Book Review: ‘Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China,’ by Ezra F. Vogel

John Pomfret reviews a new book by Ezra Vogel which looks at former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and his role in shaping Chinese history:

The Bush and Biden trips to Sichuan bookend one of the world’s greatest stories: the rise of China and its emergence as a global juggernaut. How China got to this point — last year it surpassed Japan as the world’s second-biggest economy and Germany as the nation with the most exports — is the story that Ezra F. Vogeltells in “Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China,” a masterful new history of China’s reform era. It pieces together from interviews and memoirs perhaps the clearest account so far of the revolution that turned China from a totalitarian backwater led by one of the monsters of the 20th century into the power it has become today.

Vogel, a Harvard professor who has bounced between interests in China and Japan for all of his professional life, picked one man on whom to center his tale: Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), the communist leader who left the Sichuan countryside for France when he was 16. While Deng might have been tiny (he stood 4-foot-11), this book is massive, Yao Ming-big — the text alone runs to 714 pages.

But Vogel has a monumental story to tell. His main argument is that Deng deserves a central place in the pantheon of 20th-century leaders. For he not only launched China’s market-oriented economic reforms but also accomplished something that had eluded Chinese leaders for almost two centuries: the transformation of the world’s oldest civilization into a modern nation.

“Did any other leader in the twentieth century do more to improve the lives of so many?” Vogel asks. “Did any other twentieth century leader have such a large and lasting influence on world history?” He clearly believes that Deng — known in the West mostly for engineering the slaughter of protesters in the streets near Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989 — has been wronged by history. His tome is an attempt to redress the balance.


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