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.

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