Harvard, £29.95, 860pp. £27 from The Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Deng Xiaoping And The Transformation Of China, By Ezra F Vogel

In the preface to his exhaustive biography of the Chinese statesman Deng Xiaoping, Ezra F Vogel recalls the moment the seed for the book was planted. Vogel, a professor at Harvard who has spent his career immersed in Japan and China, asked a seasoned journalist: "What would best help Americans understand coming developments in Asia" at the start of the 21 century? Without hesitation his friend replied: "Deng Xiaoping."

Deng (1904-1997) is known to many in the West as the leader who ordered troops to fire on student protesters at the Tiananmen Square massacre on 4 June 1989. Vogel sets out to provide a more nuanced picture of a man whose lasting legacy and triumph was to oversee China's post-Mao reforms and opening up to the world. Deng's achievements are undoubtedly impressive. Three decades ago China was a rural economy beset by widespread poverty and reeling from the chaos and destruction wrought by the Cultural Revolution. Yet last year the country overtook Japan as the second-largest economy in the world. Joining up the dots in the years between was Deng, who although tiny in stature (at just 4ft 11in) has had an immeasurable global impact.

Vogel notes that the one-party state worked in Deng's favour when he emerged as China's paramount leader at the age of 74 in 1978. He did not have to face short-term elections, could oust those who stood in his way and, unlike politicians in today's democracies, had the luxury of decades to work on long-term objectives. Still, Deng succeeded in doing for China what others had tried, and failed, to do for the last 200 years: to transform the country into a rich nation and world power, bettering the lives of millions. "Did any other leader in the 20th century do more to improve the lives of so many?" Vogel asks.

Deng's story begins in the 1920s when, aged 16, he left his home province of Sichuan to study in France. By the time he returned to China in his twenties, he had become entangled with the fledgling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). From this moment until he died, aged 92, Deng displayed a fervent, if not obsessional, dedication to the Party.

His rise to power was marred by setbacks, humiliations and three purges from the Party. Personal tragedies included his son's paralysis due to a brutal persecution campaign during the Cultural Revolution and his first wife's death during childbirth. By the time Deng ascended to power he had worked as both a hardened military revolutionary leader and, after 1949, a staunch builder of the socialist state.

Vogel's book is an encyclopedic look at Deng's career rather than a racy read. The author has travelled to China since the 1960s and his research – conducted without the help of a translator – includes extensive interviews with Deng's family members, colleagues, and Party historians. The result is an author who is plainly a little in awe of his subject.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the chapter on Tiananmen Square. Why, Vogel wonders, did the media become so enraptured with the students' cause while failing to report on other Asian massacres of a similar scale, such as the 1980 Kwangju killings in South Korea?

He goes on to map out the Party line that Deng saw the protests as disrupting the peace and stability needed to underpin China's growth. For taking such an unfashionable view, Vogel perhaps deserves some credit. But it does point to a deeper flaw in the biography: even when relating Deng's ugliest moments, Vogel errs on the side of excessive sympathy.

Despite this desire to penetrate his inner workings, Deng the person is strangely missing. We learn that he was a man of few words with a gentlemanly manner who was able to recite hour-long speeches by heart; that he was a loving husband and father and a gifted pragmatist able to push through concrete policies while rejecting flowery rhetoric and unattainable ideals. Beyond this Deng remains inscrutable and distant.

The fault is not entirely Vogel's. While Mao luxuriated in creating his own personality cult, Deng did not desire immortal fame. He left behind no extensive records of his thoughts or feelings and made it clear that he did not desire to have ordinary people worship him. Doors to his inner world remain, sadly, slammed shut.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory