On Vogel's book about Deng Xiaoping

Though Deng's era is over, his legacy is yet to be concluded.

Written by He Qinglian on June 18, 2012.
(Translated by kRiZcPEc).

The Chinese version of Deng Xiaoping and the transformation of China, written by Ezra F. Vogel, a professor at Harvard University, has recently been available. Although there are already various versions of biographies of Deng Xiaoping, including My father Deng Xiaoping by Deng Rong “Maomao”, and hardly any breakthrough could be achieved in terms of historical data, this book by Vogel is about a world class great man, and the author is a renowned China scholar who was once influential both in the politics and academic circles. These two factors per se are sufficient to attract the eyeballs of readers. 
In his recent interviews following the publication of the Chinese version of his book, Mr. Vogel made comments about Deng Xiaoping and gave a series of “if” that showed clearly how much he worshiped Deng. The most controversial and the hardest not to disagree was his defense for Deng Xiaoping's decision errors in squelching the “June-4th” Tiananmen movement.

Ezra F. Vogel has his own unique and insightful interpretations of China's realpolitik and its affairs. For example, he concluded that reform in China was a thing so big that it took a person with a combination of authority, background, and experience to carry out. Deng was a man with all three of these and that was why he could initiate the reform that transformed China. I completely agree with his observation on this. Judging from the vision, caliber and strength of the elders of the CPC at that time, Deng was the only one with the courage needed to push for reform in China. That is why I have been saying that compared with other Chinese leaders of his contemporaries, Deng was the person who went the farthest.

Mr. Vogel's understanding of Deng Xiaoping had also grasped the essence: “Deng was a pragmatist, not a specialist in ideology. Unlike many other leaders of the Communist world, Deng did not think that becoming a theorist was a prerequisite for anyone who aspired to assume the highest office”. This has also been the consensus of the Chinese intellectuals. The following remark, however, is more of his own idea: “The remarks made about 'Deng Xiaoping's theory' by the 14th National Congress of the CPC aimed to illustrate that 'pragmatism' is precisely the most profound theory.”

Judging from his comments, Mr. Vogel thought very highly of this pragmatism. My opinion is that at the political level, this very type of pragmatism gave rise to mercenary and unscrupulous “state opportunism”; at the sociocultural level, it directed the Chinese people to the philistine pursuit of money above all else and overturned the value system of the Chinese society.

This pragmatism had effectively led China through the thirty years of reform. Yet as China achieved its “peaceful rise” in recent years, the Chinese government intended to publicize the country's “soft power” and make the world accept the “China model”, only to realize that the Chinese value— “economic interests above everything else”—is so unattractive. This cannot but say is the consequence of Deng's pragmatism “theory”.

The other focal point of Deng Xiaoping and the transformation of China is the attempt to construe the relationship map of Deng Xiaoping and his contemporary leaders, and re-examines it. The key relationship Mr. Vogel listed in his book is predominantly that of Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun.

The narration concerning the relationship between Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun might present some novelty to English readers. But I think that after all, being a biography, this book could not possibly evade the following: the relationship between Deng Xiaoping and the two premiers Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang; whether or not the source of power with which Deng, a low-ranking member of the CPC, twice dismissed the Party's General Secretary was justifiable; whether or not it was appropriate for Deng to personally appoint Jiang Zemin as the third generation leader, and specified that Hu Jintao was to become leader of the fourth generation and others. All these need to be examined.

The evaluation Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang received is becoming higher these days. The relationship between Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang involved Deng's tolerance and his repeated transgressions of the rules of the game within the Party. The fact that he handpicked the leaders of the third and the fourth generations related to, the legitimacy of the non-institutional factor of this action aside, the ability of a great political figure to know [the capability of] others. This is all the more important when Hu Jintao's mediocre statecraft became the curse of high-level power struggle in China in 2012. Mr. Vogel attempted to analyze and explain Deng's having greater power than his position would provide him. If his analysis could be widely accepted by readers in China (and not readers in the English-speaking world), then his viewpoints could be said to have some merits.

During interviews, Mr. Vogel stated several times that “if Deng Xiaoping were still alive today, he would not...” This is a viewpoint that I really find difficult to agree. I guess these several “ifs” more or less reflected Mr. Vogel's disappointment with the current Chinese leaders. And he therefore figured that if Deng Xiaoping were still alive, and personally took charge of the government affairs, there would be much fewer regrets in China today. This hypothesis is more or less related to Mr. Vogel's overestimation of Deng Xiaoping's ability.

