Deng Xiaoping, by Uli Franz, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 352 pages, $19.95
When I arrived, in March 1979, in the Chinese commune that was to be my home for the next year, I found huge posters of Mao and his "designated successor," Hua Guofeng, everywhere. But it was the name of the newly dominant Deng Xiaoping that was on everyone's lips. A poor peasant told me that it was Deng's "Three Freedoms" that had saved his family during the bitter famine that followed the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s. A high-school teacher praised Deng for encouraging those who were criticizing the regime's past failures on Beijing's Democracy Wall. A commune official even quoted to me an antibureaucratic aphorism that Deng had popularized—"There, are too many Buddhas in the temple"—apparently unworried that his would be among the heads that would fall.
Deng was widely regarded as a political savior who would set right all the mistakes of Maoism. People in the West set great store by his famous epigram, in response to criticism of his "capitalist" reforms: "It doesn't matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice." It was regarded as evidence of an uncommon common sense.
People also found reassuring Deng's unwillingness to thrust himself into the limelight. He declined the role of party chairman, resisted the efforts of supporters to create a personality cult, and even forbade the writing of an official biography. "If a biography is to be written," Deng was quoted as saying, "it must include the good as well as the bad one has done, even the mistakes. So it is better not to write a biography." He has been in effective control of China since late 1978, but he has been content to rule from behind the throne or, as the Chinese say, from behind the yellow curtain.
None of this has made Uli Franz's job any easier. Nor did his own early infatuation with Marxism, which he had to overcome before he could approach his subject, the one-time "Capitalistic Despot," with empathy. Forced to write "history from below," he has worked for more than a decade verifying the basic facts of Deng's life (until recently, even the date and place of his birth were in dispute) and collecting personal stories and inside anecdotes to illustrate the twists and turns of Deng's career.
Though as a journalist Franz writes better than the run-of-the-mill academic, he is no Plutarch or Johnson. Deng's life was filled with political intrigue—he was three times sent into internal political exile and later rehabilitated—but Franz's book captures little of this drama. Nor does he offer an interpretation of Deng the man through the rectifying prism of either Chinese history or culture, or Deng's personal history or psychology. He is content to assemble his facts, like so many Lego pieces, into an account that is chronological and coherent.
Still, Franz has produced the most complete factual account yet of the diminutive man who has been a major figure in Chinese communism for the last 50 years and who for the last 10 has led China down the parlous path of economic reform. He well documents the sweeping series of reforms launched by Deng, which have spurred production by increased reliance on market forces.
Deng is no democrat, as Franz makes clear, but he is an economic pragmatist, and he has found that free individuals work. By dissolving the communes and turning the land back to the peasants, Deng allowed 450 million collective farmhands to become farmers and triple their incomes. By encouraging private enterprise and urging individuals to "get rich," he has allowed the creation of a private sector of 5 million companies employing 75 million workers. It is no wonder that millions of Chinese farmers raise their glasses at the time of the Chinese New Year and offer the old man the traditional Chinese toast to long life.
In the cities the picture is much less sanguine. Decades of inept party administration, worker featherbedding, and government subsidies have turned most state-owned enterprises into economic basket cases. Marxist traditionalists in the leadership continue to resist the kinds of far-reaching reforms—bankruptcy, stockholding, mergers, leasing, and even privatization—that would put the state-owned sector back on its feet. Of late, the factional struggles have grown increasingly bitter, and further reforms have been on hold for at least two years.
Political power, Deng learned from Mao long ago, grows from the barrel of a gun. His recent reelection as chairman of the Military Commission demonstrates that he intends to remain firmly in control. As long as he lives, he will be able to prevent orthodox Marxists from turning back the clock on his reforms. Time is on their side, however, for at 84 years of age, it is unlikely that Deng will live more than a few years longer. Deng realizes better than anyone that "a hundred years do not suffice for building up—but for tearing down, one day is too much."
Steven Mosher, director of the Asian Studies Center at the Claremont Institute, is spending a sabbatical year at the Heritage Foundation where he is a Bradley Resident Scholar.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "China’s Pragmatist".