Magazine article The Spectator

'Deng Xiaoping', by Michael Dillon - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Deng Xiaoping', by Michael Dillon - Review

Article excerpt

Deng Xiaoping Michael Dillon

I.B. Tauris, pp.329, £25, ISBN: 9781780768953

Much has been written about Deng Xiao-ping (1904-1997), most recently by Ezra Vogel in Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China . But apart from his fondness for eating croissants and playing bridge, and the fact that his second wife left him for a party colleague -- Michael Dillon records the divorce only -- we still know little about Deng himself. Mao Zedong's personality, on the other hand, was often remarked on -- from Edgar Snow's first meeting with him in 1936 to Henry Kissinger's in 1971(both men swooned in his presence).

Dillon rightly notes that Vogel compressed a large part of Deng's life into a mere 30 pages. In this biography the entire life and career are given appropriate space. Unfortunately, however, what the author does, with a few exceptions, is to excuse or explain away Deng's record as a violent disciple of Mao, resorting to evasive words like 'probably', 'possibly' and 'perhaps'.

We get the standard account of Deng's upbringing in a small landlord's family, his five years in France, where he joined the fledgling Chinese communist party, a year or so of Stalinist buffing in Moscow, and then back to China, where Zhou Enlai, who had also been in France, guided Deng up the greasy party pole and rescued him from the purges always lurking near party members.

Deng's lifelong loyalty to Mao, which Dillon uses to explain why the former chose this road rather than that one, enabled him to climb ever higher, to a vice premiership and a move to Beijing in 1952. But it was in that very period (ignored by Dillon) that Deng (and Zhou) exhibited the ruthlessness that Mao always appreciated in those close to him. Frank Dikötter, in The Tragedy of Liberation , a detailed analysis of Mao's first decade in power (not listed in Dillon's bibliography), has this to say:

Nobody merely acted under orders, as leaders created their own guidelines, trying to guess what was required of them ... Deng Xiaoping, for instance, suggested in February 1951 that between half and two-thirds of all counter-revolutionaries be executed. Mao approved, on condition that the killings be 'secretly controlled, without disorder or mistakes.'

Between 1959 and 1962 China suffered the worst famine in world history, in which 30-50 million people starved to death -- a figure Dillon mentions only in passing. The high-ranking Marshal Peng Dehuai was purged when he publicly attacked Mao for ignoring this super-tragedy -- one which the chairman's own comrades knew he had caused. …

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