After Deng

John Gittings

  • Deng Xiaoping: My Father by Deng Mao Mao
    Basic Books, 498 pp, £20.00, March 1995, ISBN 0 465 01625 1
  • Deng Xiaoping and the Making of Modern China by Richard Evans
    Hamish Hamilton, 339 pp, £20.00, October 1993, ISBN 0 241 13031 X
  • China After Deng Xiaoping by Willy Wo-lap Lam
    Wiley, 516 pp, £24.95, March 1995, ISBN 0 471 13114 8
  • Burying Mao: Chinese Politics in the Age of Deng Xiaoping by Richard Baum
    Princeton, 489 pp, £29.95, October 1994, ISBN 0 691 03639 X
  • Deng Xiaoping: Chronicle of an Empire by Ruan Ming
    Westview, 288 pp, £44.50, November 1994, ISBN 0 8133 1920 X

Mao Zedong used to point him out to foreign visitors. ‘That little man,’ said the Chairman, ‘will go a long way.’ Such praise was belittling in more than one sense and Mao made sure during the Cultural Revolution that Deng went nowhere. Yet Deng Xiaoping bounced back, once while Mao was still alive and then definitively after his death. The image of someone small but determined, refusing to be crushed by criticism, is very strong. In 1978, when Deng swept away Mao’s immediate successors, his admirers in Beijing compared him to the immortal Monkey of the classic Ming Dynasty novel Journey to the West who whirls his staff and vanquishes demons ten times his size. Affectionately they called him His Excellency Deng – literally, Big Man Deng.

‘Short, chunky and physically tough’ but with a mind ‘as keen as mustard’ was the verdict of an American who met him in 1938. Deng was always around, getting things done – the election agent of the Revolution. A radical student in the early Twenties in France, he was famously described – by the man who would become Premier Zhou Enlai – as Doctor Mimeograph. A decade later, in the ‘Jiangxi Soviet’ in central China, he was buffeted by the violent factional struggles within the Communist Party but survived as editor of the party journal, penning the headlines by hand. He attended the famous Zunyi Conference in 1935 during the Long March when Mao seized control, but somehow he never spoke. He managed to miss the 1959 Lushan Plenum, when Mao turned on his critics in the Great Leap Forward: he was supposed to be recovering from a broken leg sustained a year before – while playing billiards. Yet from 1956 till his disgrace ten years later, Deng was the Doctor Mimeograph of the entire Communist Party in the crucial (but vulnerable) role of General Secretary. He knew how to keep his head down, though in the end his caution only encouraged Mao’s suspicions. ‘Deng treated me like a dead emperor,’ Mao complained.

All this was essential for survival but has hardly helped Deng’s biographers. We know he is a man of forceful argument, but for most of his speeches of the Fifties and Sixties we must still rely on snippets quoted (probably out of context) by the Red Guards, who labelled him ‘China’s No 2 Party Person in Power Taking the Capitalist Road’. His Selected Works are heavily edited and much less quirky than those of Mao. Travelling in China in 1976, as the battle raged between Deng and the Gang of Four, I was handed a sheaf of unpublished speeches copied from the Beijing walls. These were passionate appeals to put China back on its feet after the Cultural Revolution, to revive the education system and get the scientists back to the laboratories. Deng was particularly incensed by the inertia of the new revolutionaries, often old bureaucrats in disguise. ‘These people are real heroes,’ he wrote: ‘they sit on the lavatory and don’t even know how to shit.’ Needless to say, this speech does not appear in the Selected Works either.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in