The Skeletons in Deng's Closet

Foreign Policy has a review of the lengthy biography of Deng Xiaoping by Ezra Vogel:

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.)

There have been several Deng biographies before this — from the curmudgeonly Benjamin Yang, the suave ex-diplomat Richard Evans, the meticulous analyst Michael Marti — but Vogel’s can be regarded as the most comprehensive and informative of the lot. (Maurice Meisner wrote a book of marvelous verve about Deng and his era, but it doesn’t actually contain that much in the way of biography.) Vogel has left no stone unturned, and this is mostly a good thing. But sometimes — in a 928-page book with chapter titles like “Economic Readjustment and Rural Reform, 1978-1982″ — it wears. If you want to know the particulars of Deng’s career, you’ll be well-served here; if you want to know his life, you might find this book a bit frustrating. Vogel would probably object that it is the career that matters most, and of course that’s true — up to a point. But a biography, by the very nature of the beast, should also be a story — preferably one that doesn’t pull its punches. Brutal candor is a vital literary device. William Taubman set the standard with his fantastically well-researched yet bracingly sarcastic portrait of Khrushchev. Vogel, by contrast, is a bit too quick to skip over the rougher, blacker sides of his hero’s past. The massive ambiguities, the jaw-dropping plot twists, the spicy Sichuanese reek of an unlikely life never quite filter through.

Vogel has been traveling to China since the 1960s, and over the years he has cultivated close relationships with Deng’s relatives and leading members of the Chinese Communist Party, a level of access that has unquestionably enriched the book. When Vogel reveals something truly fresh about his subject, it’s usually not because of a document, but rather because insiders have shared their views. My favorite quote comes from Deng’s youngest son: “My father thinks Gorbachev is an idiot.”

Read a previous review of the book by John Pomfret in the Washington Post via CDT.

September 13, 2011 9:50 PM
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Categories: CDT Bookshelf, Politics