The Peppery Napoleon Who Once Led China

By Julian GewirtzSeptember 16, 2015

Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life by Alexander V. Pantsov and Steven I. Levine

AS XI JINPING prepares to visit the United States late this month, how should observers understand the Chinese leader and his goals for his country? Xi himself has made clear whom he sees as his primary symbolic predecessor: “Comrade Deng Xiaoping is a great man,” and “we must learn from Deng,” Xi has repeatedly said. Indeed, in November 2012, when Xi departed Beijing for his first official domestic trip, his destination was the booming southern metropolis of Shenzhen, a former backwater that Deng, as China’s paramount leader, had designated the first special economic zone open to private enterprise and foreign investment in 1980. Xi went to Shenzen not simply to call attention to its complete transformation into a wealthy city in a single generation; he was there specifically to pay homage to Deng. He made his way to the six-meter-high bronze statue of Deng Xiaoping that overlooks the city. At the feet of the man who had towered over generations of Chinese politics despite standing just under five feet tall, Xi — bold and authoritarian though he may be — bowed.

Behind these panegyrics, who was this Deng Xiaoping whom China’s leaders still “learn from”? Americans may best remember Deng for his own trip to the United States in 1979, the first visit of a top Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader to the United States, during which he donned a ten-gallon hat and smiled for the cameras as if to embody the new “opening and reform” that he was launching in China. Back at home, Deng was the supreme leader sitting atop a system undergoing a dramatic transformation affecting nearly every aspect of Chinese life. How did Deng manage to become both “a great Marxist” and “the chief architect” of China’s move toward the market economy, as Xi called him in a 2014 speech on the 110-year anniversary of Deng’s birth?

In the recently published Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life, Alexander V. Pantsov and Steven I. Levine have provided the fullest answers yet to these essential questions, which are more important than ever now that Xi’s connection to Deng has become so clear. Pantsov and Levine, two US-based historians and previously co-authors of Mao: The Real Story, follow Deng from birth to death and seek to provide a comprehensive portrait and assessment: “Deng was definitely an outstanding revolutionary leader, a great economic and social reformer, a talented strategist and tactician, and a skillful political organizer. But he was also a bloody dictator …” They state plainly, “[C]oncepts such as humanism and morality were not in his lexicon,” and “for him the end always justified the means” — and that end was always the power and endurance of China under the CCP. Through the CCP, Deng operated on a stage and scale where his good decisions lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, and his ruthlessness and misdeeds over decades cost many thousands of innocent lives, including the Chinese citizens killed at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Pantsov and Levine follow from a comment from Deng himself: “I would be quite content if I myself could be rated fifty-fifty in merits and demerits.” Their biography sets out to pinpoint, as accurately as the historical record will allow, where these “merits and demerits” lie.

Pantsov and Levine are excellent storytellers with a gripping tale to tell. In contrast to their main competition — Ezra Vogel’s Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, published in 2011, which offers an account primarily focused on Deng’s triumphs in the 20 years after Mao Zedong’s death and rushes past the first 60 years of his life — this biography distributes its attention from beginning to end. Their book adds not only rich detail to the earlier part of the story but lingers also on the darker parts throughout, and for the first time draws upon newly available Soviet sources.

Their story begins with Deng’s birth in the hamlet of Paifang, Sichuan Province, on August 22, 1904. Deng grew up in a moderately well-off landowning family. He was an energetic man with lively features (his daughter would describe her father, in the authors’ translation, as having “a round face, wide forehead, light eyebrows, white skin, small eyes, plus a rounded nose tip”). After boarding at a primary school in Chongqing that aimed to send its young graduates to France for secondary school, Deng left China at age 16 to study in Paris. Rebellion had overthrown the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and China’s future remained unclear, but Europe seemed to offer opportunity. The authors provide the best information yet in English about Deng’s formative years in France from 16 to 22; given the thinness of the documentary record, this is perhaps as much as we will ever know.

In France, Deng and his fellow Chinese students struggled to acclimate. He soon dropped out and found work in a steel-rolling shop in Burgundy and a rubber factory in Loiret. Alienated from French society and industrial work, he became fast friends with Zhou Enlai, a leader of the European branch of the newly founded CCP whom Deng would call his “elder brother.” (Zhou Enlai would eventually become China’s long-serving premier.) Deng embraced communism by the summer of 1923. “I acquired class consciousness then when the capitalists and their tools — the foremen — slighted and exploited me” in France, he wrote. This experience contrasts with many other CCP leaders, including Mao Zedong himself, who arrived at “class consciousness” through intellectual exploration — and partly explains Deng’s characteristic pragmatism and focus on making judgments based on experience rather than dogma alone.

