In Other Words

The Skeletons in Deng's Closet

The new biography of the man who really transformed China is the most complete and ambitious ever. But does it leave out some black spots?

Deng Xiaoping is the most important 20th-century leader you know almost nothing about -- unless you're Chinese. While most people in the People's Republic are perfectly aware that Deng deserves most of the credit for lifting them out of poverty and heaving China into the ranks of the world's leading industrial nations, in the rest of the world Chairman Mao is the one on the t-shirt. No question about it: Outside of his homeland, Deng, who died in 1997, has to be the least celebrated of the modern era's most successful statesmen.

There are many reasons for this. Mao became a global icon because the rhetoric of his Cultural Revolution dovetailed perfectly with a contemporary worldwide youth rebellion against authority, lending him an aura of outlaw chic that endured even after the world gained a much clearer understanding of the epic nature of his crimes. (In some circles, Mao's frank enthusiasm for mass violence may have actually contributed to his appeal.) Deng's market-oriented reforms, by contrast, were subtle and cumulative, the stuff of Davos speeches rather than rousing marches. It took a while for their full impact to become apparent, and the results, while astonishing, were not exactly calculated to appeal to the higher emotions.

And yet Deng led a long and remarkable life, packed with drama and global significance, one that deserves to be dissected in detail. So we must be thankful to Harvard professor Ezra Vogel for devoting a large chunk of his academic career to compiling a prodigious biography, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, the most ambitious account of the man so far. In writing this volume, Vogel has done an enormous amount of work. He appears to have absorbed the documents from every single Chinese Communist Party plenum since 1921. (I can't say I envy him the task, but hey, someone's got to do it.)

There have been several Deng biographies before this -- from the curmudgeonly Benjamin Yang, the suave ex-diplomat Richard Evans, the meticulous analyst Michael Marti -- but Vogel's can be regarded as the most comprehensive and informative of the lot. (Maurice Meisner wrote a book of marvelous verve about Deng and his era, but it doesn't actually contain that much in the way of biography.) Vogel has left no stone unturned, and this is mostly a good thing. But sometimes -- in a 928-page book with chapter titles like "Economic Readjustment and Rural Reform, 1978-1982" -- it wears. If you want to know the particulars of Deng's career, you'll be well-served here; if you want to know his life, you might find this book a bit frustrating. Vogel would probably object that it is the career that matters most, and of course that's true -- up to a point. But a biography, by the very nature of the beast, should also be a story -- preferably one that doesn't pull its punches. Brutal candor is a vital literary device. William Taubman set the standard with his fantastically well-researched yet bracingly sarcastic portrait of Khrushchev. Vogel, by contrast, is a bit too quick to skip over the rougher, blacker sides of his hero's past. The massive ambiguities, the jaw-dropping plot twists, the spicy Sichuanese reek of an unlikely life never quite filter through.

Vogel has been traveling to China since the 1960s, and over the years he has cultivated close relationships with Deng's relatives and leading members of the Chinese Communist Party, a level of access that has unquestionably enriched the book. When Vogel reveals something truly fresh about his subject, it's usually not because of a document, but rather because insiders have shared their views. My favorite quote comes from Deng's youngest son: "My father thinks Gorbachev is an idiot."

You could argue, in fact, that this casual remark is the keystone of the whole Deng story -- and of the remarkably different paths taken by China and the Soviet Union. In 1956, already 30 years into an eventful career, Deng was the head of the Chinese delegation that traveled to Moscow for the 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the one where Nikita Khrushchev gave his fateful "secret speech" on Stalin's personality cult. Like the other foreigners, the Chinese weren't actually in the hall when Khrushchev gave his epochal reckoning of Stalin's crimes and personal failures, but they learned the contents soon enough.  

Gorbachev, still a young whippersnapper at the time of the speech, later strove to emulate Khrushchev's attempts at political liberalization while never quite managing to formulate a coherent economic policy. Deng -- at the time of the speech already an experienced functionary with decades of bloody political struggles under his belt -- drew the opposite conclusion. If your political system treats its leaders as deities, he realized, bringing them down to human size is likely to have a profoundly destabilizing effect. Better, instead, to leave the gods in place while focusing your energies on improving the people's daily lot. When he came to power in the late 1970s, Deng correspondingly decided to put economics first. Even though he and millions of others had personally born the brunt of Mao's wrath during the Cultural Revolution, he made sure to preserve the Chairman's status as the superhero of the People's Republic.

