Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China

By Rhode, Grant F. | Naval War College Review, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China


Rhode, Grant F., Naval War College Review


Vogel, Ezra F. Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap of Harvard Univ. Press, 2011. 928pp. $39.95

For those seeking to understand China's place in the world, Ezra Vogel has performed a great service through his meticulous decadelong work on this biography of Deng Xiaoping, who emerged as China's leader following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Vogel may be overstating the case when he suggests that Deng was the most important world figure of the twentieth century, but it is hard to find a serious rival for the last quarter of that century.

Deng ruled China between 1978 and 1992, when he retired at the age of eighty-eight. Since his retirement, to the present day, Deng's policies have continued, in contrast to the immediate changes that took place following the death of Mao. No Western scholar of China in 1976 predicted the "rise of China" that resulted from Deng's leadership. How did Deng come to be central to the transformation of China?

Born in 1904, Deng took the reins of leadership at age seventy-four, long after most give up trying to change the world. Despite many hurdles, he energetically steered China back on track, continually pursuing his vision. He was an unwavering nationalist as well as a communist. His focus was on a competent, proud, and successful China, not the humiliated China into which he had been born, the descendant of literati in Sichuan Province, to which he never returned. His years in France and Moscow in the 1920s developed in him a mind cognizant of the ways of the world, well before his leadership role began. Deng went on to do political work with Zhou Enlai, his mentor, during the 1930s, and he jointly commanded the 129th Division of the Eighth Route Army from 1937 to 1949 in Shanxi. Although he worked side by side with Mao to become general secretary of the Central Committee, Deng was purged by Mao as a "capitalist roader" early in the Cultural Revolution. Vogel offers a vivid account of Deng's exile in Jiangxi.

The author emphasizes that Deng was very successful in his conduct of foreign affairs. While many scholars consider Deng a student of Zhou Enlai, less polished and capable than his teacher, Vogel turns this idea on its head, using the example of how Deng broke through the U. …

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