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A Book Review by Hu Ping

June 13, 2013


Ezra Vogel said that in writing Deng Xiaoping’s biography, he tried to narrate the political life of Deng from an objective and neutral position, that the book does not include moral judgments of what Deng did—but that he has woven his understanding of Deng’s thoughts and actions into his narrative.

But in my opinion, Vogel’s book does include moral judgments that I very much disagree with. But I don’t want to talk about this at the moment. What I want to say is that Vogel’s understanding of Deng Xiaoping and China’s reform process is basically wrong.


Let me start with a sentence in the “Introduction.”

In the “Introduction: The Man and His Mission,” Vogel wrote that from the time Deng Xiaoping joined the Communist Party of China branch in France “he’d steadfastly been a Communist for the next 70 years until he died.”1

Vogel’s conclusion is quite shocking and inexplicable.

What is a Communist? According to the Communist Manifesto (Deng’s introductory reading prior to joining the Communist Party, and the classic Communist document with which he was most familiar), Communists must abolish private ownership, adhere to the class struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie and all exploiting classes, completely break away from the system of traditional ownership, support all revolutionary movements against the current social and political system; and Communists disdain to hide their own opinion and intention. They openly declare that their goal can only be achieved by overthrowing all existing social systems through violence. Let the ruling class tremble before the Communist revolution. The only thing the proletarians have to lose in this revolution is their chains. They will gain the whole world, and so on and so forth.

Does Vogel really think that Deng Xiaoping still adhered to these tenets in his later years?

Anyone who has some knowledge of Deng Xiaoping’s life can easily see that his thinking and ideas changed tremendously in his old age, and that, on some major issues, they even became the complete opposite of what they were before. Vogel said, “Deng is the greatest man of the 20th century because he changed the fate of a big country like China.”2 Here, as for Deng’s “changing the fate of China,” Vogel basically uses Mao’s era as a reference. However, Deng Xiaoping did not just belong to the Deng era. He also belonged to the Mao Zedong era. That China changed tremendously in Deng’s era, as compared to Mao’s era, was, to a great extent, due to the fact that Deng’s thinking and ideas changed tremendously in his old age as compared to his ideas previously.


As a reformer, Deng Xiaoping was different from any previous reformers in history.

First, other reformers basically belonged to the second or later generations. What they tried to reform was the system that had been built by their predecessors, whereas Deng tried to reform the system he helped build. Moreover, the role he played in building the original system was a leadership one, not a supporting one.

In Vogel’s biography of Deng, the first half of Deng’s life is extremely brief. Of the 600 pages of the main text, only 28 pages are used to cover the first 65 years of his life, from 1904 to 1969. Even from such a brief account, we can still see that Deng was a shrewd leader in terms of making a violent and bloody communist revolution. Deng was more ruthless than General Ye Jianying in making land reform in Southern China. In 1953, Mao removed Bo Yibo, then Minister of Finance, whom Mao considered to be too softhearted in assessing capitalists’ taxes, and replaced him with Deng. We can see that Deng was quite tough in attacking capitalists. In 1957, when Mao launched the Anti-Rightist struggle, Deng was actually the commander-in-chief on the front line. When Mao launched the Great Leap Forward in 1958, Deng was also a firm implementer of the policy, changing his attitude only in the following year when the Great Famine occurred nationwide.

This clearly shows that Deng was one of the most important builders of the system that was formed in China after 1949.

Second, other reforms in history basically changed things that were passed down in history and those inherited from the previous dynasty. But Deng’s reform was different. The things that Deng reformed and abolished were all established after the Communist Party took power, such as rural collectivization and a planned economy.

Third, things that were established by all other reforms in history were the products of innovation, revival of the old, or learning from foreign countries. Deng’s reform was different from the rest. The things Deng established in his reforms were precisely those the Communist Party had previously overthrown. These include de-collectivizing villages, resuming individual enterprises, allowing peasants to migrate to cities, restoring the market economy, legitimizing private property—all these had existed before “liberation.”


Others may not understand, but Deng himself must have understood it well. Take economic reform, for example. Deng must have known that what the Communist Party was trying to abolish was precisely what it had established in its revolution in the first place; and what the Communist Party wanted to restore was precisely what it had overthrown in the revolution.