It proved an astonishingly successful strategy. The reforms that Deng and his party comrades unleashed in 1979 turned out to be the largest poverty-reduction program in human history. Over the past three decades, China's embrace of markets has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. As Vogel writes, "When Deng became preeminent leader in 1978, China's trade with the world totaled less than $10 billion; within three decades, it had expanded a hundredfold."

Deng thus unquestionably expanded the realm of personal freedom for many Chinese, even as he ruthlessly defended the ascendance of the Communist Party and deferred fundamental democratic reforms. In June 1989, Deng chose to suppress the student demonstrations in Beijing and other cities with a brutish display of force that has stained his reputation ever since. But economic liberalization continued -- not least because he had demonstrated his credentials as a defender of the Communist Party to his conservative critics. As Vogel shows with great verve, Deng's "Southern Tour" in 1992, when he sang the praises of the Special Economic Zones that he had launched at the end of the 1970s, galvanized the economic reformers and enabled them to gain a crucial edge over their opponents. The Chinese have never looked back, and today the world marvels at the results.

Deng spent the first half of his 76-year career in the party as a Mao acolyte -- and he followed his master in the somewhat cavalier disregard with which he held human life. (As Vogel notes, during Deng's long years as a military commissar he had a reputation as a man who was not shy about expending his soldiers' lives when the occasion demanded.) But somewhere along the way -- perhaps during the catastrophic Great Leap Forward that took the lives of some 45 million people at the end of the 1950s -- Deng lost his illusions about the chairman's infallibility. In 1961, Deng gave a speech to the party faithful in which he proclaimed his allegiance to an old proverb from his home province of Sichuan: "It doesn't matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice." This was Deng's way of appealing to the party to put economic efficiency ahead of revolutionary spirit -- a call that Mao correctly understood as a challenge to his own approach. It was a difference of opinion that later got Deng into near-lethal trouble in the Cultural Revolution, and again after Zhou Enlai's death in 1976. Altogether Deng was purged three times by his enemies -- and each time he returned to accumulate even greater power.

Vogel quite rightly puts a lot of work into the period immediately following Deng's third comeback in 1977, after party notables engineered the overthrow of Mao's ultra-doctrinaire widow Jiang Qing and her allies (the notorious "Gang of Four"). According to my count, Vogel devotes a whopping 263 pages of his 928-page narrative describing the events of 1978-1979, when Deng finally achieved his status as China's top leader and embarked on the reforms. Without saying so publicly, he got many of his ideas from other East Asian countries that had already blazed the path of authoritarian, market-oriented modernization, including (perhaps most ironically) the "renegade province" of Taiwan.

Americans instinctively associate the values of experimentation and reform with youth, but Deng was in his mid-70s when he embarked on this breathtaking change of course. Vogel does a masterful job of reconstructing a great deal of the political minutiae that went into the turn-around.

However, he's less masterful when it comes to reconstructing some of Deng's less savory moments as a leader. To name but one example, Vogel describes the 1957 Anti-Rightist Movement, which Deng oversaw on Mao's order, as a "vicious attack on some 550,000 intellectual critics branded as rightists" that "destroyed many of China's best scientific and technical minds and alienated many others." Deng, he tells us, "was disturbed that some intellectuals had arrogantly and unfairly criticized officials who were trying to cope with their complex and difficult assignments." Huh? Nowhere does Vogel explain that the victims of the campaign were tortured, hounded into suicide, or sentenced to terms in labor camps or internal exile that sometimes ended decades later.

To be sure, there is good reason for a biographer to focus on the way his subject saw the world; we would miss much of Deng's story if we only listened to his critics. The problem here is that Vogel bends so far backward to explain the party's logic on, say, the Tiananmen crackdown or Tibet that it sometimes becomes difficult to understand why anyone might possibly think differently. About one instance in the early 1980s, when Deng harshly dismissed some liberal talk from party intellectuals, Vogel primly informs us that "Western notions of a transcendental God that could criticize the earthly rulers were not part of Chinese tradition." Maybe I've missed something here, but Deng and his comrades spent their entire lives reshaping Chinese society according to the esoteric theories of a German Jewish intellectual. Chinese tradition? Oddly enough, whenever Vogel brings up the subject, it's the party that gets to decide what constitutes Chinese values. The critics somehow never do.

