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Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China


If you’re going to read one book about modern China in the period after Mao, then this is the book you should read.

Though the book is framed around the rise of Deng Xiaoping and his reforms that transformed China into an economic powerhouse, Ezra Vogel’s compelling biography examines how China went from being a desperately poor country to certainly one of the two most important countries in the world today.

A Communist revolutionary and military commander under the brutal rule of Mao Zedong, Deng emerged as China’s capable leader in 1978 for fourteen years. For all of Deng’s success leading China out of poverty, he cannot escape the central role he played in violent attacks on landlords in 1949, or intellectuals in 1957 or the tragic killings in Tiananmen Square under his own leadership in 1989.

Deng was a strong believer of socialism although he supported a market economy and created an export model of economic development. Subsequently China’s economy grew at over 10% per year for 20 years.

As part of our work at the Foundation we strive to improve 10 or 20 million lives in the areas of global health and global development. We have discovered new approaches and created new tools to get vaccines, AIDS drugs and contraceptives to the people who need them, and advanced agricultural innovation to transform farmers’ lives so that they can feed their families.

But, China’s reforms coupled with the tenacity and hard work of its people has improved hundreds of millions of people’s lives in less than a generation. That is more human lives climbing out of poverty post World War II than any other country.

Today, about 15 percent of people in the world - over 1 billion people - live in abject poverty. Fifty years ago, 40 percent of the global population was poor. The massive reduction in poverty is due in part to the “Green Revolution,” in the 1960s and 1970s where researchers produced seeds that helped farmers vastly improve their yields. And because of China. One country alone has lifted 500 million people out of abject poverty.

China in 1979 was one of the poorest countries in the world, far poorer than India. They were barely scratching out a living and their population density made it difficult for them to feed their population. There was very little to build on other than the fact that the party had incredible authority. With this authority, Deng set in motion a series of critical changes early on in his leadership to achieve cultural stability and significant economic growth.

Surviving the Great Famine of 1961 where millions died, Deng reformed the land system and increased agriculture production, initially in just one part of the country. He extended farmers’ land leases and encouraged them to profit from any grain they grew over and above what they owed. He introduced high-yielding varieties of cereal grains and synthetic fertilizers emulating the best innovations of the ‘Green Revolution’. As a result the agricultural sector exploded with farmers producing three times as much in 10 years, all with less labor.

Where before they taxed poor farmers to bootstrap the industrial commune, the workers who were no longer needed in the fields moved into the cities and created a robust industrial sector.

To support a high growth industrial sector, Deng fostered education and built new schools and institutions of learning to underpin the economy. He also endorsed students and business people to travel internationally to study and learn from other countries. China’s success in part has been its ability to synthesize what successful economies have done well and leapfrog history and the competition.

Vogel, an emeritus professor at Harvard University, demonstrates a deep understanding of China’s complex culture and draws on extensive research and his East Asian experience as an intelligence officer for the Clinton Administration. In a recent New York Times interview, Vogel said, “with this book, I thought I could write something new that would educate Americans about China.” I think he absolutely achieves this. Vogel also helps his readers navigate the labyrinth of people and places with mini bios and a map that was an invaluable reference when reading his book.

Although Deng’s transformation of China cannot be separated from the violent attacks that he administered under Mao’s rule or the brutal approach he took to stopping the Tiananmen Square student protests, the economic reforms have improved the livelihoods of millions of people.  China has capitalized on advances in education, healthcare, agriculture and innovative technology to help accelerate their own development and transition beyond the need for aid.

To have done this essentially in one generation is an unbelievable accomplishment and is unique in the history of the world.


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