It’s generally believed that China’s economic reform started from Xiaogang Village in Anhui Province. In 1978, 18 farmers in Xiaogang Village entered into a pact and put their fingerprints in red on a land contract responsibility agreement to allocate land to their households. But according to Chen Bing’an, author of the book Exodus to Hong Kong (大逃港), the starting point was Bao’an County, on the coast of Guangdong Province, where one million people fled to Hong Kong in a period of 30 years, paving the way for China’s reform and opening up. The author quoted people from Shenzhen (originally known as Bao’an County) as saying, “Whether it is capitalism or socialism, we voted with our feet!”3 So in fact, even before 1979—when the Communist Party of China (CPC) decided to establish special economic zones (SEZs)—open areas where “special economic policies” were carried out that were different from those in inland China had already existed.

This clearly shows that China’s economic reform originated from the spontaneous actions of the people, and that, from the very beginning, it was clearly headed toward capitalism, which was viewed by the Chinese Communist authorities as their archenemy. When members of the reformist faction in the CPC upper echelons approved the people-initiated reform, it meant that they knew well from the very beginning what they wanted to reform.

I heard the following story. In 1979, Yuan Geng was ordered to go to Shekou in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, to found the Shekou Industrial Zone, China’s first Special Economic Zone. Yuan Geng was a native of Shenzhen. Thirty years earlier, as an artillery regiment commander, he led his soldiers to “liberate” Shenzhen. Before he left for Shekou, Yuan Geng’s son asked his father: 30 years ago, you led the troops to occupy Shenzhen and turned private ownership to public ownership; 30 years later, you are going there again, to set up a special zone, and to change public ownership back to private ownership. What are you doing? Yuan Geng fell silent. After a long while, he said: We cannot let the Chinese people stay this poor forever!

Could it be that Deng was not aware of what Yuan Geng and his son understood?

Actually, many people had realized this. In the mid-1980s, mid-level CPC cadres said, “After several decades of hard work, it took only one night to go back to where we were before the liberation.” When talking about Deng’s slogan of “Let some people get rich first,” a peasant from Shanxi Province said, “Before the liberation, our village had one landlord and two rich peasants. So, some people had already gotten rich first. If we had known in the beginning that it would end up like this, why did we have to go through all that we went through?”

Yes—if we had known it would be like this, what were we doing all this time? Why was it necessary in the beginning to overthrow the Nationalist regime through violence and get millions killed on thousands of miles of roads? Why did we overthrow landlords and capitalists and eliminate several generations of economic elites? It was impossible that Deng did not understand this. The illustrious achievements of the revolution of the past have now all become countless crimes.


Vogel wrote in the last chapter of the section titled, “The Deng Era, 1978-1989”: “When Deng stepped aside in 1992 he had fulfilled the mission that had eluded China’s leaders for 150 years: he and his colleagues had found a way to enrich the Chinese people and strengthen the country. But in the process of achieving this goal, Deng presided over a fundamental transformation of China itself—the nature of its relation with the outside world, its governance system, and its society. After Deng stepped down, China continued to change rapidly, but the basic structural changes developed under Deng’s leadership have already continued for two decades, and with some adaptations, they may extend long into the future. Indeed, the structural changes that took place under Deng’s leadership rank among the most basic changes since the Chinese empire took shape during the Han dynasty over two millennia ago.”4

Vogel blotted out at one stroke the achievements made by the Nationalist Party and government in promoting the modernization of China. As a matter of fact, the Chinese people had long ago found the path to modernization. Only that this path was interrupted by the Communist revolution and the seizure of power. Vogel might make an inventory to see how many items among those Deng eliminated during the economic reform had not been initiated by the Communists after they took power in 1949, and how many items among those Deng established during the economic reform had not existed before 1949. Didn’t the CPC learn even the strategy of processing for export from the Nationalists in Taiwan?

It’s true that today, China’s GDP ranks second in the world, surpassing that of Japan. But the per capita GDP on the mainland is only one-quarter that of Taiwan. If the mainland’s per capita GDP can reach half that of Taiwan, the mainland GDP would have exceeded that of the United States. We have ample reason to hypothesize that if the Communists had not succeeded and the Republic of China had remained intact, today’s China would have long ago become the world’s largest economy, not the second largest.

In March 2007, the Fifth Plenum of the Tenth National People’s Congress passed the Property Law with overwhelming majority. We all know that as early as 1993, the year following Deng’s 1992 southern tour, some government departments proposed the draft Property Law. In November 2002, the 16th CPC National Congress also said that “a legal system to protect personal property must be improved.” In March 2004, the constitutional amendment was passed at the Second Plenum of the Tenth National People’s Congress, and the sentence “Citizen’s lawful private property is inviolable” was entered into the amendment. These steps are all considered great progress in the Chinese Communist’s economic reform. But we must also not forget that a property law had already been formulated by the Republic of China as early as 1929.

