Like the heroes of a Hollywood Western riding into town to clean up a mess, Pantsov and Levine have swept into the unruly genre of contemporary Chinese biography. Pantsov contends with Soviet archives, while Levine wrangles Chinese-language materials and secondary sources in English. Both bring prodigious energy and research firepower to their work. Their previous collaboration, 2012’s Mao: The Real Story, questioned the conventional wisdom among U.S.-based China specialists that Mao Zedong retained a good deal of independence from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and his Comintern; Pantsov and Levine emphasized Mao’s loyalty to both. Their portrait of Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, cuts in a similar direction: despite the independence and pragmatism that Deng displayed later in life, Pantsov and Levine argue that the distinguishing features of Deng’s formative years were his servility to Mao and his extreme radicalism. They claim that their interpretation finally sets the record straight after many previous efforts missed the mark; this pretension lends their work a certain dynamism but also detracts from the authority of a well-researched, interesting, and readable book about an elusive figure who exhibited a curious combination of idealism and ruthlessness.
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