At some point, the real truth about China has to be told.

A day will come in the future when Chinese historians are free to practice their subversive trade without interference or censorship, and their verdict will be that Deng Xiaoping should be revered far more than Mao Zedong.

After defeating the Kuomintang and the Japanese, after the remarkable Long March, Mao unified China under his leadership in the 1950s. He then led his country into the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, which brought forth famine and bloodshed leading to the death of about 45 million Chinese.

On the one hand, Chairman Mao Zeodon is the founding father of Communist China, he won the country from Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalist soldiers, on the other hand, some of his policies have led to undesirable consequences.

Even though Chairman Mao Zedong is regarded as China’s founding father and the man who defeated Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalist soldiers, several of his policies have had unfavorable effects on the country.

Enter Deng Xioping. Deng is supposed to be Mao Zeodon’s successor along the way. But Deng does not 100% agree with Mao’s policies.

The cultural revolution is class warfare. Mao charged that bourgeois elements had infiltrated the government and society with the aim of restoring capitalism. The Cultural Revolution was characterised by violence and chaos against the middle or upper middle class

Simply put, the cultural revolution was a war against mostly the educated, the business people and those who are socially deemed to be of the higher echelons of society.

The problem is that Deng Xioping was educated. In 1926 Deng travelled to the Soviet Union and studied at Moscow Sun Yat-sen University, where one of his classmates was Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Chiang Kai-shek. Remember Chiang Kai-Shek is the nemesis to Chairman Mao during the Long March. Deng also studied in France.

After the cultural revolution, and towards the late age of Mao Zeodon, someone has to succeed him.

Whoever Mao’s successor is, they have to promise to continue with his policies [Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution], these policies are not really yielding results for the majority of Chinese people.

Deng Xiaoping painstakingly reassembled the nation’s shattered pieces and began China on a path to regaining its position as the world’s most powerful economy.

Even though Mao Zedong liberated China from the Nationalists and Japan, it was Deng Xiaoping who paved the way for China’s economic modernisation and independence.

It’s like OR Tambo, Nelson Mandela et al delivered South Africa out of the brutal apartheid system, now the country needs leaders that will deliver the country out of economic hardship.

Deng’s role was to take China out of it’s economic hardship.

No country changed more in the second half of the 20th century than China, and this guy, Deng, was responsible.

Vogel’s well-researched book respects and criticises Deng Xiaoping, the architect of contemporary China.

The Vogel expertly integrated Deng’s personal life to that of the country he loved, creating a work that is both intellectual and approachable, objective and passionate.

Vogel highlights Deng’s role in stabilizing China following the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), in which he [Deng] and his family had suffered, by getting the trains operating, making people work together without reprisals, and re-establishing schools and universities.

His achievement preventing China’s collapse led to his second ouster by Mao in 1976. Mao was paranoid that the younger man [Deng] would not back the Cultural Revolution, jealous of his growing popularity, and terrified that, upon Mao’s death, he would denounce the departed dictator.

Later that year, Hua Guofeng succeeded Mao and reinstated Deng, China’s most pragmatic leader. Hua, who arrested Mao’s widow and the Gang of Four, was no match for his wily competitor. Deng’s sidelining and dismissal of Hua is harsh, but not spiteful, politics. Hua was humiliated but not imprisoned.

The thing with Deng is that he was more practical, not ideological. He looked for practical solutions to problems, not too much concerned with ideological rhetoric. This is what Chairmam Mao was afraid of, because Mao was heavily idiological.

Deng’s popular statement to show his pragmatism to issues is:

“It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white as long as it catches the mouse.”

Deng’s bold pragmatism, gaining the truth from facts, prevailed over Hua’s “whateveritis” – believing that whatever Mao said or did was accurate.

Deng’s practical approach to problems resulted in China’s opening to the world, agricultural and industrial reforms, and spectacular growth. In 1978, when the transformation began, China exported as much as it does now in a day.

Vogel has written about Deng’s economic adjustments and rural reforms, beginning with the creation of a Special Economic Zone around the tranquil fishing village of Shenzhen, close across the border from Hong Kong.

Foreign investment and technology were welcomed, imitated, and stolen. Markets and profits superseded some economic commands. Vogel narrates this event authoritatively, ending with Deng’s 1992 trip to the south to encourage reformers and Jiang Zemin.

Vogel lists Deng’s governing ideals to describe his leadership. Others would have supported his merciless sacrifice of pawns to protect the king’s throne. First, he destroyed Hu Yaobang in 1987 for being too moderate on student uprisings, then he destroyed Zhao Ziyang at Tiananmen in 1989. Deng valued his own and the party’s authority. Whether that was necessary to transform China is debated. Vogel argues Deng should win for pulling more people out of poverty than anyone else in history.

