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 characteristics somehow balances the other.

I noted this same balance in the authors’ biography of Mao, which also uses hitherto unexamined Soviet sources. There they write: “An irrepressible lust for violence…was never extinguished in Mao…. All his life Mao believed in the false formula that ‘without destruction there can be no creation….’” During 1966 when Red Guards were beginning the slaughter of Mao’s enemies, he lounged around his pool “in the company of pretty seventeen- and eighteen-year-old girls.”

In their epilogue Pantsov and Levine say, one would have thought inarguably, “Mao’s crimes against humanity are no less terrible than the evil deeds of Stalin and other twentieth-century dictators. The scale of his crimes was even greater.” But then they assert about Mao:

No less suspicious or perfidious than Stalin, still he was not as merciless…. Moreover, Mao did not take revenge on his former enemies [and] sincerely attempted to refashion the way of life and consciousness of millions of people…. The scale of his life was too grand to be reduced to a single meaning…. The achievements of Mao Zedong [which they list] are indisputable. So are his errors and crimes.

Many informed readers will be familiar with much of the narrative in the new biography of Deng. The significant exceptions are what happened in southwest China, including Sichuan, Guizhou, Yunnan, and Tibet, where he was a political and military leader; and the events in Moscow in 1956 when Deng and his colleagues debated their Russian counterparts and put forward their opposing views of Khrushchev’s devastating attack on the dead Stalin, which Mao unsurprisingly found threatening to his own cult of personality. The Chinese delegation did not hear Khrushchev’s actual words, and were astounded when they were informed afterward by their hosts of the Soviet leader’s main points; they could read the text of the speech only when it was published in the West.


While Deng’s entire story is a fascinating one, I will emphasize his bloodthirstiness, which seems to me his main characteristic from 1950 on. What we see until he was almost fifty is the cherished son of a well-off peasant father who was also a patriot determined to rid China of its Manchu conquerors. For many years he was content to worship Mao, to whom he gradually grew close, and Deng sided with him early in Mao’s career when he had not yet become the supreme leader. During that period, Mao was subordinate to Zhou Enlai. It was this loyalty that Mao remembered, even when he was purging Deng at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, so that while Deng and Zhuo Lin, his devoted third wife, were reviled, spat on, and beaten up by Red Guards, separated from their children, and banished to factory work far from Beijing, the authors show that not only was Deng’s life never in danger, he kept his Party membership and official pay, and after two years was called back to the capital and restored to high rank.

During his entire career, moreover, he learned from Mao that very few comrades were invaluable, and that to further Mao’s frequently changeable aims, any person as well as masses of ordinary people could be sacrificed and, much later, might be “rehabilitated.” Deng was to do this, too, usually with some excuse for why the rehabilitation had become necessary.

The great point here is that although Deng was regarded as amiable and loyal early in his career, as Pantsov puts it,

such fundamental virtues as human dignity, pride, and principle meant nothing to him. They had ceased to exist for him from the time of his youth, when he cast in his lot with the communist movement…. A hypocritical fickleness became a part of his character during the long years of his political life. It is not astonishing that Mao considered him a great talent.

Pantsov elaborated on this point in an e-mail he sent me:

In part, I found from former secret reports that Deng was not a member of Zhou Enlai’s group, but he had his own military faction that simply collaborated with Zhou’s men in the government against the Gang of Four…. We can better understand Deng as a politician and a person. He did not care about Zhou, he just used him.

This challenges a conventional view. Both abroad and in China, Deng has been considered an ally of Zhou, a moderate pragmatist who tried to curb the disasters of the Cultural Revolution. Pantsov shows that intraparty struggle between various factions in China was more complicated than we knew.

It is this sort of accurate observation, which is frequent in the new biography, that causes me to smile when the authors emphasize, “We do not explicitly praise or blame Deng, just as we did not explicitly praise or blame Mao. But they also say this of Deng: ‘He believed in the Great Helmsman as in God and blindly subordinated himself to Mao.’”

How this belief came about is puzzling. Deng grew up valued as the first-born son. Pantsov visited the large comfortable family home, where the guide told him at least one lie. Even when Deng was a very short young man living abroad there was no sign of the kind of the ruthless person he would become. During his time in France, where he went in 1920 to participate in radical, but not Communist, politics, he worked in factories and offices, where, known as “Mr. Mimeograph,” he seemed most at ease listening, taking notes, and staying in the background. But he felt ignored in “a society that had no place for him,” and while innocent of Marxist theory moved increasingly to the left.

