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.