Newly red, Deng fled France in 1926 for the capital of the international communist movement, Moscow, and its University of the Toilers of the East. Pantsov and Levine offer extraordinary insight into this period and its effect on Deng, based on previously unexamined Soviet archives. Deng embraced the necessity of both the New Economic Policy (which, Stalin said, “aimed at permitting capitalism while the commanding positions are held by the proletarian state”) and centralized political authority. We hear the voice of the young Deng: “Centralized power flows from the top down. It is absolutely necessary to obey the directives of the leadership.” This training in Moscow — and the “absolute” obedience to leadership that it emphasized — defined Deng’s political behavior for the rest of his life.

Soon, Deng returned to China to serve the CCP as it competed for control with Chiang Kai-shek’s ruling Guomindang. Deng earned a reputation as a reliable staffer and savvy operative, and he rose up the ranks swiftly. A “peppery Napoleon” who tipped the scales at 110 pounds but knew how to throw his weight around, Deng soon made himself indispensible to Mao as the latter rose to supreme power within the Party during the Long March of 1934–1935. Deng would later joke that he “just followed” on the Long March, but in truth, he was busily developing deep relationships with military commanders and political operators across the CCP’s ranks and proving his loyalty to the Party’s decrees. By the time that the fighting against Japan ended in 1945 and a bloody civil war with the Guomindang recommenced, Deng had earned Mao’s “enormous trust,” Pantsov and Levine write; Deng himself “believed that Mao and the Chinese revolution were indivisible.” Their complex, tempestuous bond was based on Deng’s adoration of the man who seemed capable of saving China from its “century of humiliation” — and together, these two men would define China’s political life for the half a century to come.

Deng’s fealty would be handsomely rewarded when he was named the boss of the vast southwest region of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), established in 1949. He soon enthusiastically implemented Mao’s campaign against “counterrevolutionaries.” The region under his control witnessed an “orgy of executions,” including a six month period that saw an average of 46 executions per day in one area of western Sichuan Province. In April 1951, Mao wrote to Deng urging him to slow the killings. “We should not kill too many people,” Mao warned. Even so, Mao was delighted with Deng’s speedy implementation of land reform and aggressive suppression of his enemies. In July 1952, Mao brought Deng to Beijing as one of his chief deputies. “Whether politics or military affairs, Deng Xiaoping is good at everything,” Mao declared.

These years marked the peak of the collaboration between Mao and Deng, who soon became general secretary of the Central Committee. Deng “is just like me,” Mao said happily in September 1956. Thus the Great Helmsman again tasked Deng with decimating “rightists” and “counterrevolutionaries” in China. “The rightists,” Deng declared in 1957, “resemble a snake which has slithered out of the earth, scented danger, and wants to slither back in, but has been strongly seized by the tail.” Approximately 500,000 such rightists were “seized” and sent to labor camps for “reeducation.” Mao was so delighted that he praised Deng as “a great growing force” and “the best of my comrades in arms.”

Yet this bond was not to last. That winter, Mao announced that China would begin a “Great Leap Forward” to industrialize rapidly — a fevered, utopian vision, the product of an absolute cult of personality. Famine soon gripped the countryside, and millions of peasants were starving. Deng did not speak out against the Great Leap Forward like the brave, doomed general Peng Dehuai — but Pantsov and Levine argue persuasively that the catastrophic failure of the Great Leap Forward shattered Deng’s faith in Mao and his utopian egalitarianism. As he grew apart from Mao, the more practical, independent-minded, and thus more familiar Deng emerges. In 1962, Deng openly praised policies that created incentives for peasant households to produce more crops, anathema to Mao. That year, Deng first used an aphorism that would become closely associated with him. “It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or yellow, as long as it can catch mice it is a good cat,” he said. (Over time, this metaphorical cat would change from “yellow” to “white.”) Mao was livid.

Aiming to “bombard the headquarters” and eliminate suspected enemies of his rule, the dictatorial and insecure Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966, starting a harrowing decade of struggle and chaos. Deng became one of its chief targets. He was branded China’s “number two capitalist roader,” second only to the ousted PRC president Liu Shaoqi. Liu died in 1969 after beatings at the hands of the Red Guards, the Revolution’s violent adolescent vanguard. Deng was spared this fate, but the Red Guards put his entire record under frenzied examination and accused him, for example, of being “a pitiful coward” when he “[fled] to Shanghai to hide from danger” during civil war in 1931. Deng would spend two years in almost total isolation, accompanied only by his wife, Zhuo Lin. Deng’s younger brother, persecuted as a relative of the “number two capitalist roader,” killed himself; Deng’s son, Pufang, attempted suicide and was left paralyzed from the neck down. Yet in spite of the tragedies that befell his family, Deng would later tell Mao that he spent these years “waiting” to serve the CCP again.

