WHEN Deng Xiaoping appeared in public on national television last month for the first time in more than a year, many people in China, Hong Kong, and around the world breathed easier. That Deng's presence has such a tranquilizing effect is as much a measure of his failure as of his success as China's de facto leader for the past 15 years.
Deng's accomplishments in opening China have been extraordinary. His policies have helped bring 1 billion people a level of economic well-being unimagined a generation ago. But the worries surrounding Deng's succession signal that too much rides on one man. Like Mao Zedong, Deng has recently sacrificed his prots as political scapegoats. Most important, Deng has refused to allow the reforms that would grant China a successor endowed with the legitimacy needed for effective rule and enduring reform.
Deng's political conservatism wins sympathetic treatment from Sir Richard Evans, a former British Ambassador to China and Deng's latest biographer.
In ``Deng Xiaoping and the Making of Modern China,'' Evans paints a generally complimentary picture of Deng as a military hero, brass-tacks administrator, and ``a man of vision and action'' so gifted that even Mao - whose radical creed clashed sharply with Deng's pragmatism - brought him back from political disgrace in 1973.
Clearly written, well-organized, and readable, the biography is a good overview of Deng's tumultuous journey to becoming China's paramount leader. It weaves in a substantial amount of Chinese Communist Party history. It thoroughly recounts Deng's relationship with Mao and other party figures, as well as his theories and strategies as a senior statesman. However, while documenting Deng's life as a member of China's Communist elite, the book says very little about his attitude toward common Chinese and their problems.
Moreover, the book fails to provide a sense of what drives Deng, the man. It offers little insight into Deng's mind beyond what can be gleaned from his speeches, official compilations of his works, and public acts as described by party biographers. In some ways, this is understandable. Chinese leaders are extremely secretive about their private lives. Yet one would think that Evans, Britain's ambassador to China from 1984 to 1988, would have some more well-connected sources to draw upon.
Evans generally acknowledges the limits of his information. Nevertheless, he chooses to speculate on several crucial episodes in Deng's political career, almost invariably portraying Deng in a positive light, even when such generous treatment appears biased and unnecessary.
In one example, the author leaves ``open'' the verdict on Deng's role in the anti-rightist purge of 1957, which saw thousands of Chinese intellectuals persecuted, and many sent to labor camps for more than 20 years. At the time, Deng was the chief implementer of party policy. Yet, based on tentative evidence, the author suggests that Deng may have wanted to limit the campaign's scope.
In another case, the author asserts that as a leader Deng is ``strong but not brutal'' in his ``treatment of people.'' The only example offered of Deng's benevolence was his failure to jail or mount a propaganda campaign to defame his chosen successor, Hu Yaobang, whom Deng forced to step down as party chief in 1987 after a wave of student demonstrations. The decision to sack his comrade was not only dishonorable for Deng; as Evans notes some 40 pages later, the action ``destroyed Deng's arrangements for party and government leadership after his own death.''
Deng had every reason not to be ``brutal'' toward Hu. But what of Wei Jingsheng, the Democracy Wall dissident sentenced in 1979 to 15 years in prison after Deng, as the author relates, decided to crack down on the peaceful protest movement? And what of the thousands of Chinese summarily executed after Deng ordered a Draconian crackdown on crime in 1983 - this, the author states, in keeping with Deng's ``stern views about morality''? Here and elsewhere, Evans seems only to consider Deng's dealings with his colleagues in the party elite, not his treatment of the ``masses.''
In the penultimate chapter, Evans attempts to distance Deng from the June 1989 Beijing massacre. The author asserts that Deng, in his address to martial law rulers on June 9, ``did not say a word about the conduct of operations'' because he was allegedly angry about how the crackdown was carried out. As ``direct evidence'' for his interpretation, Evans cites ``a story from a party source'' stating that Deng called Premier Li Peng and Gen. Yang Shangkun and scolded them for ``bungling'' the operation.
Deng, as the man ultimately responsible for the massacre, had a powerful stake in not saying anything negative in public about the Army. In this case and others, Evans seems to take Deng's statements at face value, lacking a sensitivity for the predilection of Chinese leaders to make statements for propaganda purposes and to censor or rewrite history.
The June 9 speech, Evans holds, revealed Deng's ``acute political mind'' by indicating Deng knew the student demonstrations and downfall of another prot, Zhao Ziyang, would leave his reform strategy vulnerable to attack. In the laudatory tone that characterizes the book, the author writes that ``there was more art in his speech than the world understood at the time.'' Yet the idea that the protest movement would open the reforms to criticism would have been obvious to most Chinese, let alone a politician like Deng.
In conclusion, Evans sounds very much like the Chinese patriarch when he asserts that Deng's exercise of the ``proletarian dictatorship,'' while not ``benign,'' is perhaps necessary in China's case. ``Democracy does best when it grows slowly in a developing country and reaches maturity when that country has achieved quite high levels of prosperity and education,'' he writes.