Andrew J. Nathan: Review of Ezra F. Vogel's "Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China" (Belknap, 2012)

Andrew J. Nathan is the author, with Andrew Scobell, of China’s Search for Security, forthcoming from Columbia University Press.

Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China
By Ezra F. Vogel
(Belknap Press, 876 pp., $39.95) 

Revolutionaries get all the attention, but reform is much harder. A reformer has to reshape a rigid structure without breaking it. Before Deng Xiaoping, only Kemal Atatürk in the twentieth century managed to do this. Others, like Nasser and the Shah of Iran, left key parts of the old system intact, or, like Gorbachev, destroyed the regime in trying to save it.

The China that Deng inherited from Mao Zedong was just such a brittle system. Power was hyper-centralized, with all actors below the supreme leader fearful and jealous. Society was divided into virtual castes, carrying class labels that defined who were members of the “people” and therefore qualified to benefit from the new order, and who were bad elements, fated by descent from landlords and capitalists to be persecuted for generations. The peasants were locked down in the rural countryside by the household registration system. Narrow-minded apparatchiks orchestrated all thought and culture. The economy was detached from the rest of the world and immured in poverty by a system of inefficient collective farms and state enterprises. In its foreign policy China stood at odds with both superpowers.

Deng had helped to create this system. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he ran the daily work of the Chinese Communist Party as secretary general, oversaw the Anti-Rightist Campaign, which punished over half a million intellectuals for voicing criticisms of the Party, and contributed to the economic readjustments after the Great Leap Forward that brought China back from the depths of famine to its normal level of deprivation. He was out of power from 1966 to 1973, a victim of the Cultural Revolution, and back briefly in office in 1974-1975 to help manage the economy before being purged again....

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