From 1923 on, now under the influence of Zhou, who had also gone to France, Deng “devoted himself to dangerous Bolshevik work,” and in 1925 entered the European branch of the Chinese Communist Party. The dangerous work included publishing anticapitalist articles, organizing demonstrations outside places of work, and distributing propaganda materials. He “wrote a letter to his father and mother terminating his relationship with them.” Indeed, he never returned to his birthplace although many years later in China, when he had become a powerful Party official, he cared for a number of other relatives.

In 1926, while continuing his Bolshevik education in Moscow, Deng buckled down to reading Marxist and Soviet texts, absorbing “new material like a sponge.” He wrote at the time, “From now on I shall wholeheartedly accept party education, submit myself to party leadership, and unfailingly fight for the interests of the proletariat.” During Soviet inner-Party struggles it was drilled into him “that it was forbidden to speak about democracy in a party that was engaged in a single-minded struggle for the victory of the revolution.” His evaluation in Soviet records read: “He has no non-Party tendencies…[he] pays great attention to the Party’s discipline.” It was recommended that Deng was best suited to propaganda and “organizational work,” which was to be the case for years to come when he returned to China in 1927.


It was in that year, sitting in a corner and taking notes at a meeting in Hankou of the tiny Central Committee, that Deng saw the thirty-four-year-old Mao Zedong for the first time. Mao said later that he did not remember Deng at that meeting, but soon he would “become a person of some significance, at least in underground circles.” Later his colleagues remembered Deng as “a tireless chatterbox, cracking jokes and telling stories.” He married his first wife, a beautiful young woman who soon died in childbirth, and although “a prodigal and eternally ungrateful son,” accepted money from his father.

In 1929, he was sent to southwest Guangxi province, where most of the non-Chinese peasants hated Hans. Pantsov observes that this probably baffled Deng, who found that calls for “brotherhood” for all the oppressed in the region were meaningless, owing to the “close bonds” between peasants and landlords. In 1931, after the failure of an uprising against the Nationalists, in which Deng had a leading part, he left for Shanghai to report to the Central Committee. During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards accused him of cowardice. He would admit that what he did “was one of the worst mistakes of my life” but immediately added, after admitting errors, that his action was “lawful in an organizational sense.”

Deng Xiaoping
Deng Xiaoping; drawing by Pancho

In 1931, at a Party conference, Mao was condemned for “kulak deviation” and military failures. He was also accused of “right deviationism,” and Deng too was attacked, not only for defending Mao, but for mistakes in conducting guerrilla warfare. Deng wrote successive self-criticisms to the same critics, realizing, as Pantsov puts it, that “it was better to ‘lose face’ several times than to lose your head once.” Although Deng lost his post as director of the Propaganda Department, he was not expelled from the Party. But his second wife abandoned him and married Deng’s “worst enemy,” Li Weihan. As Pantsov observes, for both Deng and his second wife “the revolution trumped love.” By now he had gained the favorable attention of Mao, who appreciated that Deng had been named along with himself as a “criminal.”

In 1934, defeated by the Nationalists, the Red Army—most of whose members would perish along the way—set out on the Long March, during which Mao would assume supreme power at a meeting at Zunyi, where, as he often did, “Deng sat in the corner and diligently took minutes.” Mao had become his “main teacher and protector,” and Deng “would gaze up at Mao from below.”

Not evidently ambitious but making strides upward, Deng was promoted to positions of leadership in propaganda and educational activities in the army and, as noted above, was regarded as good fun by his comrades. By 1937 he had ascended to the leading group at Mao’s headquarters at Yanan. But the Deng who would soon be feared as well as respected had yet to emerge.

This would happen after his elevation in January 1938 to commissar of an army division in the southwest, serving General Lin Bocheng, one of Mao’s best commanders. Here much of the source material is new. “It was his finest hour,” according to Pantsov and Levine. Deng was “now a regional militarist with enormous military power concentrated in his hands.” Evans Carlson, President Roosevelt’s unofficial representative in the region, described him as “short, chunky, and physically tough, and his mind was as keen as mustard.” This was only the first of the many times that Deng would impress, even awe, Americans who met him, as he did Henry Kissinger and President Jimmy Carter.

