The Bloodthirsty Deng We Didn’t Know

Pictures from History/Bridgeman Images
Deng Xiaoping at a military parade, September 1981

“Deng was…a bloody dictator who, along with Mao, was responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people, thanks to the terrible social reforms and unprecedented famine of 1958–1962.” This is the conclusion of Alexander Pantsov and Steven Levine’s biography of Deng Xiaoping, a book that, at last, shows him to be as violent and treacherous as his mentor and idol Mao Zedong. It explains, too, that Deng’s celebrated reputation as an economic reformer owes much to China’s entrepreneurial peasants, as well as to his well-read colleagues and brave lesser officials.

Like the authors’ excellent previous biography, Mao: The Real Story (2012), this one was first written in Russian by Pantsov and published in Moscow in 2013. Levine translated, edited, and shortened the text. He made some additions as well. The book is based on official sources from China, the Soviet Union, Western Europe, and the United States; the memoirs of Deng’s relatives, friends, and colleagues, like his bodyguard, and interviews with some of them. It includes what Pantsov learned while visiting Deng’s birthplace and interviewing Chinese who were in Tiananmen Square during the attack in June 1989. The mountain of Soviet archival materials, like the ones for the authors’ Mao biography, has never been used before and owes its use here to Pantsov’s good relations with the Russian archivists. In a personal communication, he told me:

In addition to personal stuff about Deng, his two wives, his uncle, Zhou, Mao and others, I used dispatches of Russian diplomats who worked in the Russian embassies in Beijing and Washington DC.

There are previous biographies of Deng, including one by Richard Evans, once Britain’s ambassador to Beijing, and, most notably, the recent one by Ezra Vogel, which devotes only one quarter of its length to Deng’s life—he was born in 1904—before he approached supreme power after Mao’s death in 1976.1 Vogel says of Deng that he

gave great attention to gaining the cooperation and support of the people in the region. In speeches and articles in the press, Deng explained Communist rule to local government officials and the people…. Deng was praised by Mao for his success in land reform by attacking landlords, killing some of the landlords with the largest holdings, allocating their land to peasants, and mobilizing local peasants to support the new leadership.

This is an example of how previous biographers skirt or avoid plain statements, like the one quoted above that Deng was responsible for the death of innocent millions. Yet even Pantsov and Levine contend (as does Vogel) that “Deng was definitely an outstanding revolutionary leader, a great economic and social reformer,” and “a talented strategist” and political organizer, a combination of qualities one would not readily apply to Hitler or Stalin. They leave the impression that one set of…

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