Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life by Alexander V Pantsov & Steven I Levine - review by Frank Dikötter

Frank Dikötter

Number Two Capitalist Roader

Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life


Oxford University Press 610pp £22.99 order from our bookshop

Unlike Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping did not pretend to be a poet, a philosopher or a calligrapher. The Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, in a mere three volumes, offer few hints about the person himself. Unlike his master, Deng was a leader of few words. Since he left almost no paper trail, there is a well-known list of personal anecdotes dutifully rehearsed by every biographer: he took to cheese and coffee during his student days in France; he thrilled the American public by donning a cowboy hat at a rodeo in Texas in 1979; he enjoyed spitting into an enamelled spittoon in front of horrified foreign guests, including Margaret Thatcher; he could be blunt, if not scatological, in conversation; he was entirely devoted to the Communist Party, which he served throughout his career; he was a crafty, obsessive bridge player and died in retirement with one title intact – namely, honorary president of the All-China Association of Bridge Players.

Alexander Pantsov, a Russian-born professor of history at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, has worked assiduously to discover more about the diminutive, barrel-chested man. He has spent many years combing Russian archives, gaining access to the personal dossiers on Deng Xiaoping and other top members of the Chinese Communist Party. He has collaborated once again with Steven Levine, a respected historian of modern China, to distil this material into a new biography, a sequel to their earlier book, Mao: The Real Story. But the strength of this work, oddly enough, lies not in the new archival sources from Moscow, which add disappointingly little of substance to what was already known of Deng. Instead, it is their even-handed treatment of him in comparison with previous biographers, an advantage that becomes ever more evident as the book moves away from the early years of their subject’s life. Their main rival is Ezra Vogel, who wrote an account lavishing such fulsome praise on the man ‘who lifted hundreds of millions of his countrymen out of poverty’ that readers could have been forgiven for thinking that it was a product of Beijing’s own propaganda machine.

The book is divided into three parts. Part One, ‘The Bolshevik’, covers Deng’s life from his birth in 1904 into a well-to-do family of government officials in Sichuan to his first encounter with Mao in 1927 and his early activities in the Communist Party. His father, himself a modern and educated man, sent his son to study and work in France, paying for his passage by selling part of his land. Deng arrived in Europe in 1920. Obliged to work for temporary spells in a rubber factory and a steelworks, he rapidly became involved in underground communist activities. Fully converted to communism, in 1926 he broke all ties with his family and headed for Moscow. The youthful Deng was eager to become an obedient cog in the machinery of revolution and prove himself a disciplined party member. He was sent back to China in 1927. During his seven years abroad, he didn’t learn French or Russian, and – apart from studying the classic Marxist-Leninist works – showed little interest in the world around him.

The second part of this biography, termed ‘The Maoist’, opens in 1931. Over the following decades, Deng transformed himself into a faithful follower of the Chairman, who was eleven years older than him. The authors follow his rise through the ranks. Despite their engaging style and eye for the telling detail, neither the man nor the world around him fully comes to life, largely because they never doubt that revolution was a necessary step in China. This partisan approach leads to a series of clichés, particularly evident in their treatment of the post-1945 civil war, where Chiang Kai-shek makes a fleeting appearance as a corrupt and inept leader doomed to failure. The massive aid Moscow provided to convert Mao’s ragtag army of guerrillas into a huge fighting machine is never mentioned.

As the authors follow Deng into the 1950s, the tone becomes more critical. As soon as the red flag fluttered over Beijing, the regime began suppressing all dissent. Administering several provinces in the southwest, Deng proved so vicious in liquidating alleged counter-revolutionaries that even the Chairman felt obliged to write to him to explain that ‘if we kill too many, we will forfeit public sympathy and a shortage of labor power will arise’. Several years later, in 1957, he shipped half a million educated people to the gulag, including scholars who had never said a word against the party. ‘Deng was not bothered by this. He had never been a liberal and could not tolerate pluralism.’

Deng ‘enthusiastically backed’ the Great Leap Forward and applauded the people’s communes, which reduced villagers to the position of bonded labourers at the beck and call of the state. When tens of millions died in the ensuing catastrophe, he pleaded ignorance, dedicating his energies instead to denouncing Soviet ‘revisionism’.

Deng was himself denounced during the Cultural Revolution, a decade of willed chaos ably and critically covered by the authors. Even so, they underplay just how complicit Deng was in creating the very campaign that engulfed him and his family. They never mention his active participation in vicious denunciation meetings against the former minister of public security Luo Ruiqing, who eventually jumped through a window in an unsuccessful bid to commit suicide (‘He dived like a popsicle,’ Deng scoffed). Likewise missing is even a cursory reference to Deng’s leading role in persecuting Ulanfu, the head of Inner Mongolia, whom Deng harshly accused in July 1966 of every conceivable crime, from ‘taking the capitalist road’ to ‘opposing Chairman Mao’. A few months later Deng’s own turn came, with accusations that he was the ‘Number Two Capitalist Roader’.

But the Chairman protected Deng. Unlike many of his colleagues, he rarely endured struggle sessions with Red Guards, but spent many years in the countryside, sheltered from the vagaries of the Cultural Revolution. As the third and final part, ‘The Pragmatist’, demonstrates, the Chairman even brought him back twice, using him to counterbalance the growing influence of Zhou Enlai. Here, too, there are curious omissions. It is well known, for instance, that as chief-of-staff of the People’s Liberation Army, Deng ordered a military crackdown on a Muslim-dominated county in Yunnan in 1975, prompting the massacre of over 1,600 people, some of them children.

After the Chairman’s death, Deng easily outflanked his designated successor, Hua Guofeng, in 1979, inaugurating an era officially known as ‘Reform and Opening Up’. In reality, during the final years of Maoism, millions upon millions of ordinary villagers had already undermined the very foundations of the planned economy, taking advantage of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution to lift themselves out of poverty. The authors mercifully avoid most of the usual praise heaped upon Deng, so often lauded as the ‘architect of economic reforms’. Deng, though no economist, was sufficiently astute to recognise that he could not fight the popular trend towards decollectivisation. He allowed it to proceed, using economic growth instead to consolidate the party’s grip on power, so badly eroded during the Cultural Revolution.

Deng remained tireless in denouncing even the merest hint of political reform as ‘spiritual pollution’ and ‘bourgeois liberalism’, repeatedly lashing out against students and intellectuals. As the leading dissident and astrophysicist Fang Lizhi phrased it a few years ago, ‘Deng Xiaoping’s role, when he played one, was to curb the spread of freedoms.’ Deng found the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989 intolerable, perceiving them as counter-revolutionaries bent on overthrowing the party and the state. He ‘stubbornly believed in his own infallibility’, sending in the army. In the lucid words of the authors, ‘Deng achieved everything he wanted without regard for the many victims left strewn along his path to power.’ Deng had learned well from the teachings of Mao, his master, whose portrait he ensured was never removed from Tiananmen Square.

Decades from now, historians may very well ask why major leaders of the democratic world eulogised so effusively a man whose Four Cardinal Principles consisted of socialism, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the leadership of the party, and Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought. This biography is the most balanced and well researched to date, combining a lively style with genuine insights derived from many years of close study. Yet it still fails to provide quite the whole story. As the latest batch of grey men in dark suits and dyed hair in Beijing clamp down once again on every possible form of dissent, one wonders if it will ever be told.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

OUP Niven

Follow Literary Review on Twitter