The Chinese Communist regime passing the Property Law attracted many comments, of which Bao Tong’s was the most incisive.5 He said that the passage of the Property Law “means the final bankruptcy of the ‘General Line’6 —advanced by CPC Chairman Mao Zedong in 1953 as the path for the country to follow in transitioning to socialism—and its entire theory and policy. It means that after half a century of twists and turns and a 360 degree about-face, China has gone back to its starting point.” Bao Tong pointed out: “Chinese history of the past five, actually eight, decades should be completely rewritten. This is the great enlightening significance of the passing of the Property Law at the Fifth Plenum of the Tenth National People’s Congress.”7

If what Bao Tong said was correct, shouldn’t the third part of Vogel’s book—“The Deng Era”—be completely rewritten?


As mentioned earlier, Deng knew very clearly that the so-called economic reform was intended to abolish the system established during the Communist revolution and to restore the system that had been overthrown by that revolution. This means that those great achievements that the Communist Party had been so proud of were actually all serious mistakes and even crimes. Therefore, Deng should have understood that it is proper and reasonable for the people to criticize and oppose the Communist Party and even to demand that it step down. When talking about the extreme poverty in rural areas, Wan Li, another reformer in the Communist Party, said at a high level meeting held by the State Council in 1978 that “If workers, peasants, and intellectuals knew about this situation, it would be a wonder if they didn’t want to overthrow the Communist Party!”8

According to Vogel, Deng, out of his desire to do some practical things, had to take advantage of the CPC resources of high institutionalization and organization. The reason that Deng wanted to firmly maintain the leadership position in the CPC was not because of its ideological correctness, but because Deng made the basic judgment that nothing would succeed without this organizational system.

But the question is, now that Deng knew clearly that the CPC had made serious mistakes and even committed crimes, and that the CPC had let the Chinese people down, what justification did the CPC have for not taking responsibility? What justification did it have for not resigning and apologizing to the people? What justification did it have for continuing to grandstand and monopolize power? If you say that the CPC is the only political organization that can effectively function and that nothing will get done without the CPC, then it is at most an interim step. When he promoted economic reform, Deng should have pushed forward political reform at the same time and the reform of the CPC itself, thus enabling the CPC to gradually become a normal political party, i.e., a democratic political party, and be reborn while redeeming itself. In short, Deng was justified in using the CPC to carry out the reform, but he had no reason whatsoever to continue CPC’s one-party rule by means of military force.


This brings us to June 4, 1989.

Why did Deng use military force to crackdown on the 1989 Democracy Movement? According to Vogel, it was because Deng Xiaoping “vividly remembered the chaos of the civil war and the Cultural Revolution and believed that social order in China was fragile; when he judged that it was at risk, he would respond forcefully.”9 To Deng Xiaoping, “the bottom line is that there cannot be chaos in China.”10

This kind of interpretation is completely wrong.

 First, the peacefulness and rationality of the 1989 Democracy Movement were rare throughout human history. If the authorities had taken Zhao Ziyang’s position to solve the problem through democracy and the legal institution, the event would have ended peacefully.

Second, as one of the CPC’s first-generation of revolutionaries, how could Deng be someone who was afraid of chaos? If he were by nature afraid of chaos, why did he join the Communist Party, the world’s number one party of chaos? Wasn’t it the aim of that party to completely smash the old world, and wasn’t it its determination to turn China’s social, political, and economic order upside down? As for the “chaos during the Cultural Revolution,” Deng himself also said that something like the Cultural Revolution would never happen in countries like England or the United States. Thus, one can see that Deng ordered the crackdown on the 1989 Democracy Movement not because he was afraid that China might fall into chaos. He was only afraid that the CPC would lose its autocratic power, and, in particular, that he himself would lose paramount political power.

The 1989 Democracy Movement resulted in an unprecedented internal split in the Chinese communist syndicate. The cause of the split was very simple: the moderate faction did not approve of a crackdown by military force. Why didn’t they approve of it? It was because they were unable to convince themselves to crack down on the Democracy Movement. They knew that it was correct for people to want democracy and to oppose corruption, and therefore they could not use military force against the people. Besides, when the Communist Party suppressed freedom and democracy in the past, the only magic weapon they had was to accuse someone of “bourgeois liberalization” and “taking the capitalist road.” But now, the CPC itself was taking the capitalist road—what reason did they have to crack down on the Democracy Movement?

