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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Arts and Entertainment
Full throttle: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in God's Pocket
film
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie Minogue is expected to return to Neighbours for thirtieth anniversary special
tv
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be Lonely Island's second Hollywood venture following their 2007 film Hot Rod
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Day-Lewis stars in the movie There Will Be Blood
music
Arts and Entertainment
Brush with greatness: the artist Norman Cornish in 1999
art
Life and Style
Stress less: relaxation techniques can help focus the mind and put problems in context
art
Arts and Entertainment

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

    It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
    Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

    Besiktas vs Arsenal

    Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

    The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

    Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment