Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life.By Alexander Pantsov and Steven Levine.Oxford University Press; 610 pages.

One of the hardest things about biographies of leaders like Deng Xiaoping is that it feels like nothing more than a collage of newspaper or magazine articles strung together by a touch commentary or a dash of boring analysis.  However, this biography, written by Alexander Pantsov and Steven Levine, has given this world leader a distinctive new look.  Based on newly available archives from the former Soviet Union, Pantsov and Levine has offered a clearer picture as to what motivated him, the most important, why Deng Xiaoping did what he did.  Before going into the main events of his life (i.e. Economic Reform, Tiananmen Square Massacre, and his legacy) let’s examine the one point of difference the authors wanted to make about this work.

That one point these authors wanted to make was their access to previously secret Soviet archives from Russia. Needless to say that this was their way of setting themselves apart from other biographies about Deng.  However, if a reader was searching for that deep “secret” insight into the mind of Deng Xiaoping, that person will be disappointed. It is unclear if this was the author’s intent, but it is certain that this access to Soviet archives gave them an advantage when explaining the motivations behind some of Deng’s actions.

One of those actions was Deng’s move towards economic reform.  Many of us in the West mistook Deng’s reforms as if he wholly embraced Western Values.  Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.  Not only did Pantsov and Levine emphasized that Deng was no liberal.  They indicated that the inspiration for economic reforms was born out of experiences in Soviet Russia during the 1920. It was during that time, Deng was experienced the brief period of prosperity during the New Economic Policy (NEP) as proposed by Nikolai Bukharin.  In Deng’s mind, if the Soviets had no problem of allowing peasants to control some of the factors of production, then there was no reason to believe why it would not be applicable in Communist China.  In fact Deng had commissioned numerous studies on Bukharin within the Party leadership.  Perhaps this was the most effective way to make market economics acceptable to Chinese communist.  It was an effective argument against the insane policies of the extreme left as exemplified by the notorious Gang of Four.  Being labeled a “Capitalist Roader” himself by the Leftist faction, Deng was no way eager to embrace Western-style capitalism as economic reform (or any kind of Bourgeois Liberalism as he called it) .  Doing so would only make him a victim of Leftist Extremism as he experienced during the Cultural Revolution.  In addition, the authors used the Russian Archives to illustrate how China’s leadership, both during and after Mao, were afraid of the kind of “Revisionism” as exemplified by Khrushchev’s famous “Stalin Speech” back in 1956.  In their minds, any deviation from Communist Orthodoxy would be a prescription for political collapse like the Soviet Union did in 1991.

One of Deng’s most glaring advantages over his rivals (and including Mao himself, as the authors indicated) was the enormous popular support he received from the cadre of the People’s Liberation Army.  It was this support that enabled Deng to prevail over his enemies in the power struggle that followed Mao’s death.  It was also this power that led to the biggest stain of his career.

That stain was the Tiananmen Square Massacre.  While few in the West would doubt the sincerity of the students desire to affect change in China.  Deng saw this as an existential threat to the communist regime.  Perhaps rightly so, for he saw no distinction between the students of ‘89 and the old Red Guards of the 60s.  Perhaps he feared the invisible hand of Jiang Qing (Mao’s widow), and the other members of the Gang of Four.  Again, Deng used his best weapon against his perceived threat, the Army.  Of all the things one could speculate about what Deng believed, this action one conviction for sure:  that power (i.e. political power) flows out from the barrel of the gun.  From such a seemingly cynical view of political life, one would have to ask:  why?

Why pursue economic reforms if they were not to lead to a political liberalization?  Again, the answer was not revealed by the authors (except for differences between China and the Soviet Union in the context of the Cold War), but one answer could be this one. Deng valued the military as the ultimate instrument of political power.  Therefore, in order to safeguard the PLA from technological obsolescence, Deng must resort to the one historically tried and true method of gaining military power:  economic development.

In summary, Pantsov and Levine have written a very interesting biography of Deng Xiaoping.  Needless to say those Soviet archives went a long way to paint a more complete picture of an otherwise enigmatic man.