In fact, the limits of Deng's ability had been manifested clearly in his handling of the Tiananmen incident in 1989. By resorting to such a wrong move, Deng had not only changed the relationship between himself and the people, but also directed the train of reform that he personally forged onto a rail that had no way out. How could a great man who made the wrong response even in the face of such a rare historic opportunity be expected to grasp the significance the Internet has for humankind like people age below 50 do, and seize the opportunity based on that understanding in the impending age of the network?
And there are the two principles laid down by Deng Xiaoping: “China must not allow chaos”; and “the [political] system must not change”. The first principle became the source of the CPC “theory” that suggests “democracy triggers chaos”, and evolved into the stability maintenance system that costs hundreds of billions each year; the second one was elaborated by Wu Bangguo, one of the “Nine Dragons” of China today as the “five no's” and “[to] turn the will of the Party into that of the state through legal procedures”. These two principles had already pinned China, a country which potential instances of unrest are everywhere, down on a life-or-death trap, and would cause grave consequences when things go wrong. How could Deng Xiaoping, who insisted that “the [political] system must not change”, be expected to properly address the many conflicts and problems today that stem from the system itself?

In early March 2002, I was invited by East Asian Legal Studies Center of Harvard to deliver a speech. During that time, I paid a visit to Mr. Vogel at his house. Through a conversation that lasted two and a half hours, I was impressed by Mr. Vogel's appreciation (mixed with well-disguised worship) of Deng Xiaoping. Therefore, I am not surprised that he said today that “the West has underestimated Deng Xiaoping.

It was also because I sensed this sentiment that I stressed specifically in that conversation that: I personally do not think the biggest flaw of Deng Xiaoping in his life was only his handling of the June-4th incident. Rather, the biggest flaw of Deng was the political legacy that he left behind, the “lame reform” that excluded political reform and led to the marketization of power. Because this characteristic had steered reform to a very dangerous direction, “even if Jiang Zemin does not have to face all of the consequences of the marketization of power, his successors would undoubtedly have to”.

Mr. Vogel thought that with corruption being so pervasive a problem today that the CPC authorities must not evade it, “Deng Xiaoping would definitely not sit back and do nothing if he were still alive today” even though he did tolerate corruption at a lighter degree in the 1980s. In my opinion, however, Deng Xiaoping would not be able to break free from the shackle that he created for himself and the CPC: the government acts as the resource allocator, the rule-maker of the game of economy and a game-player. Whatever government that has in hand these three types of power could in no way prevent corruption.

In the chapter “Deng's Place in History”, Mr. Vogel wrote that if the Chinese people were to thank one leader for improvement in their daily life, the person they should thank would be Deng Xiaoping. He also questioned if there are any other leaders of 20th century who could match him when it comes to the contributions to improving the lives of so many people.

This “if” would emerge is a result of Mr. Vogel not having interviewed the bottom of society or gotten close to those people or understood them. Given that China is still in the middle of transition, those giants who pushed for that transition would receive comments that differ between individuals and vary from time to time. Therefore, it is not yet time to conclude Deng's place in history. Moreover, during Hu Jintao's second term, the various political trends that reject reform have become pretty obvious. The Chinese people is not just a single mass, they are not like what the Chinese officials tend to refer to as the collective noun of “the entire nation”. In reality, the Chinese people have long differentiate into the various strata because of varied interests. Each of these strata have their own interest demand, only that the authorities have strictly suppressed them. For instance, among the crowd that miss the Mao era are, apart from members at the bottom of society, quite a few “red second generation”. Bo Xilai's campaigns in Chongqing were an act of conform to this trend of thought. As for the line of new democracy that Liu Yuan and others call to return to could at least be seen as an attempt to revise Deng Xiaoping's path of reform.

While Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao—the latter in particular—might not share Deng's view of Mao, they are nonetheless faithful implementers of Deng Xiaoping's reform framework which develop only the economy and dismiss political system reform. If the Chinese government does not control speech, the two types of people mentioned above would surely trace the origin of their dissatisfaction back to the reform initiated by Deng Xiaoping. However, they criticize Deng's reform from a perspective that differ from my own. What I criticize is the CPC refusal to reform the political system and the incomplete separation from Mao era, both are the root causes of current problems in China; they, on the other hand, denounce the vices of reality, which they deem to have stemmed from Deng's route of reform and the abandonment of Mao's route of revolution.

Laden with praises for Deng Xiaoping, this book drew many questions right from its publication. For instance, Mr. Vogel invariably stepped into Deng's shoes, tried to understand his actions—crack down on intellectuals, repress criticism—and sympathized with him. He saw everything about China from the pragmatic viewpoints of the CPC and showed no concern for human rights issues. If this book were published before 2008, it might have been able to serve Mr. Vogel's purpose of educating the U.S. public to renew their understanding of Deng Xiaoping. But now it could be expected that the Chinese version of the book that became available this year would receive far fewer favorable comments than the author and the publishing house have hoped.

The accomplishments Deng Xiaoping had made in his lifetime was relevant to the destiny of China; all the more so, those were related to the prospect and destiny of the CPC. Hence, my opinion on that book is that while it is a biography that must not to be overlooked, its conclusion of Deng Xiaoping could not be seen as a “set-in-stone” evaluation yet. How great actually had Deng Xiaoping accomplished in his lifetime shall have to be attested by the future history of China.