Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Reviews of Deng Xiaoping in Review

First a full disclosure: I have not read Ezra F. Vogel's Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China. In this post I'm going to discuss the reviews of it I've read, not the book itself.

Naturally, a question arises: are you qualified to talk about reviews of a book when you haven't even read the book?  The answer:  it depends on why you read reviews in the first place. I will elaborate on the different motives later, but it suffices to say that, part of the reason I was reading reviews of Deng Xiaoping is I wanted to identify reviewers whose writing on China I'd like to follow, and for this purpose the way they approach a subject I know pretty well serves as a good touchstone.  My other motivation was that, though I'm interested in the book's topic, reading 928 pages would demand a lot of time, so it makes sense to first check out the reviews to see  if the book is worth the time.

Below are the reviews I've read so far (h/t The China Beat for the links), and my evaluation of them follows. (I don't know any of the reviewers personally, which makes it possible for me to be candid.)

• John Pomfret's review in The Washington Post
• Edward Steinfeld: “The ‘Steel Factory’” (Harvard Magazine)
• Jonathan Mirsky: “How Deng Did It” (New York Times
• The Economist: “The Great Stabliser”
• Christian Caryl: “The Skeletons in Deng’s Closet” (Foreign Policy)
• Fang Lizhi: “The Real Deng” (The New York Review of Books)

John Pomfret's review in The Washington Post opens with fun anecdotes (two American vice presidents, across 26 years, addressing Chinese students in the same university of the same city in Sichuan), and it provides a clear assessment on what Vogel's book does well and where it falls down (for the latter: "Vogel is so effusive in his praise of Deng that the book sometimes reads as if it came straight from party headquarters").

However, I was taken aback by one thing:  Pomfret seems to have a tendency to brand ("… Chairman Mao Zedong, who, with Hitler and Stalin, made up the trio of great 20th-century tyrants,"  "Mao might have been a monster, but he was a monster with a back pocket,…" etc.)  When Pomfret does this, my interest wanes:  once a "monster" dunce cap is placed on Mao's corpse, is there anything interesting left to say about him? And, by the way, a "monster" dunce cap was exactly what the Red Guards ("Mao's shock troops" as Pomfret simple-mindedly calls them) used when denouncing a person. Frankly, it occurs to me branding is an indication of narrow thinking.

Edward Steinfeld's review in Harvard Magazine opens with a good question ("What to make of the elfin man who in 1979 charmed Americans by donning a cowboy hat during his visit to a Houston rodeo, but 10 years later ordered an all-out military assault on unarmed protestors in his own capital?"), but proceeds with little insight. Steinfeld does not brand, but neither does he exhibit any critical spirit.  He basically summarizes some content of the book (and that not even from what sound to be the  interesting parts).  He appears to be validating Vogel's opinion that Deng ordered the Tiananmen massacre for good reasons, i.e., the prosperity of China, and that it worked.  Steinfeld seems to forget that, early on, he has criticized Mao for "the complete disregard for …catastrophic consequences" and is trying to portray Deng as the opposite of Mao, and now he is contradicting himself. The review did not generate much interest in either the book or the reviewer for me.

In “How Deng Did It,” Jonathan Mirsky is the opposite of Steinfeld:  he is extremely critical of Deng Xiaoping, and he highlights material from the book that supports his viewpoint, but is awkwardly quiet about that which does not. While Mirsky holds an unequivocal stand toward Deng ("for most of his long career Deng Xiaoping did less for China than he did to it"), he is a bit too vague about Vogel's position ("Vogel provides no evidence that Deng objected to Mao’s monomaniacal policies"; but does Vogel actually avoid the facts that Deng was sometimes even more monomaniacal than Mao in the 1950s?), as such Mirsky might be giving the reader the false impression that Vogel  is as critical of Deng as he is. His review comes across as far more about the reviewer's voice than the book's. 

The anonymous writer of “The Great Stabliser” in The Economist has a unique angle ('[Vogel] could have subtitled the book not the “transformation” but the “stabilisation” of China,…'), and teases out some interesting details from this book ("Deng thought Mikhail Gorbachev was an 'idiot' …") and another book ("In 1975 he ordered the army to crack down on a Muslim village in Yunnan province, an action which resulted in 1,600 deaths including those of 300 children").  Since I don't know who the writer is, I will have to continue to read The Economist.  (Isn't that the magazine's purpose in not providing bylines?)

Christian Caryl's “The Skeletons in Deng’s Closet” in Foreign Policy appears to offer the most complete and level-headed coverage of Vogel's book on both its achievements and shortcomings, and the reviewer is fair when criticizing Vogel's tendency to over-praise Deng: "Vogel is not always officious. He does mention some of the darker sides of the story. It's just that he is often a bit too eager to tiptoe around them." Caryl also seems to give equal attention to Deng Xiaoping's accomplishments and "black spots," with insights and an unassuming attitude. His review has managed to raise both my interest in his future writing and in the book.

I read Fang Lizhi's “The Real Deng” in The New York Review of Books (which I subscribe) mainly because I knew that Fang had personal dealings with Deng, and thought he would again bring up some interesting anecdotes like he did when talking about Kissinger's book. He does, but his review very much disappoints me in its extremity. Fang's name was well known among my generation of university students in the 1980s China; at the time he had an unusual reputation of being both a good scientist and a good thinker.  But here Fang seems to let his personal grudges get in the way of clear thinking. While he raises a good question on why the place of human rights is not addressed by Vogel's coverage of Deng's leadership, his conclusion that Deng's active push for the economic reform "was aimed to bring wealth to the Party-connected elite" is out of place.  Such wealth is indeed a result of the economic reform, but to baselessly mix results and motive does not bode well for either a scientist or a thinker. How would Fang explain, for example, Deng's push for the rural reform? Because Deng regarded the peasants as the Party elite?   

Fang's review also gives the reader the impression that Vogel's book has no merits except one: "Vogel’s materials will be very useful to students of elite power struggles in China." As such he manages to take an extreme position against both the book's author and its subject.

In summary, among this round of my reading, the winners appear to be Christian Caryl in Foreign Policy and the anonymous writer in the Economist.  The two extremes, on the one end Edward Steinfeld in Harvard Review, who is all positive about Deng and the book, and on the other end Fang Lizhi in NYRB, who is all negative about Deng and the book, are off my radar for now.  The other two writers I'll have to watch a bit further.

Now a few more words on motives for reading reviews.

To be honest, until recently I had not given much thought to the different motives of readers in relations to the styles of review writing, but I was inspired to do so by Jeff Wasserstrom's "Why Read Book Reviews." In that piece, Jeff relates his thoughts to two essays: Elizabeth Gumport's "Against Reviews" and Tom Lutz's response to it, "Odious and Unpleasant." Jeff says that he often reads reviews to update his knowledge of a particular topic, while skipping the books themselves. Likewise, when he writes a review he assumes most of his readers are not interested in buying the book.

This changes my views on something that has long puzzled me:  why do some long essays in The New York Review of Books talk about the subject of a book at length, but speak so little to the book itself that I can't tell what is covered in the book and what by only the reviewer. I remember more than once thinking, Is that a book review?

It all makes sense now:  there are readers for those kinds of reviews. In fact we can categorize review readers by their interests as:

-          to select a book to read or to decide whether to read a particular book
-          to look for help understanding or judging a book that has been read
-          to acquire/update knowledge related to the subject covered by a book, without necessarily wanting to read the book
-          to identify good  reviewers/writers/publications (like what I did today)

There might be other motives, so feel free to provide yours if it's not here.