Vogel is not always officious. He does mention some of the darker sides of the story. It's just that he is often a bit too eager to tiptoe around them. He describes Deng's ascendance to the status of preeminent leader in 1978-1979, entirely without irony, as the moment "when Deng began to push aside Hua Guofeng for the good of the party and the country." He tells us that some of the critical texts put up to public view on Beijing's Democracy Wall, the place where a remarkable spirit of pluralism was allowed to flourish for a few months starting in late 1978, "were posted by other young people who were inspired by their newfound freedom but, having lived in a closed society, lacked the experience and wisdom to inform or temper their judgments." People's Daily couldn't have put it better.

There's no question that Vogel has gone farther than anyone else to date in telling Deng's story. For that he is to be applauded; there is a whole hoard of valuable material here that we probably would not have gained otherwise. But it's still not quite the whole story. I wonder, at this rate, if it will ever be told.

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In Other Words

Dear Uncle Sam…

Why do India and Pakistan see America in such opposite ways?

Early in the 1950s, Saadat Hasan Manto, arguably Pakistan's greatest prose writer, defined, almost inadvertently, a type of "Ugly American" that the Cold War would fix in popular imaginations across Asia: the representative of the world's greatest superpower who, though superficially friendly and generous, pursues America's national interest at the expense of all other concerns; an often blundering figure who never ceases, while leaving destruction and chaos in his wake, to claim the highest virtue for his deeds.

American cultural cold warriors, then clustered at U.S. Information Services (USIS) offices, had approached Manto with a lucrative commission -- write a short story for publication in an Urdu journal they subsidized -- after he publicly ridiculed Pakistani camp followers of Stalin. Spurned by nonaligned India, the United States was trying to persuade Pakistan's generals, along with artists and writers, into joining its anti-Soviet crusade. The famously mercurial Manto insisted on taking less money than was offered by the Americans and then submitted, in place of the promised short story, a caustic "Letter to Uncle Sam," mocking America's claims to moral superiority over the Soviet Union.

His red-faced editors at Lahore's USIS office killed the letter and banned Manto from their pages. But Manto kept writing more letters to Uncle Sam, publishing nine altogether in local periodicals from 1951 to 1954. Today, they seem to have brilliantly foreshadowed not only the fraught triangular relationship between the United States, Pakistan, and India, but also its consequences: vicious wars, the rise of ruthless ideologies on the subcontinent, the proliferation of Indian and Pakistani versions of the Ugly American. The letters also appear to have anticipated the profound distrust of America to take hold in Pakistan in the decade since the 9/11 attacks, even as India moved in the opposite direction to an easy, even eager, accommodation with Pax Americana.

"Dear Uncle," Manto wrote in one of the letters, "My admiration and respect for you are going up at about the same rate as your progress towards a decision to grant military aid to Pakistan."

"You are," he speculated, "seriously concerned about the stability of the world's largest Islamic state since our mullah is the best antidote to Russian communism."

This was shrewd. The anti-Soviet jihad in neighboring Afghanistan was decades away, but the CIA's adventurers had already realized the anti-communist potential of radical Islamism, secretly supporting, among other outfits, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood exiled in Munich. Soon many other Pakistanis would come to share Manto's suspicion that the United States would ally itself with the most anti-democratic elements in Pakistan -- military generals and Islamists -- in order to advance its geopolitical interests. Even as Pakistan's strategic and military relationship with Washington flourished, popular sentiment turned wary of the United States.

No such ambiguities clouded early Indian visions of the self-interested and unreliable American. India and America, the world's two largest democracies, should have been, it is tirelessly argued now, natural partners from 1947 onward. But, having spent decades in the struggle for independence from British rule, India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was unlikely to help the United States assume the burden of defunct European empires in Asia and Africa. The "concert of democracies" would not take place until after the Cold War, when economic globalization would create harmonious new alliances of elites in both countries. For much of the 1950s and 1960s, discordant noises marked political and cultural exchanges between India and the United States.

U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles denounced nonalignment as "immoral." Nehru, in turn, regarded the American as "constitutionally stupid" and worse: "dull, duller, Dulles." Nehru's aristocratic disdain for American cold warriors like Dulles blended well not only with a populist strain of anti-imperialism in India but also with an older Indian prejudice, derived from the British upper class, about America as a land of upstarts. Visiting India in 1962, V.S. Naipaul was astonished by the snobbish Indian response to American novelist John O'Hara: "You couldn't get," a Madras Brahmin (unnamed, but most likely the writer R.K. Narayan) told Naipaul, "a well-bred Englishman writing this sort of tosh." Narayan's own novel, The Vendor of Sweets, in which the self-contained life of a small-town shopkeeper is ruined by his overly ambitious son, who goes to America to learn creative writing ("It's the only country where they teach such things," marvels one character), underlines a conservative Indian perception of the United States as the source of much modern outlandishness.

