Twenty-six years ago, an American vice president went to the western Chinese city of Chengdu with a message for China: America is here to help. In a speech to students from Sichuan University, George H.W. Bush said the United States would allow China access to a far greater range of American technologies — some with military applications — than other communist countries were granted. American firms, he said, were eager to invest in China. American consumers, he predicted, would soon hanker after Chinese goods. “We are interested in helping China,” Bush told his audience. “Very, very interested.”

An American vice president wouldn’t visit China again until last month, when Joe Biden addressed a similar audience of students from the same university, in the same city. Only this time, the message was different. Instead of promising markets, investment and technology, Biden pledged that the U.S. Treasury would make good on the trillion bucks it owes Beijing. It raises the question: Do the schedulers at the White House lack imagination, or are they just trying to help a scribbler draw a parallel?

The Bush and Biden trips to Sichuan bookend one of the world’s greatest stories: the rise of China and its emergence as a global juggernaut. How China got to this point — last year it surpassed Japan as the world’s second-biggest economy and Germany as the nation with the most exports — is the story that Ezra F. Vogeltells in “Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China,” a masterful new history of China’s reform era. It pieces together from interviews and memoirs perhaps the clearest account so far of the revolution that turned China from a totalitarian backwater led by one of the monsters of the 20th century into the power it has become today.

Vogel, a Harvard professor who has bounced between interests in China and Japan for all of his professional life, picked one man on whom to center his tale: Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), the communist leader who left the Sichuan countryside for France when he was 16. While Deng might have been tiny (he stood 4-foot-11), this book is massive, Yao Ming-big — the text alone runs to 714 pages.

But Vogel has a monumental story to tell. His main argument is that Deng deserves a central place in the pantheon of 20th-century leaders. For he not only launched China’s market-oriented economic reforms but also accomplished something that had eluded Chinese leaders for almost two centuries: the transformation of the world’s oldest civilization into a modern nation.

"Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China" by Ezra F. Vogel (Harvard Univ. 876 pp. $39.95) (Belknap Press / Harvard University/Belknap Press / Harvard University)

“Did any other leader in the twentieth century do more to improve the lives of so many?” Vogel asks. “Did any other twentieth century leader have such a large and lasting influence on world history?” He clearly believes that Deng — known in the West mostly for engineering the slaughter of protesters in the streets near Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989 — has been wronged by history. His tome is an attempt to redress the balance.

Under Deng’s watch, Vogel writes, China transformed from a country with an annual trade of barely $10 billion to one whose trade expanded 100-fold. During his early years, Deng pleaded with the United States to take a few hundred Chinese students. Since then, 1.4 million have gone to study overseas. More than any other world leader, Deng embraced globalization, allowing his country to benefit from it more than any other nation. He also set the basis for a world-shaking demographic transition — by 2015, more than half of China’s population will live in cities — that will dwarf all the massive population shifts due to wars and uprisings in China’s past.

Vogel’s book does several things very well. First, it answers the question of how Deng survived the reign of Chairman Mao Zedong, who, with Hitler and Stalin, made up the trio of great 20th-century tyrants. One reason, Vogel postulates, is that Deng took an early fall for Mao, convincing the would-be chairman of his loyalty during the initial days of China’s revolution. Mao soon began relying on Deng as his henchman. Deng spearheaded Mao’s attack on China’s learned class in the 1957 “Anti-Rightist Campaign,” organizing the purging, criticizing and jailing of about 550,000 of China’s best and brightest. Mao also relied on Deng to fix the messes that he routinely made of China’s economy — such as the famines (30 million dead) of the disastrous Great Leap Forward and, later, of the Cultural Revolution. Mao might have been a monster, but he was a monster with a back pocket, and Deng was always there.

Mao also had Deng manage key elements of China’s split with the Soviet Union in the early 1960s. Deng locked horns with Mikhail Suslov, the Soviets’ chief ideologue, and with party leader Nikita Khrushchev, too. Mao, Vogel writes, was petrified that his followers would do to him what Khrushchev did to Stalin — condemn him. After Deng’s vitriolic attack against the Soviets, Mao was persuaded that his legacy was safe with Deng.

And, in essence, it has been. This despite the fact that Mao purged Deng three times during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, sent him into internal exile for years and allowed his Red Guard shock troops to torture one of Deng’s sons to such an extent that he leaped from an interrogation-room window, paralyzing himself from the neck down.

When Deng finally returned to power for good in 1977, he avoided any direct criticism of the man who united China under the red flag of communism. Here again, Vogel provides great insight into how Deng succeeded in dismantling Maoism, liberating China’s economy from the shackles of its ridiculous ideology and maintaining the man as a hero to the Chinese people. Deng did this, Vogel argues, because he believed that if he openly criticized Mao, it would threaten Communist Party rule. Deng thought that the party’s aura of legitimacy must be preserved at all costs because only the party could save China. Deng’s formula for success, as Vogel puts it, was simple: “Don’t argue; try it. If it works, let it spread.”

Vogel calls Deng “the general manager” of China’s latest revolution. As he pushed and pulled his country into the modern world, he was careful not to get out in front of the changes. He used younger officials such as Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang for that. (He ended up sacrificing both.) In fact, as Vogel reports, Deng wasn’t even at the forefront of some of the most important political and economic moves — such as the 1976 arrest of the Gang of Four, including Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing, and the decision to launch market-oriented special economic zones in the south that became hothouses for capitalist-style experimentation.

Vogel also provides enlightening details of Deng’s efforts to use ties with the United States and Japan to China’s advantage. While Mao opened China to the West as a way to counter the Soviet Union, Deng realized that American and Japanese technology, investment and knowledge would be keys to his country’s advance. They were. Indeed, no nation has been more important to China’s modernization than the United States — a fact that no Chinese official has ever acknowledged.

The book is not without its weaknesses. Vogel is so effusive in his praise of Deng that the book sometimes reads as if it came straight from party headquarters. Vogel also portrays dissidents who have fought China’s authoritarian system as troublemakers blocking Deng’s mission of modernization. He seems highly sympathetic to Deng’s — and the party’s — argument that if China allowed more freedom, it would devolve into chaos, as if stability under the party’s rule or pandemonium were the only choices.

Vogel also has a skewed view of the events that forced Deng to reform China’s economy. According to him, Deng and his lieutenants, such as Wan Li, engineered the reforms. In reality, it seems that the Chinese people demanded them by, among other things, dismantling the commune system, and Deng and others were smart enough to get out of the way. Indeed, the Chinese people get short shrift in this book about China.

In discussing the killing around Tiananmen Square, Vogel wonders why the West was so obsessed with the crackdown when other bloodier, government-sponsored massacres in Asia — such as the Kwangju killings in South Korea in 1980 or the slaughter of Taiwan’s intellectual elite in 1947 — passed relatively unnoticed into the annals of history. He notes that, for one thing, the demonstrations that led to the 1989 crackdown were seen live in living rooms around the world. More deeply, he speculates that perhaps it is because Americans have always had outsize expectations of China. Both are true. But a final reason, which he doesn’t mention, is that China matters more. And that, no doubt, is why Vogel spent more than a decade writing this illuminating book.

John Pomfret, a former Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post, is writing a book on the history of ties between the Chinese and Americans.


By Ezra F. Vogel

Belknap/Harvard Univ. 876 pp. $39.95