Perhaps Mao also suspected that he would someday need Deng once more. The cancer-stricken premier Zhou Enlai urged Mao to rehabilitate the uniquely talented Deng, and in 1973, Mao made a stunning reversal. He called the criticism of the 69-year-old Deng to a halt and appointed him deputy premier, positioning him to succeed the ailing Zhou. The “doughy little man with the melancholy eyes,” as Henry Kissinger called Deng, was once again “the Chairman’s man,” in the words of his biographers, who argue that the only explanation for Deng’s willingness to ignore the assault on his reputation, the destruction of his family, and the damage inflicted on China itself was his fealty to the CCP, although surely his satisfaction and confidence in his own leadership potential must have been significant as well. Mao’s wife Jiang Qing even succeeded in purging Deng again in late 1975, but with Mao’s death in September 1976, she and her “Gang of Four” were swiftly deposed and imprisoned.

Despite these repeated purges, Deng — overwhelmingly popular with the Chinese people because he was seen as a proponent of practical solutions to economic woes and closely tied to the beloved Zhou Enlai — seemed like a natural candidate to become China’s next leader. By 1978, he and a motley alliance of septuagenarian military brass and development-focused intellectuals had outmaneuvered Hua Guofeng, the provincial official whom Mao had plucked out of obscurity and designated as his successor as CCP chairman. On a platform of “seek[ing] truth from facts,” taking “practice [as] the sole criterion of truth,” and denouncing the “cult of personality,” Deng and his faction triumphed over those within the CCP who wanted to “uphold whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao had made.”

Deng’s new administration initiated a sweeping policy of “reform and opening” that with remarkable speed yielded the Chinese colossus that we see today. Deng rejected the failed model of the command economy, rehabilitated many of the Cultural Revolution’s victims, formalized Sino-American rapprochement, and started a period of rapid, market-oriented growth that lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese people out of poverty. This economic and social transformation has witnessed economic progress more rapid than in perhaps any country at any time in human history.

How did Deng, a loyal Party apparatchik, turn out to possess the imagination needed to envision and lead this remaking? Pantsov and Levine provide few new insights into this question, showing that Deng mainly just knew what problems needed fixing. Socialism should not “boil down to shared poverty,” Deng said. And elsewhere: “The key task is to expand the productive forces.” To determine what this goal would actually entail, Deng promoted a younger generation of able reformers, including General Secretary Hu Yaobang and Premier Zhao Ziyang (both of whom would later be purged). These men gathered around them advisers who drew on international ideas from both reform-socialist and capitalist countries and careful study of China’s situation to preside over what participants have called a “golden age” of reform and openness. From the late 1970s onward, these policymakers and intellectuals formulated the policies that resulted in the “socialist market economy” system that was enshrined in the Chinese Constitution in 1993 and which to this day remains the designation of the Chinese economy. Most of all, the Deng administration let the Chinese people advance themselves — which, more than any single government economic policy, allowed the economy to boom.

Those are the achievements for which Deng is celebrated. Yet Pantsov and Levine are keen to stress that alongside Deng’s embrace of the development-oriented “Four Modernizations,” he remained steadfast in his commitment to the authoritarian “Four Cardinal Principals,” which upheld the power of the CCP. Deng approved the brutal crackdown on the student movement that gathered in Tiananmen Square in spring 1989 — making a choice between these two sets of values that showed his absolute commitment to the “Four Cardinal Principals,” his biographers argue, even if it meant endangering his entire program of “reform and opening.” (“You are old, Xiaoping!” some students’ placards read. “Old-man government is due for retirement!”) Yet Pantsov and Levine show, too, how anxious Deng was that economic reform would continue after the crackdown on June 4, 1989, crescendoing with his historic Southern Tour in 1992. On that trip to special economic zones like Shenzhen (self-consciously echoed by Xi Jinping in 2012 on what became known as “Xi’s Southern Tour”), Deng declared bluntly, “Whoever is against reform must leave office!” This two-sidedness — market-driven economic liberalization under the control of an authoritarian political system — continues to define China today. China’s leaders and boosters may believe that these characteristics are mutually reinforcing and that any contradictions can be managed, or even that CCP-led authoritarian rule is necessary for spectacular economic growth. But Pantsov and Levine show that these dynamics were continually in tension throughout the Deng era and, as a result, their continuing coexistence was never inevitable.

Deng died on February 19, 1997, knowing that he would not be forgotten. Indeed, shortly before his death, he viewed “a new television film about himself” from his hospital sickbed. Almost completely deaf, he had the nurses shout the lines into his ear. His legacy was on his mind: Deng insisted to Jiang Zemin, who succeeded the purged Zhao Ziyang as CCP General Secretary, that he should not be valorized in the manner of Mao after death. “None of us, including me, can be called a ‘great Marxist.’ When I die, don’t call me that either,” Deng said. Sure enough, though, Jiang soon extolled Deng as a “great Marxist,” an epithet that endures to the present day.

