Review of “Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China” by Ezra Vogel

I’ve said before that I think Deng Xiaoping is one of the most important political leaders of the 20th Century.

I believe that Deng’s post-Mao era leadership was masterful. I acknowledge that Deng had to do some things that were terrible. Nevertheless, Mao did not leave any non-terrible ways forward for his successor. I don’t think it would have been possible to be less terrible than Deng was – this is an amazing achievement.

Mao deserved a follower who destroyed his Party, his ideology and all of his legacy. The Chinese people, however, did not deserve the turmoil, death and destruction that would have inevitably accompanied such a revolution (they’d gotten it bad enough from the Japanese and the Communists in the 20th Century, they really didn’t deserve a post-Communist bloodbath). It’s tremendously unsatisfying that Mao still lays in state and that his picture is still everywhere.

However, for all intents and purposes, Deng effectively ended Communism in China. China is still ruled by one party. That party is nominally Communist (Rome nominally had a Senate for a long time, the US is nominally operating under the same Constitution today as it has since the end of the 18th Century) the best changes in forms of government are the ones that don’t appear to be changes in forms of government.

This book ably makes the case for this position. In brief, the case is that the problem China faced when Mao died was that Mao’s system sucked but was deeply entrenched and could not (likely) be replaced without significant violence, death and destruction. In other words, the question China faced was:

How much could the boundaries of freedom be expanded without risking that Chinese society would devolve into chaos, as it had before 1949 and during the Cultural Revolution?

All differences of opinion on Deng (and the current CP leadership) come down to differences of opinion on this particular question.

Before we dig into this book, I must note that the book is super boring. If someone asked you to write a 600 page research paper on Deng, this book is basically what you’d produce if you had a large budget and very good access to sources. It’s a recitation of facts, but it never manages to come alive as history should.

Deng’s relationship with the CP (I’m going to use CP for Communist Party throughout this post) was very strange. He always strongly supported the Party and continued to believe that a strong Party was essential. Nevertheless, he was purged three times with catastrophic results for him and his family.

During his second purge (in ’66) his oldest son was tortured and crippled by CP. Despite this, Mao never actually expelled Deng from the CP and Deng remained – at least sort of – loyal (the extent of this loyalty is a matter of debate).

Mao brought Deng back after Lin Biao died (’71). Deng was purged again in ’76, but during the intervening five years, Deng made many changes that foreshadowed changes he would make after Mao’s death.

Deng pushed some of these changes too far for Mao’s taste. Even this early, Deng seemed to be looking to undo as much of the Cultural Revolution as possible without offending Mao. After pushing too far, Deng was replaced in ’76 by Hua Guofeng.

Hua is an interesting character. He started many of the reforms that Deng is better known for, but Hua was a still too Maoist for Deng’s taste. Another interesting event that took place at the same time was some protests in Tiananmen Square which were largely pro-Deng.

Before dying, Mao brought Deng back and tried to position him in such a way that Deng would run foreign affairs and much of the government, but would not be the official head of the CP and would not be responsible for propaganda. Mao seemed to want to ensure that Deng would not depart from the Maoist legacy, but he also seemed to know that Deng would be the best choice to run the country.

Hua was officially in charge after Mao’s death, but Hua was not influential enough to retain control. Behind the scenes, there was a struggle between Deng and the Gang of Four. I can’t begin to get into all the political maneuverings going on behind the scenes – see here, for example. Suffice it to say that Deng must have an absolute master and he eventually emerged victorious. Two Whatevers lost to Practice is the Sole Criterion for Testing Truth. Deng took power slowly, bloodlessly, and almost without telling anyone. As Vogel puts it,

In the annals of world political history, it would be difficult to find another case where a person became top leader of a major nation without formal public recognition of the succession.

In this respect, Deng is basically the anti-Mao. Once it power, Deng continued (as he had always done) to put new policies into effect without totally destroying Maoism and, more importantly, the Party. Or, as I’d prefer to say, without plunging China into chaos.

Deng continued the policy of Four Modernizations. Of the four, he put specific emphasis on scientific research.