Vogel thoroughly takes us through how Deng wrestled back Hong Kong from Margaret Thatcher, how Deng wanted to win back Taiwan but couldn’t, and how Deng tried to talk to The Dalai Lama and integrate and the people of Tibet into China.

Vogel calls Deng China’s “general manager.” Deng pushed and drew his country into the contemporary world without getting ahead of them. Hence he said:

Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile, and never claim leadership.

Vogel details Deng’s efforts to leverage U.S. and Japanese ties to China’s advantage. Deng believed that American and Japanese technology, money, and knowledge would be crucial to China’s advancement. Indeed. No nation has been more important to China’s modernisation than the U.S., something no Chinese official has ever admitted.

Even though Deng was responsible for the skilful and often brutal way in which he directed China to it’s economic independence, it is a bit difficult to divorce the amazing work he has achieved from the tragic events in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre.

The Tiananmen Square protests and massacre is like South Africa’s June 16 protest and massacre of young students by the government security forces.

Vogel questions why the West was so preoccupied with the killings around Tiananmen Square when past bloodier, government-sponsored atrocities in Asia, such as the Kwangju shootings in South Korea in 1980 or the assassination of Taiwan’s intellectual elite in 1947, went virtually unnoticed into history.

The Tiananmen Square demonstrations leading up to the 1989 crackdown were broadcast live throughout the world, he points out. He also speculates that possibly the American public has always held unrealistic expectations of China. As far as I can tell, they’re both correct.

The fact that China is more important than any other country is an additional factor that he neglects to address. Thus, it’s no surprise that Vogel took more than a decade to compose this insightful book.

Deng would not tolerate the cult of personality that Mao happily indulged in, he was not a fan of egotistical adoration for himself. There were no statues of Deng in public places, and there were no portraits of him adorning the walls of people’s houses. A small number of songs and plays have been written to commemorate his victories. In fact, Deng never even held the position of party chairman or prime minister in the People’s Republic of China. Some of his best-known aphorisms and political positions were learned by students, but they did not devote time to memorizing quotes from his writings.

At his death, Deng, unlike Mao, requested that his body be cremated and his ashes scattered in the sea rather than have a lavish state funeral. He also gave some of his organs to academic institutions for research purposes.

Apologies that this review is a tad long, it’s a long book, about over 900 well-researched pages.

This is for sure the longest book I have ever read.



If you are going to read one book about modern China, this is the one. Off-course How Asia Works by Joe Studwell is another great book to read. I’m sure there are other great book on China.

This was a long narrative of Deng Xiaoping’s transformation of China. It was detailed [928 pages], well-researched, and readable. It’s a 9 out of 10, the 1 is because it is a tad too long.

It is a biography about the Paramount Leader from childhood to death at 92. Vogel describes how his domestic and international policies helped China succeed. Under Deng, China became a global powerhouse.

I learned a lot from this interesting book. For me, this book was more about different ways to lead and how they work in one situation, like Mao’s way of leading during China’s liberation and Deng’s way of leading after China’s liberation.

Anyone interested in Chinese politics and leadership should read it.

Favourite Quotes

  • Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.
  • “If there is one leader to whom most Chinese people express gratitude for improvements in their daily lives, it is Deng Xiaoping. Did any other leader in the twentieth century do more to improve the lives of so many? Did any other twentieth-century leader have such a large and lasting influence on world history?”
  • “It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white as long as it catches the mouse”
  • “Deng explained to his hosts that he had come to Japan for three reasons: to exchange documents ratifying the Treaty of Peace and Friendship; to express China’s appreciation to Japanese friends who in recent decades had dedicated themselves to improving Sino-Japanese relations; and like Xu Fu, to find a “secret magic drug.” Japanese listeners laughed, for they were familiar with the story of Xu Fu, who, 2,200 years earlier, on behalf of Emperor Qin, had been dispatched to Japan to find a drug that would bring eternal life. Deng went on to explain that what he really meant by the “magic drug” was the secret of how to modernise. He said he wanted to learn about modern technology and management.”
  • “These were not just Mao’s mistakes, they were all our mistakes. Many of us made mistakes; we lacked experience and had poor judgment.” He added, “We are very poor. We are very backward. We have to recognise that. We have a lot to do, a long way to go and a lot to learn.”
  • “The economy “is like a bird. You can’t hold it in your hand but have to let it fly. But it might fly away, and that is why you need a cage to control it.”
  • “Deng reaffirmed as well the correctness of the party’s strategic goal of quadrupling the economy between 1980 and 2000 and making China a moderately developed country by the middle of the twenty-first century.”

One thought on “Book Review: Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China by Ezra F. Vogel

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