Pantsov and Levine state that their goal in taking on Deng’s biography was to set the record straight — in contrast to Vogel’s study, which they mock as “sunny,” “unrealistically positive,” and “lacking in objectivity” (countering, for example, the judgment of reviewers for both The Wall Street Journal and The Economist that called it “definitive”). Indeed, the historian Perry Anderson lambasted Vogel’s book in the London Review of Books as “an exercise in unabashed adulation.” But their introduction, which lobs barbs at Vogel and makes sweeping claims that this is “the only complete and objective biography” of Deng (italics theirs), is more likely to annoy than persuade readers. (It is also worth noting, given their sour words about Vogel’s book, that their footnotes cite his original research and even private email correspondence from Vogel himself.) Setting aside these grating moments, however, their handling of Deng’s positive and negative qualities is impressive. Unlike Vogel’s, their biography is not likely to become a bestseller in the PRC, if China’s censors permit it to be published there at all, because of this more balanced assessment.

An unexpected irony is embedded in this scholarly debate, as Pantsov and Levine present it: their quarrel mirrors the debate over Deng’s legacy that a critic of the CCP within China might have with the Party’s propagandists. The CCP has been leading the current “Deng Xiaoping fever,” deifying Deng as a symbol that legitimates Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power — and a remarkable ten titles — for himself. (In August 2014, the 110-year anniversary of Deng’s birth, nationwide celebrations included the state television debut of a 48-episode documentary lauding Deng’s leadership; Xi himself delivered a major speech honoring Deng, and the official Xinhua News Service trumpeted: “To reignite a nation, Xi carries Deng’s torch.”) But in practice, as critics of the regime suggest, Xi is at best carrying forward an updated version of the real Deng’s two-sidedness: a leader who, as Xi himself characterized Deng last year, is “filled with reform and innovation,” and an autocrat insisting without any qualification that the CCP must be the basis for China’s continuing progress and, as his critics rightly point out, willing to harshly repress any Chinese voices calling for democracy.

It is not just the CCP that appropriates and reinterprets Deng’s legacy inside China. Some Chinese liberals have recently taken advantage of the state-sanctioned “Deng Xiaoping fever” to more effectively promote reforms like advancing the rule of law, breaking up state-owned enterprises, and promoting greater social equality, and to criticize a China that is burdened today by environmental crisis, slowing growth, and rampant corruption. (Others, of course, condemn Deng for his brutal repression.)

For these liberal reformers, the more positive, less balanced version of Deng is a way of proving that reform can work in China. It would grossly misunderstand the context in which they operate to condemn them for knowingly distorting the past, even though that is precisely what they are doing. It would mischaracterize their goals to claim that any treatment of Deng that prizes present-day uses of the past is on the wrong side of history.

In assessing Deng’s life, we are confronted with no less a question than how people in the present ought to view the past. Professional historians, particularly in free societies, typically aspire to “complete and objective” renderings. But history can also be a useful tool, deployed in order to make meaning of the present. This is especially true in China, where a century of iconoclastic upheaval first shattered people’s faith in traditional Confucian society, then in Maoist utopianism, and then in socialism itself. The cult of Deng, like the cult of Mao before it, can be seen as a secular religion, albeit one that upholds the CCP’s edicts as its orthodoxy and positions Xi Jinping as its high priest. The point becomes not truly to know Deng, but to appropriate elements of his life to create useful parables and mantles of present authority. Over time, Xi may choose to favor the version of Deng as the “creative,” “selfless,” and “pragmatic” reformer of CCP propaganda, or he may choose the “fifty-fifty” steely “dictator” revealed in this new biography. Wouldn’t it be marvelous to imagine if, instead of laying rhetorical claim to Deng the great reformer in public but following the hidden “fifty-fifty” Deng in practice, China’s rulers might behave more like the Deng they praise?

To watch China’s rulers today is to witness power caught up in history, as the ambitions of Xi Jinping tangle with the two images of Deng that he has inherited. Taking the long view, however, neither Xi nor any Western historian will pass a conclusive judgment on Deng’s legacy. We may look forward to the day when a Chinese scholar can write the definitive biography of Deng Xiaoping that China so deeply needs.


Julian Gewirtz is a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University. His first book, on China’s economic reforms after Mao, is forthcoming in 2016 from Harvard University Press.

LARB Contributor

Julian Gewirtz is a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University. His essays and reviews have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and The Washington Post, and his poems are published or forthcoming in AGNI, Boston Review, The Nation, the New Republic, Ploughshares, and the Yale Review. His first book of nonfiction, Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China, is forthcoming from Harvard University Press.


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