of performance benchmarks and training programs and put in place what has become a regularized, competitive career ladder that rewards cadres who prove capable of achieving centrally designated policy tasks. The system contributes to stability by rewarding compliance with central priorities, creating an espirit de corps among the political class, and reducing the incentive to form cliques.

Third, with competent officials in place and attuned to his policy priorities, Deng was able to delegate power and let departmental and local leaders find policies that worked. The de-collectivization of agriculture, the creation of special economic zones, the reform of state-owned enterprises, and the promotion of large-scale foreign direct investment in Guangdong were all policy experiments that made orthodox officials nervous, but which Deng allowed and which got results. Less successful experiments were Hu Yaobang’s attempt to loosen the reins on the intellectuals in the early 1980s and Zhao Ziyang’s effort to manage the student demonstrations of 1989 through dialogue. In both cases Deng gave the younger men time to try their methods, but when they produced too much opposition among other senior officials, he cut off his support. In contrast to the shock reform tactics of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the diffusion of power within the official class allowed for more creativity and adaptation to local needs, while reducing the risk that any particular experiment could bring down the whole system.

Finally, Deng’s style of leadership helped to foster a division of labor among officials. Mao intervened impulsively, unpredictably, and destructively in the work of his colleagues and subordinates. Lacking Mao’s absolute power, Deng made a virtue of necessity. Not only did he delegate, he also avoided taking part in decision-making as much as possible. He worked at home, usually at an unhurried pace, and seldom attended meetings. Except for Yang Shangkun (who doubled as head of state), other high officials had a hard time even getting to see Deng, and then had a hard time talking to him because he was deaf in one ear. The result was that officials operated on a long rein. Deng stepped in only when someone’s actions caused obvious trouble and heavy opposition. Since no one else was more powerful than Deng, if he did not intervene, neither did others do so outside their own areas of responsibility.

What evolved over time, during Deng’s life and afterwards, was a system in which the premier handled the economy, the general secretary handled ideology and foreign affairs, the security chief handled security, and so on. Of course there were settings available in which to conduct the necessary coordination across fields—the Politburo, the State Council, the party Secretariat, and various “leading small groups”—but the system has come to function with far less of the confusion, policy instability, and immobilism that characterized Mao’s era.

FOR ALL HIS achievements, however, Deng never weaned the Chinese system from its reliance on repression. One-party control was an ultimate principle for him, and he used force whenever he felt it was challenged—to close Democracy Wall in 1979, to stifle “spiritual pollution” in 1983, to repress resistance in Tibet in 1989, and of course, to crush the pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen in 1989. As a sociologist, Vogel takes a resolutely empathetic approach to all this: he sees Deng’s situation from Deng’s point of view. This preference for understanding over judgment is a fine narrative method so long as it does not slip into normative approval. Vogel sometimes comes close to the edge, but generally he keeps his balance.

The issue comes vividly to the surface in the discussion of Tiananmen. Synthesizing all available sources, Vogel is able to reconstruct the complete Deng’s-eye view of this event. In summarizing what he calls a “tragedy,” he gives full voice to the views of those who believe that Deng did the right thing, because he saved the system from collapse, re-imposed authority, and opened the way to two decades of rapid growth. He is less eloquent on the costs of the crackdown, although he acknowledges that the yearning for freedom expressed at Tiananmen has not gone away. Perhaps, as Zhou Enlai is reputed to have said about the French Revolution, it is too early to tell. If the post-Deng system makes its way gradually to some form of responsive, consultative, and law-abiding authoritarianism, then Deng’s morally deplorable action may have paid off as realpolitik. But this seems unlikely. If instead the system eventually implodes in a stew of corruption, pollution, injustice, and dissent, then Deng will have raised the cost of meeting the Chinese people’s legitimate yearnings for freedom and rule of law by delaying the necessary transition to a more open system.

What motivated Deng most, Vogel believes, was modernization. From his sojourn in France as a teenage revolutionary in the early 1920s, through his triumphal visits to Japan in 1978 and the United States in 1979, Deng was infatuated with everything he viewed as modern, and wanted China to have it all. By entering into Deng’s vision, Vogel helps readers see how the person who forged the world’s most successful example of modernizing authoritarianism believed that such a combination would work.

Yet modernization inescapably meant learning from the West, and here lies a tension that continues to bedevil the Chinese experiment. The corrosive effect of material comfort on revolutionary will was what Mao feared. The corrosive effect of individualism on political discipline is what Hu Jintao fears. But the road on which Deng set China is a road to cosmopolitanism. Younger Chinese today—perhaps especially the privileged who come from elite backgrounds, make good livings, travel and study abroad, join the Party or are friends with those who do—see less and less value in the idea of a separate Chinese political model that sets itself at opposition to the West. To be sure, they value Chinese identity, but this identity need not be oppositional. China joined the world under Deng, and it continues to integrate itself with the world in thought and values even though the leaders are still trying to resist.

Deng’s path has therefore led today’s leaders to confront a series of dilemmas. They want to move up the value chain and foster innovation, but to do so requires more political openness than they dare to grant. They want a service economy, but that needs more rule of law than it is safe for a one-party regime to provide. They want soft power at home and abroad, but to gain that kind of moral authority means freeing up a civil society that the regime does not trust. Twenty years after Deng Xiaoping retired from political life, the contradictions, as the Marxists used to say, are sharpening.

Andrew J. Nathan is the author, with Andrew Scobell, of China’s Search for Security, forthcoming from Columbia University Press.