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.)

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