Deng worked at the margins in order to retain control and minimize instability. His goal seems to have been to dramatically change China’s actual form of government without changing the outward symbols and forms of the government. As Vogel puts it:

China after 1979 underwent a revolution far greater and longer lasting than the one under Mao began.

The result of the policies Deng created, continued and guided was incredible growth rates for three decades along with relative stability (the Tiananmen Square killings were certainly terrible and I’ll say more later, but if you believe that Deng effectively ended the Maoist form of government, the death of a couple hundred people in a country of a billion is an impressively small amount for such a consequential revolution).

The results cant be overstated. As Ron Unz recently put it:

During the three decades to 2010, China achieved perhaps the most rapid sustained rate of economic development in the history of the human species, with its real economy growing almost 40-fold between 1978 and 2010. In 1978, America’s economy was 15 times larger, but according to most international estimates, China is now set to surpass America’s total economic output within just another few years.

Furthermore, the vast majority of China’s newly created economic wealth has flowed to ordinary Chinese workers, who have moved from oxen and bicycles to the verge of automobiles in just a single generation. While median American incomes have been stagnant for almost forty years, those in China have nearly doubled every decade, with the real wages of workers outside the farm-sector rising about 150 percent over the last ten years alone. The Chinese of 1980 were desperately poor compared to Pakistanis, Nigerians, or Kenyans; but today, they are several times wealthier, representing more than a tenfold shift in relative income. . . .

A World Bank report recently highlighted the huge drop in global poverty rates from 1980 to 2008, but critics noted that over 100 percent of that decline came from China alone: the number of Chinese living in dire poverty fell by a remarkable 662 million, while the impoverished population in the rest of the world actually rose by 13 million. . . .

China’s economic progress is especially impressive when matched against historical parallels. Between 1870 and 1900, America enjoyed unprecedented industrial expansion, such that even Karl Marx and his followers began to doubt that a Communist revolution would be necessary or even possible in a country whose people were achieving such widely shared prosperity through capitalistic expansion. During those 30 years America’s real per capita income grew by 100 percent. But over the last 30 years, real per capita income in China has grown by more than 1,300 percent.

(You should really pause here and read all of Unz’s piece if you haven’t already done so).

Now let’s turn to Tiananmen. Deng gave lots of power to Hu Yaobang. The student protests in Tiananmen were, in part, in support of Hu’s reforms. Some of the most difficult reforms of the era dealt with lifting prices controls, which led to lots of inflation and political instability that always follows from inflation.

The Tiananmen demonstrations were led by students. It’s hard to say what they wanted. They didn’t like inflation and they seemed vaguely to want democracy sort of according to Wikipedia.

Here, I must confess, that when I hear of student protesters who have no idea what sort of political system they want (or how to actually attain political power) demanding subsidized goods I am disinclined to think favorably of them. My mind seems to habitually and subconsciously substitute the phrase “potential mass-murders” for “student protesters.” Perhaps, I’ve read too much history.

Vogel makes a few interesting points on the demonstrations, beyond noting that the students “knew little about democracy and freedom and had little idea about how to achieve such goals.” He adds that after a few days, the world press showed up and the English speaking students moved to the front. He also notes that the demonstrations started to die down (in numbers, at least) after May 30 (the violence occurred on June 4th).

It’s also relevant to consider Deng’s mindset. He kept a careful eye on the Soviet experience. The following quotes sum up the lessons Deng learned:

we will not do to Chairman Mao what Khrushchev did to Stalin.

. . .

“My father,” Deng’s younger son, Deng Zhifang, told an American acquaintance, “thinks Gorbachev is an idiot.”

Deng is clearly responsible for the deaths that followed the in Tiananmen. It should also be noted that these are not the only deaths that Deng is responsible for. Nevertheless, Deng seems always to have acted as if he believed that most important thing was a peaceful, orderly China that was able to continue reforms which would make everyone more wealthy.

