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Robert Tombs

The English and Thei...

Weaves myriad threads into an incisive account of England as an idea, a kingdom and country, a people, and a culture.

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Alexander V. Pantsov

Deng Xiaoping

Deng Xiaoping was one of the most important world leaders of the late twentieth century. He was also one of the most enigmatic. Who was this man? What made him tick? How did he gain, keep, and use the immense power that he wielded? A few images come to mind, prompted by old photographs: an eager young student in a blurry snapshot in Paris in the 1920s; a tiny man in a huge cowboy hat, visiting the LBJ Ranch; a grandfatherly, wrinkled old man, comfortable in an armchair. We remember the slogans attributed to him: “To Get Rich is Glorious” and “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.” And we try to resolve the contradictions in what we know of him: was he the architect of China’s state-capitalist economic revolution, or the butcher of Tiananmen Square? The answer is “both,” of course, and much more besides.

Now, with this first-ever serious, scholarly biography, the riddle of Deng Xiaoping begins to unravel. Based on prodigious research in long-inaccessible Russian and Chinese archives, this monumental biography places Deng’s life in the larger context of the Chinese revolution and the great political struggles that marked the first half-century of Communist rule. Pantsov and Levine trace his life from childhood in Hunan and his formative years as a Young Communist in Paris and Moscow, to the Long March and the years at Yenan and beyond. Deng played an active and successful role in the anti-Japanese resistance in World War II, and again in the civil war with the Nationalists in 1947-49. A pragmatic loyalist in the snake-pit of Mao’s regime, he nevertheless could not avoid being cashiered on three separate occasions as the political winds blew against him. But always he bounced back, wily, careful, methodical, and with a sure grasp of the levers of power. He outflanked, and outlasted, all of his rivals.

Above all, the watchword of Deng’s whole career was fidelity to the Chinese Communist Party. Was the party’s prestige threatened by economic centralism? Institute a quasi-capitalist system, and call it “Socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Could the party-managed boom in Sino-American trade be cultivated at the price of wearing a silly hat? So be it. Did student demonstrators in Tiananmen undermine the party’s authority? Send in the tanks, ruthlessly. While Deng lived, he would abide no challenge to the primacy of the party.

In this book, Pantsov and Levine give us rare insight into the history of modern China, and the mind of one of its most important leaders. This is a dazzling achievement.

John S. Major
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