Liu Bocheng and Deng’s army achieved unusual successes after the beginning of the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists, when Mao was forced out of his Yanan stronghold. It was during this time, also, that according to the authors, Deng urged “the poor peasants, rural riffraff and paupers against the wealthy landowners, to organize village meetings at which they compelled them to ‘settle accounts’ with ‘the exploiters,’ to expropriate the land from those labeled landlords, and redistribute it equally.” He was, they write, apparently unaware that in his region “as generally in North China, peasant holdings were the norm and landlords few.”

A new Deng emerged. Because of his association with General Liu he had become such a skilled soldier that “staff officers sought his directives with regard to all operational matters.” He was now “feared” by his colleagues as well as respected, and “extremely demanding of all his subordinates and merciless toward those who violated discipline.” It was the final Maoist lesson for the “little fellow over there,” as Mao would describe him to Khrushchev, and a foretaste of his power to come.

In 1950, after many warnings to the Tibetans not to resist, the army from the southwest, where Deng was first secretary, crossed into Tibet, killing 5,700 defenders. Deng did not participate in this invasion. Pleas for support from the Dalai Lama’s government to the UN, US, UK, and India went unanswered, the beginning of what would be decades of silence from the West about Beijing’s acts in Tibet.

The vast area of the “Southwest Bureau” for which Deng was responsible, which now included Tibet, was a diverse one inhabited by what Pantsov calls many “tribes,” some of which practiced “cannibalism.” But also in that region were 90,000 remnants of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army. Beijing ordered that these “bandits” and “counterrevolutionaries” be suppressed, leading, in Pantsov’s words, to “an orgy of executions,” Deng’s first, but by no means last. From November 1950 to April 1951, an average of forty-six people were executed daily, justified by Deng in a report to Mao as the elimination of “spies, landlords, or other bad elements.” Even Mao was disturbed by this toll and recommended that the “daily norm” be reduced to nine or ten.

It is difficult to estimate the numbers executed during such campaigns. Frank Dikötter, in his The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution, 1945–1957 (2013), has claimed death figures in the millions for all China, not all at Deng’s hands; Pantsov’s estimates are lower although still large. Deng, ever closer to Mao, does not, from their account, seem to have been troubled about subsequent deaths of millions during the Mao-induced famine of 1958–1962.

The Tiananmen violence of June 3 and 4, 1989, is concisely described in the new biography, with the killings wrongly described as beginning in the afternoon of June 3, when they actually began late that night. It is curious that Pantsov and Levine do not nail down Deng’s role—he was now “Senior Leader”—in what they estimate were hundreds to a few thousand deaths, although they show his mounting rage with what was going on in the center of Beijing. They could have been specific. In The Tiananmen Papers for June 2, which Pantsov and Levine cite, Deng, urged on by most of the other “Elders,” says these fatal words:

I…suggest the martial law troops begin tonight to carry out the clearing plan and finish it within two days…. If they [citizens and students] refuse to leave, they will be responsible for the consequences.2

It was disgusting in late 1989 to see and hear Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to George Bush, grasp Deng’s hand and tell him, “My president wants you to know he is your friend forever.”

Pantsov and Levine show also, in more detail than other studies, Deng’s enthusiasm for economic reforms, which are often cited as a way of avoiding final judgments on his violence. China’s peasants began reforming their practices after Mao’s death, sometimes, Pantsov writes, in very small villages. At the same time, some Chinese, like Su Shaozhi—who later fled to the US—were also influenced by Stalin’s victim Nikolai Bukharin. They urged that freeing the peasants would lead to prosperity. It is true, of course, that Deng, who always admitted he was no theoretician, approved greater freedom for peasants, whose incomes rose in the late 1980s, although the income gap between them and ever-richer urban workers, whom he also encouraged, has widened.

I have emphasized that both Deng’s cruelty to those around him and his violence on a large scale when it suited him were legacies of the Mao Zedong he idolized. And it is precisely those merciless qualities that dominate the narrative of Pantsov and Levine. Deng was indeed a “bloody dictator who, along with Mao, was responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people.” That huge fact is what distinguishes this unique, comprehensively documented, and frightening biography. Nonetheless, clever Chinese students at Oxford, Cambridge, and the LSE, and no doubt at American universities, often insist that Deng was even greater than Mao, while insisting, too, that Tiananmen was a riot in which, as some have said, “our police and soldiers” were attacked. When this book is published in the West and smuggled into China, some of them may change their minds.

As Pantsov and Levine hopefully conclude:

When the concepts of freedom and civil rights will some day be embraced by most Chinese, the new generation of Chinese people will definitely find a more appropriate place for Deng Xiaoping in their long and torturous history.