Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Deng Xiaoping's life story - a true modern epic

By Ezra Vogel, Belknap Harvard, 876pp. 

In China, they play politics seriously.  We need to know how things work there, and this book will help.

From one man’s navigation through six decades of Chinese politics, we can learn much about the choices we humans make about how our societies are to be governed. Blow away the fog of ideology, and Deng Xiaoping’s choices, loyalties and betrayals could as well take place in ancient Rome or modern Washington as in Beijing. Deng’s personal saga of the acquisition, application and retention of power might attract a future Shakespeare, but for contemporary readers it's instructive to understand how this particular man,  more than any other, delivered 20th Century China from its Maoist hell into the vital, but still turbulent, economic powerhouse we see today.

All the evidence suggests that Deng, since his days as a 16-year old Communist student in France in the 1920s, Deng never budged on the one principle that all power in China must be centralized through the Communist Party.  Communist ideology provided some core principles and objectives for the Communist program, but its main function was to define discipline and solidarity to maintain the Party's grip on power.

After the death of Chairman Mao, Deng fought bitter battles within the Communist Party leadership to promote economic liberalization, but did not hesitate to crack down hard, whether on life-long Communist colleagues or on Western-influenced student dissidents, whenever he sensed any serious challenge to the absolute power and authority of the Party.

Deng's Leninist conviction on the central role of the Party never wavered even when nepotism and corruption among the Party elite caused deep resentment among the population.  A few junior crooks could be shot, and senior ones humiliated, but the Party’s hold on power must not be challenged.

Deng’s survival through savage intra-Party struggles and ultimate rise to the top is an epic in itself.  This could be compared to surviving at the court of King Henry VIII.  Deng’s reputation for effectiveness and Party loyalty meant he always had protectors when he needed them, whereas many equally loyal but less judicious Communists were destroyed utterly by Mao, or in his name.

Any organization that sets itself above the law, as the Chinese Communist Party has always done, may fall to subversion by dominant individuals.  By the late 1960s Mao Zedong had established a virtual monarchy.  After Mao, Deng Xiaoping emerged as the one figure with the deep personal support base, and the tactical skill, to bring bitterly divided Party factions together into a viable, common program that bypassed the leftist conservatives. 

Deng in later years enjoyed recognition as “paramount leader” or “supreme leader”, but he never held or claimed Mao’s absolute authority, and he largely avoided the dangers of a personality cult.  Deng would cautiously place chosen people in key positions and wait for an alignment of events that favoured his next challenge to opponents within the Party.

There’s no evidence that Deng Xiaoping had any interest in broadening democracy for China, although there were times when he acted and spoke to mobilize liberal intellectuals, at home and abroad, so as to put heat on more conservative Communist colleagues.  Deng had promoted the capable and popular liberal Party leaders Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang for their reforming vigour and openness, but when Hu and later Zhao provoked strong reactions from conservatives, whose support Deng needed at the time, he ended both their careers with very public humiliations - sacrifices on the altar of Party unity.

Vogel is a veteran sinologist who has accessed a wide range of Chinese and foreign sources, including some personal interviews with surviving key players or those close to them.  He assembles insights never available to those of us who were trying to cover these events as they occurred. 

Because of the Party’s vigilance, sinologists are often reluctant to jeopardize future access to their privileged sources. Vogel abstains from challenging the Communist Party’s central claim that China can have only Leninist one-party rule, or chaos.  He notes, however, that memoirs of key figures, including former liberal Premier Zhao Ziyang and conservative politician Deng Liqun, could not be published in China, but were published in Hong Kong.

Richard Thwaites was ABC correspondent in Beijing in the years Deng Xiaoping achieved pre-eminence in China’s leadership, 1978-83.