The Vendor of Sweets appeared in 1967, just as a spike in Indian immigration to the United States began to make Narayan's snobbery look passé. This immigrant generation would eventually become America's wealthiest minority; it included well-placed Indian-Americans like pundit Fareed Zakaria, economist Jagdish Bhagwati, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, and Rajat Gupta, former managing director of consulting giant McKinsey, all of whom came to offer an indispensable interface between India and America.

But already by the 1960s, India's small middle class, empowered by top-notch educational institutions while materially and intellectually thwarted by Nehru's import-substitution model of economic growth, had begun to look to America as a lodestar of modernity. The many American Centers in Indian cities could never match the Houses of Soviet Culture sponsored by their Soviet rivals, an entire network of pro-communist libraries and bookshops across small-town India. But upwardly mobile Indians tended to be more seduced by the images of American life brought cheaply into their homes by the Indian edition of Reader's Digest and Span, a USIS-produced "glossy" (when the word was unknown) carrying photographs and reprints from American magazines.

A tiny minority of urban Indians also enjoyed direct access to American music and cinema. The novels of Salman Rushdie, who grew up in an upper-middle-class family in Mumbai, chart an increasing Indian fascination with America, from the simple pop-culture enthusiasms of Midnight's Children to the garish fantasies of sex and power in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Fury, and Shalimar the Clown.

In Rushdie's Fury, Indian academic Malik Solanka travels to America "as so many before him to receive the benison of being Ellis Islanded, of starting over."

"Give me a name, America," Solanka begs, "make of me a Buzz or Chip or Spike. Bathe me in amnesia and clothe me in your powerful unknowing."

In reality, most Indians in America eschewed such radical self-invention, settling into their new routines hesitantly and awkwardly, as the delicate fictions of Jhumpa Lahiri reveal. Nevertheless, by the 1980s just about every middle-class family in India seemed to have a steadily prospering relative in the United States. The Hindu nationalist firebrand exposed recently by WikiLeaks pleading his pro-U.S. credentials to American diplomats may not have exaggerated when he claimed to have several nieces and sisters residing in the United States and "five homes to visit between D.C. and New York."

For Indians who stayed behind, their relatives in America became the source of goodies (toys, gadgets, comic books, magazines). The endless daydreaming they provoked would seed the imaginative landscape of "rising India" in the 1990s, when Archie comics, set in a hormonally charged American high school, inspired some of Bollywood's most successful films.

The Indian middle class's pursuit of the American Dream managed to survive even the relentless anti-American propaganda of the Indian government, which regularly blamed the CIA for everything that was going wrong in the country -- and much did go wrong in the 1960s and 1970s. The loudest exponent of the "foreign hand" theory was Indira Gandhi, Nehru's daughter and prime minister for nearly two decades. Growing up in a small town, on a diet of Soviet-subsidized newsmagazines, I, like many of my compatriots, was quickly persuaded by her. Indian paranoia reached a hysterical pitch after Richard Nixon "tilted" toward Pakistani military generals during India's war in 1971 with Pakistan. In Rohinton Mistry's 1991 novel, Such a Long Journey, which takes the war as its backdrop, the character who asks angrily, "Did you read today about what America is doing?… CIA bastards are up to their usual anus-fingering tactics," spoke for many outraged Indians.

But even as we obsessed futilely about the "foreign hand" in India, it had begun to seriously blight neighboring Pakistan, where the dreaded local spy agency, the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), first acquired its malign power as a conduit between the CIA and anti-communist jihadists. In 1954, Manto had satirically exhorted Uncle Sam, "Once military aid starts flowing the first people you should arm are these mullahs." And so it happened. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan's American-funded military dictator, steadily silenced all democratic opposition and empowered Islamic extremists in the nine years between 1979, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and his death in a plane crash in 1988.