So, how did Deng Xiaoping justify the June Fourth military crackdown? Deng said that because the Democracy Movement was aimed at “overthrowing the Communist Party and socialism,”11 it must be suppressed by the proletariat dictatorship. Deng said: “Marx said that he did not invent class struggle. The most substantive tenet of his theory was the dictatorship of the proletariat. The proletariat, as a new class seizing power and building socialism, would possess for a long period of time less strength than capitalism and would not be able to resist the attack of capitalism without relying on dictatorship.”12

To put it simply, Deng Xiaoping justified June Fourth with the theory of the struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie and that between socialism and capitalism. This was the only explanation he had to justify June Fourth. Besides this, he could find no other. But this explanation is an obvious lie, a lie that even Deng Xiaoping himself did not believe one bit. This is because Deng’s reform ignored the labels of socialism and capitalism. That is, it was an abandonment of socialism and a resumption of capitalism. In that case, how could one use military force to suppress a peaceful protest by the people in the name of upholding socialism and opposing capitalism?


In the first two years after the June Fourth crackdown, the Chinese Communist authorities, having witnessed the great changes in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, were panic-stricken. In order to protect their power, the new generation of leaders sought to intensify opposition to “peaceful evolution” [toward democracy], not only politically opposing capitalism but economically as well. Therefore, the capitalist-oriented economic reforms stalled and even regressed. But beginning in the spring of 1992, when Deng made his speech during his southern China tour, saying that the pace of economic reform needed to speed up, whether the reform was socialist or capitalist in nature, China’s economic reform not only restarted but moved much faster and farther than before.

If for the period after June Fourth, Deng himself was utterly emphatic about adhering to socialism and opposing capitalism, why by 1992 during his southern China tour did he say he did not care whether the economic reform was socialist or capitalist in nature?

The reason was very simple. The motive of emphasizing adherence to socialism and opposition to capitalism was to provide an excuse for opposing liberalization and suppressing the Democracy Movement, and to justify the CPC’s one-party dictatorship. It was to pull the wool over people’s eyes, and deceive themselves and others. But as things stood, after the gunshots were fired and people killed, the legitimacy of the Communist Party’s rule was completely obliterated and no one believed in it any more. Now, the Communist Party is ruling by violence. The reason that people haven’t revolted is that people do not have the power to do so. At this point in time, it is impossible, unnecessary, and meaningless to stress whether [the reform] is socialist or capitalist or to again patch up the façade of socialism. Doing so only binds one’s own hands and feet. There is an advantage to ruling by violence—without the ideological packaging, ideological constraints are eliminated. When the leaders first started economic reform, they were afraid of being accused of going capitalist. They still had scruples about the name of socialism. Now it’s no longer necessary—they can act with abandon. That is why after the 1992 southern tour, China’s economic reform not only restarted but also had greater momentum than before.

The strength of democratic forces within the Party and among the people was badly damaged after June Fourth, and was not able to reemerge as a great force quickly. Therefore, unavoidably, economic reform in China after 1992 turned into privatization of power. The CPC began its career by overthrowing landlords and capitalists. But now it has turned itself into the biggest landlord, the biggest capitalist. In the past, the CPC, in the name of revolution, turned the private property of the common people into the so-called public property of the whole people. Now, again, in the name of reform, it has turned the public property that belongs to the whole people into its own private property. First, they looted in the name of revolution; then, they divided the loot in the name of reform. Two opposite bad deeds were actually committed by the same party within a period of 50 years. Is there anything more shameless and evil in the world?


True, in the two decades since June Fourth, China’s economy has continued to develop in high speed, leading some to praise it as the “Chinese miracle.” What I want to point out is that the so-called Chinese miracle has been built on the menace of the June Fourth massacre, on extreme injustice. At the same time, it is the result of opening up to the outside world and actively participating in the globalizing economy. Just as Professor Qin Hui of Qinghua University said, the main features of the so-called China model or Chinese miracle are, “in addition to the traditional advantages of low wages and low welfare, China has used the ‘advantage’ of ‘low human rights’ to push down the cost of the four key factors [of production]—labor, land, capital, and non-renewable resources. By not permitting bargaining, and limiting or even abolishing trading rights to ‘lower transaction costs,’ and by refusing democratization, suppressing public participation, ignoring ideas, deriding beliefs, scorning justice, and stimulating the appetite for material things in order to induce people to concentrate their energies on the impulse of the illusory single-minded pursuit of wealth, China has shown an astonishing degree of competitive power that is rarely seen in either free market states or welfare states, and has left countries that are transitioning to democracies, whether by ‘gradualism’ or ‘shock treatment,’ far behind.” 13

