: New: Book Report: Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China

Deng Xiaoping steered China out of the disaster of the Cultural Revolution; he seemed pretty enlightened until June 4, 1989 when the military cleared Tiananmen Square of protesters. How did it go so wrong?

This biography of Deng looks at his life but also the transformation of China as it dug itself out from under Mao's legacy. Deng had figured some things out. He'd seen that Mao was really smart, but susceptible to flattery and couldn't take criticism. When his policies worked, they were great. When his policies didn't work and folks told him, those folks got sent to labor camps and the policies didn't change. When his policies didn't work and folks lied to him and told him that everything was fine, those folks got promoted… while China's people starved.

Deng gave locals more control, starting in places where centrally-made-plans had led to starvation. He encouraged money-making in some areas, though he knew that would lead to un-Communist inequality. Fewer people starved. Some great businesses sprang up. Some corrupt officials became very rich and their children grew up into privileged princelings. Some things worked; some didn't; fewer people starved. In hindsight, it's easy to say that they should have cracked down harder on the corrupt officials. At the time, that might have sounded like progress-stifling central control, though. And when folks remember central control leading to starvation, it's a tough sell.

What happened on June 4th? This book presents the government's point of view. (Well, not entirely. But there are long stretches which sounded like someone said "Well if my name's going on this interview and I'm not going to get shot, then here's what I'm going to say.") Protesters had been protesting for quite a while. They weren't a coordinated group with a set of demands. They were many people, each with different demands. Those that were still in the square had agreed that all would stay until everyone's demands were met; although in practice, many folks had left by this time. This meant that the government didn't have a great way to negotiate with the protesters that remained—there wasn't a sense that government folks could do things X, Y, and Z to convince the remaining protesters to head home. So… that rings false in places and true in places but at least Deng's government tolerated more dissent than Mao's did but maybe that's a low bar but… Anyhow.

This book describes some interesting times. It's well-researched; the author talked to Chinese officials and others, including Zbigniew Brzezinski. I'm glad I read it.

Tags: book politics

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