Is It Great Men or Great Times That Change Us?

This excerpt from Delanceyplace.com is from a biography of Deng Xiaoping (Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China by Ezra F. Vogel). Mao’s radicalism had destroyed China and the country was facing catastrophe when he took over. This brings up my youthful struggles with the age old argument of man versus history. The argument I heard when I was in college was that history made the man, not the opposite. When I graduated and started my real (self-) education, I came down firmly on the side that it is great men who move things along. It seems obvious to me now, but back then it was the “it’s history, stupid” idea which sprang from the old Marxist ideas of the inevitability of history (according to Marx) which had infected our universities and colleges. According to  them, man was a minor player in this theater. Great men were really a reflection of the masses who really changed society. Not true. History is merely the scenery; the times are always what they are and everyone has the same scenery. The truth is that it is great men who rise above the “masses” and change our direction. Great men are those whose drive and intellect pursue an idea that can change society, for better or worse. Deng is one of those people who, unlike Mao, changed history positively and led China to be the juggernaut that it is today. China is far from perfect but it’s a long way from sociopaths like Mao.  — JH


In today’s encore excerpt – Deng Xiaoping (1904—1997) took de facto leadership of China shortly after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. The country was then in a chaotic and catastrophic condition, but has since ascended past Japan to become the second largest economy in the world. Deng is widely credited as the leader that led China toward a market economy, its current prominence, and economic success:

“In March 1979 Sir Murray MacLehose, the widely respected Chinese-speaking British governor of Hong Kong, flew to Beijing to explain Hong Kong’s problems. Told in advance only that he would meet a high official, MacLehose was delighted to learn after he arrived that he would be meeting Deng Xiaoping, who had just been named China’s preeminent leader. During an intimate meeting in the Great Hall of the People, MacLehose told Deng about the growing difficulties confronting Hong Kong. As both men well knew, the British had ruled the colony of Hong Kong since the Opium War, but the lease from China for most of the land that was now part of Hong Kong would expire in 1997. Governor MacLehose was measured and diplomatic as he talked of the need to reassure Hong Kong people deeply worried about what might happen after 1997. Deng listened attentively to Governor MacLehose’s concerns and then, as they rose after their talk and moved toward the door, he beckoned to MacLehose. The governor, well over six feet tall, leaned over to hear the words of his five-foot host: ‘If you think governing Hong Kong is hard, you ought to try governing China.’

“Deng was acutely aware that China was in a disastrous state. At the beginning of the previous decade, during the Great Leap Forward, more than thirty million people had died. The country was still reeling from the Cultural Revolution in which young people had been mobilized to attack high-level officials and, with Mao’s support, push them aside as the country of almost one billion people was plunged into chaos. The average per capita income of Chinese peasants, who made up 80 percent of the population, was then only $40 per year. The amount of grain produced per person had fallen below what it had been in 1957.

“Military officials and revolutionary rebels had been moved in to replace the senior party officials who had been forced out, but they were unprepared and unqualified for the positions they had assumed. The military had become bloated and was neglecting the military tasks, while military officers in civilian jobs were enjoying the perquisites of offices without performing the work. The transportation and communication infrastructure was in disarray. The bigger factories were still operating with technology imported from the Soviet Union in the 1950s, and the equipment was in a state of disrepair. Universities had been basically closed down for almost a decade. Educated youth had been forcibly sent to the countryside and it was becoming harder to make them stay. Yet in the cities there were no jobs for them, nor for the tens of millions of peasants wanting to migrate there. Further, the people who were already living in the cities, fearing for their jobs, were not ready to welcome newcomers. …

“Deng faced a tall order, and an unprecedented one: at the time, no other Communist country had succeeded in reforming its economic system and bringing sustained rapid growth, let alone one with one billion people in a state of disorder.

“Despite Deng’s diminutive stature, once he became the preeminent leader, when he appeared in a room he had a commanding presence that made him a natural center of attention. More than one observer commented that it was as if the electricity in the room flowed to him. He had the concentrated intensity of someone determined to resolve important matters. He possessed the natural poise of a former wartime military commander as well as the self-assurance that came from half a century of dealing with life-and-death issues near the center of power. Having faced ups and downs, and been given time to recover with support from his wife, children, and close colleagues, he had become comfortable with who he was. When he did not know something, he readily admitted it. President Jimmy Carter commented that Deng, unlike Soviet leaders, had an inner confidence that allowed one to get directly into substantive issues.

“He did not dwell on what might have been or who was at fault for past errors; as in bridge, which he played regularly, he was ready to play the hand he was dealt. He could recognize and accept power realities and operate within the boundaries of what seemed possible. Once Mao was no longer alive to look over his shoulder, Deng was sufficiently sure of himself and his authority that with guests he could be relaxed, spontaneous, direct, witty, and disarmingly frank. At a state banquet in Washington in January 1979, when told by [American actress] Shirley MacLaine about a Chinese intellectual who was so grateful for what he had learned about life after being sent to the countryside to raise tomatoes during the Cultural Revolution, Deng’s patience was soon exhausted. He interrupted her to say, ‘He was lying’ and went on to tell her how horrible the Cultural Revolution had been.”

Author: Ezra F. Vogel
Title: Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China
Publisher: Belknap Harvard
Date: Copyright 2011 by Ezra F. Vogel

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1 comment to Is It Great Men or Great Times That Change Us?

  • bigmac

    Ah, a classic chicken vs egg debate. It is circular – neither comes without the other. There is always some person who is “wearing the leadership shoes” at major inflection points in history. Often it is with a good bit of luck and situational circumstance that they come to be there. The leaders cannot help but be influenced and shaped by the circumstances of their time. At the same time, once they “become” leaders, their decisions cannot help but have a wide impact.

    This is worthy of lengthy discussion, but I will leave it at this…If we can define Bill Gates as a “Great Man/Leader” given his outsized impact on our era, ask yourself if he would be so if we could place him into a different time and place. If Abraham Lincoln was president in the 1960s, would he have the same impact? Yet, uniquely in their place and time, they both had tremendous influence on history.

    I put less “faith” in the “Great Leaders” than in the institutions (e.g. separation of powers, rule of law, Constitution) with the purpose of maximizing our individual liberty and pursuit of our own opportunities. This provides the environment for millions of “Leaders” to “Lead” in ways that are mutually beneficial. In the past, too many individuals had to rely on the benevolence of their “Leaders” for their welfare. Too often (if not most often), in history, that was to their detriment.