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.