This U.S.-enabled ravaging of Pakistan's civil society, which forced some of the country's most distinguished writers into exile, shaped the geopolitical education of a whole Pakistani generation -- and it has come to be a major theme of Pakistani writing, especially in the decade since 9/11. The Wasted Vigil (2008), a novel by Nadeem Aslam, whose family migrated to England after an uncle was tortured by Zia's police, excavates U.S. recklessness in Afghanistan and Pakistan through two generations of CIA agents. Mohammed Hanif's A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008) takes a scathing view of the U.S. officials complicit in turning Pakistan into a base of global jihadism. Kamila Shamsie's novel Burnt Shadows (2009) spans a history of America's violent remaking of the world, from the bombing of Nagasaki through the anti-Soviet jihad to the last decade's "war on terror." Mohsin Hamid's novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) records the souring of the American Dream for an Ivy League-educated Pakistani who can't suppress a vindictive smile as he watches the Twin Towers collapse: "Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased."

Post-9/11, the American mollycoddling of another Pakistani dictator (Pervez Musharraf), the resulting delay in Pakistan's transition to civilian rule, and the great domestic toll of the "war on terror" -- with more than 30,000 Pakistanis dead since 9/11 -- definitively fixed the image of the Ugly American in the Pakistani imagination. Indeed, one disturbingly recurrent image in recent Pakistani fiction and film is of the remorselessly brutal American. The Wasted Vigil shows an American interrogator directing a blowtorch into the eye of a young Taliban fighter. In 2007's Khuda Kay Liye (In the Name of God), one of Pakistan's most popular films ever, a Sufi musician suspected wrongly of links to al Qaeda is brain-damaged after being tortured for more than a year in U.S. custody.

These Pakistani specters of a morally unhinged America have no counterparts in Indian fiction and literature, even in the Bollywood imitations spawned by Khuda Kay Liye's international success. There are some apparently strong claims to victimhood in My Name Is Khan (2010), which features India's most famous actor, Shah Rukh Khan, a Muslim by birth, as an autistic immigrant. In the film Khan plays out a classic Indian-American success story: a Muslim from a hardscrabble Mumbai background who finds emotional and professional fulfillment in San Francisco. But then his stepson is killed in a racist assault after 9/11, and Khan wanders across the United States, looking for George W. Bush, for whom he has a simple message: "My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist."

Doggedly rejecting all identification of Islam with terrorism, the film became a massive hit across the Muslim world last year. The scenes in which the autistic Khan is being tortured by American counterterrorism officials may have stoked an ever-simmering Muslim outrage over U.S. conduct. But My Name Is Khan is also suffused with a recognizably Indian sense of wonder at America's material plenitude -- the film was made by one of the Bollywood admirers of Archie comics. And it ends by affirming the middle-class Indian infatuation with America through a liberal feel-good fantasy of Barack Obama, who in the film's last scene is shown eloquently amplifying Khan's message.

Certainly, Uncle Sam, disowned by Pakistanis, has found innumerable devoted nephews in India. Indian and Pakistani perceptions of America now wildly diverge: A 2005 Pew poll conducted in 16 countries found the United States in the highest regard among Indians (71 percent having a favorable opinion) and nearly the lowest among Pakistanis (23 percent). Indian politicians, bureaucrats, and businessmen have worked overtime to make up for what a Hindu nationalist foreign minister called "50 wasted years" of Indo-U.S relations -- a frantic courtship that reached its apex of passion in 2008 when, visiting the White House, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh blurted out to arguably the most disliked U.S. president in history: "The people of India love you deeply!" Having helped push through the Bush administration's exceptionally generous nuclear deal to India, the Indian-American lobby is bidding to be one of the most powerful special-interest groups in Washington. Cheerleaders for the new special relationship are already installed in think tanks and the media in both India and the United States.

And their first order of business is -- business. While reinforcing the Pakistani military, the United States has lobbied hard for the sale of U.S. nuclear expertise and weaponry to Pakistan's traditional enemy, India, now the world's biggest arms market. Manto saw through this cynical game, too: "As for your military pact with us," he long ago advised Uncle Sam, "it is remarkable and should be maintained. You should sign something similar with India … and your armament factories will no longer remain idle."

Peace in the region looks as remote as ever, with militant nationalists in both nuclear-armed countries still routinely rattling their sabers. A day after U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden, the Indian Army and Air Force chiefs thundered that India was capable of hunting down its own Geronimos in Pakistan. The ISI chief responded with the boast that the Pakistani military had already rehearsed retaliatory strikes on India. "Everyone can now become a smartass," Manto had lamented as Uncle Sam first stumbled into South Asian geopolitics, envenoming an already bitter rivalry. For the next half-century, aggressively self-interested elites in India and Pakistan would exalt preparedness for war over socioeconomic progress. And it now seems that Manto, prescient though he was about the Ugly American, didn't fully warn us about the Ugly Indian and the Ugly Pakistani.

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