That’s largely what happened in China. Perhaps Deng could have pushed a bit faster, but given the number of times he was purged (and almost expelled from the Party), it’s hard to argue that he could pushed much further. The Tiananmen protests were largely a response to reform (particularly the removal of price controls, which is bound to be painful). Again, perhaps Deng could have compromised somehow with the student protesters. My own reading of history suggests that compromising with student protesters is a good way to get a lot of people killed. It’s impossible to know what would have happened had Deng not ordered troops into Tiananmen. It’s not hard, however, to imagine a scenario in which things would have happened that would have dwarfed the horror of what actually happened.


15 Responses to Review of “Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China” by Ezra Vogel

  1. “the best changes in forms of government are the ones that don’t appear to be changes in forms of government.”

    Moldbug once complained that the problem with both the Federalists and the Progressives is that they tried to overthrow democracy without actually overthrowing democracy. So it seems any reactionary movement, needs to actually overthrow democracy, yet do it in such way where most appearances are still maintained and people barely notice the transition. As if the reactionary plan forward wasn’t already several orders of magnitude too impossible …

    BTW, I recommend Jan Wong’s “Red China Blues” account of what it was like to be on the ground in Tiananmen. One thing she found out – that you never here mentioned in the Western press – is that the protestors had a tent full of weapons.

  2. vishmehr24 says:

    There must be ways to overcome student protests other than by a massacre. India too faced socialist-student agitation in 1974 that led to the State imposing a National Emergency in 1975 for 18 months. There was repression but no massacres.

  3. spandrell says:

    The things is why do students think they have special legitimacy? They shouldn’t be any less likely to get shot that any other group of rioters. Deng thankfully made that point clear.

    But he had to bring in troops from the border, who were quite willing to shoot at entitled kids from the city.
    Anyway we still don’t have the true story of who was behind the agitation and the sympathisers inside government who allowed it to grow that big. Protests that big are never spontaneous.

  4. “India too faced socialist-student agitation in 1974 that led to the State imposing a National Emergency in 1975 for 18 months. There was repression but no massacres.”

    No massacres of those students.

  5. PA says:

    I can’t get past the part about forced abortions for married women.

    • spandrell says:

      Dude, natalism is a good idea for whites in the US, but a VERY bad idea in China.

      Libertarianism in one country please.

      • Simon says:

        Mate, your ad hoc rationalisations are beginning to be tiring…make your mind up already.

    • Simon says:

      Yeah, but China is peaceful, orderly, and more wealthy…lol…

    • Nyk says:

      So you have no problem with dysgenics and the lowering of average population intelligence over time?

      Forced abortions are almost necessary if you actually want your population to be smarter over time. Of course, as I understand it, the rich women who are pregnant with a 2nd child can pay the “fine” (a child tax really) and so they aren’t forced to abort. Only the poor ones are forced to abort.

      The result is that only smart people (and some rather small ethnic minorities – like Tibetans) get to have a number of children above the population replacement limit of 2.1 – if they want to.

      • Simon says:

        Now I know why Pol Pot wanted to kill all the intellectuals.

        I hope your time comes soon, Nyk.

      • PA says:

        China enforces one-child rule for Han Chinese and waives it for ethnic minorities. So much for your eugenics theory.

  6. spandrell says:

    It’s not about eugenics. There’s just too many people. And Chinese are clannish, having more children=more power to the clan, so people used to breed without control. The government doesn’t want famines nor powerful clans, hence 1 child policy.

    Which you can’t possibly enforce on minorities without massive rioting. The Han aren’t going anywhere, but 1 child policy would kill off the Tibetans or any smaller tribe in a decade. Not that I care, but they would resist.

  7. James_G says:

    Interesting, negative perspective on Deng’s China from a Western expat (via Hacker News):

  8. […] progressivism is stronger than ever and so are the Chi-coms (even if there governing ideology has changed a bit). So the question should not be who defeated communism, but instead should be who defeated […]

  9. […] We have reason to think, however, that China won’t get very sick with it. They’ve turned Communism into a doctrine of nationalism, economic growth, and scientific advancement, after all; […]

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