Under Western Eyes


Deng Xiaoping and Ezra Vogel

From London Review of Books:

Books about China, popular and scholarly, continue to pour off the presses. In this ever expanding literature, there is a subdivision that could be entitled ‘Under Western Eyes’. The larger part of it consists of works that appear to be about China, or some figure or topic from China, but whose real frame of reference, determining the optic, is the United States. Typically written by functionaries of the state, co-opted or career, they have as their underlying question: ‘China – what’s in it for us?’ Rather than Sinology proper, they are Sino-Americana. Ezra Vogel’s biography of Deng Xiaoping is an instructive example. Detached for duties on the National Intelligence Council under Clinton (he assures the reader that the CIA has vetted his book for improper disclosures), Vogel is a fixture at Harvard, where the house magazine hails Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China as the ‘capstone to a brilliant academic career’.

Running to some 850 pages, the book is, formally speaking, a mismatch at two levels. Explaining that his motive in writing it was to ‘help Americans understand key developments in Asia’, Vogel clearly aimed to win a wide public audience. But its sheer bulk of detail on matters far removed from the interest of ordinary readers ensures that, whatever the number of copies sold, it will be little read. Another, more serious, misfit is between the author and his subject. By definition, if we exclude puffs or barbs about contemporaries, a biography is an exercise of historical imagination. Vogel, however, was trained as a sociologist, and in mental equipment has always remained one, with little admixture. The result is a study thick in girth and thin in texture. That would be limitation enough in itself. But it is compounded by a temperamental propensity more specific to Vogel. By nature, he is – putting it politely – a booster. The book which made his name, Japan as Number One, announced in 1979 that ‘Japan has dealt more successfully with more of the basic problems of post-industrial society than any other country.’ The Japanese themselves, he told them, had been too modest about their achievements. It was time they realised that in the overall effectiveness of their institutions, they were ‘indisputably number one’ – and time too that Americans woke up to the fact, and put their own house in order. Post-bubble, the book is no doubt remaindered in Japan. But at the time, Vogel’s flattery electrified sales. Moving on to Korea, he explained with equal enthusiasm in The Park Chung Hee Era: The Transformation of South Korea that Park was one of only four ‘outstanding national leaders in the 20th century’ who had successfully modernised their country. In this select pantheon, alongside Park was the next object of Vogel’s admiration, Deng Xiaoping.

Vogel ends his new account of the Paramount Leader by asking: ‘Did any other leader in the 20th century do more to improve the lives of so many? Did any other 20th-century leader have such a large and lasting influence on world history?’ Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China is an exercise in unabashed adulation, sprinkled with a few pro forma qualifications for domestic effect. ‘The closest I ever came to Deng was a few feet away at a reception …’ captures the general tone. Fortunately, Deng’s family and friends were able to make good the missing encounter, with many a gracious interview illuminating the patriarch’s life. Supplemented by much official – properly respectful – documentation from the Party, and a host of conversations with bureaucrats on both sides of the Pacific, the outcome is a special kind of apologia, where the standard of merit is less Deng’s record as a politician in China than his contribution to peace of mind in America.

Thus Vogel devotes just 30 pages, out of nearly 900, to the first 65 years of Deng’s life. The foreshortening is historically grotesque, but perfectly logical from his standpoint. Of what relevance to policy-makers and pundits in Washington is Deng’s long career as a revolutionary, steeled in clandestinity, insurrection and civil war, and the founding and leading of the PRC under Mao? It is only when he is detached from this history, and can be safely treated as a victim of the Cultural Revolution whose triumphant comeback enabled a turn to the market – and the United States – that Vogel’s story gets underway. To a general lack of any of the gifts of characterisation called for by a biography is added a lack of interest in the context that formed his subject.

“Sino-Americana”, Perry Anderson, London Review of Books