Vogel said that as June Fourth happened just a mere 20 years ago, “Nor is it possible, only two decades after these events, to make a final judgement on the long-run impact of Deng’s decisions. If Chinese people in the decades ahead acquire more freedom, will the path to that freedom be less tortuous than that taken in the former Soviet Union, and will the events of the spring of 1989 have a been a major factor? We must admit that we do not know.”14

Contrary to Vogel’s “if,” since June Fourth, China’s reform has already gone on a wrong course. Unless there is a major revolutionary incident, China will continue down this wrong course. Such a powerful country created by such evil methods can only, with increased confidence, become a more arrogant and more powerful autocratic regime. It is bound to view universal values such as human rights, democracy, and justice with greater contempt, hostility, and fearfulness. Hence, it will not only bring great harm to the Chinese people but also pose a greater threat to freedom and peace of the whole world.


With China’s rise as an autocratic power, one cannot but ask: will such an authoritarian power pose a threat to peace and freedom in other countries and the world? Vogel realizes that this question cannot be avoided or categorically rejected. Vogel acknowledges that, due to China’s superpower status, “One cannot predict how future generations of Chinese leaders will respond to the issue.”15 But Vogel firmly states that Deng Xiaoping once advocated hiding one’s capacity, biding one’s time, and never taking the lead. “… there is no question what Deng would say if he were still alive. He would say that China should never behave like a hegemon that interferes in the internal affairs of another nation. Rather, it should maintain harmonious relations with other countries and concentrate on peaceful development at home.”16

Let us put aside the fact that hiding one’s capacity and biding one’s time is by definition an expedient. And let us put aside the fact that the nature of power is expansion. We know that, historically, many authoritarian governments have bullied ethnic minorities and foreigners and not members of their own ethnicity and nationality. But today’s Chinese government in fact bullies members of its own ethnicity and its own nationality every day, including dissidents, rights defenders, advocates of freedom of religion, vulnerable groups, and the country’s ethnic minorities. How can you count on such a regime to not bully people of other ethnicities and countries when it, as a mature power, continues to bully people of its own ethnicity and nationality?

1.  Ezra F. Vogel, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), 5.^

2.  Ezra F. Vogel, “As a Respected Great Nation, China Should Be More Confident,” Wenhui Review, November 19, 2012,^

3.  Chen Bing’an, Exodus to Hong Kong (Guangdong: Guangdong People’s Publishing House, 2010), 392.^

4.  Vogel, Deng Xiaoping, 693.^

5.  Bao Tong was the political secretary to Zhao Ziyang, the former CPC General Secretary. In 1992, Bao was convicted of "revealing state secrets and counter-revolutionary propagandizing" in relation to the 1989 Democracy Movement, and sentenced to seven years' imprisonment with two years deprivation of political rights. He was released in 1996 after serving his full sentence at Qincheng Prison, and has been under house arrest since.^

66.  The “General Line of Transitional Period” was a policy adopted by the Fourth Plenary of the Seventh Congress of the CPC in 1954. The Transitional period refers to the period from the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 to the completion of the country’s socialist transformation. During this period, the Party's “general line” and “general task” were to, over a considerably long period, gradually achieve the country's socialist industrialization and as well as the country's socialist transformation of agriculture, handicraft industry, and capitalist industry and commerce. The general line was written into the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) first Constitution in 1954.^

7.  Bao Tong, “On Property Law’s Importance,” Radio Free Asia Commentary, March 16, 2007,^

8.  Ling Zhijun, History is No Longer Hovering (Beijing: People’s Publishing House, 1996), 110.^

9.  Vogel, Deng Xiaoping, 9.^

10.  Ezra F. Vogel, interview by Phoenix Satellite Television (in Mandarin), June 7, 2012,^

11.  Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Volume 3 (Beijing: People’s Publishing House, 1993), 365.^

12.  Ibid., 372.^

13.  Qin Hui, “China's Low Human Rights Advantage,” China Rights Forum, 2009, no. 1,^

14.  Vogel, Deng Xiaoping, 638.^

15.  Ibid., 714.^

16.  Ibid., 714.^

Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China
Ezra F. Vogel
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
Publication Date: September 26, 2011
Hardcover: 928 pages

Hu Ping

Hu Ping is the New York-based editor of the Chinese-language monthly Beijing Spring, and is a member of the board of directors of Human Rights in China.