Now there’s a question likely to stir controversy.
Let me throw two names in the ring – Deng Xiaoping of China and Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore.
My own thinking leads me to put Deng at the top of the list. He ruled China from about 1980 (when he was 75 years old) until 1992.
Here is a man who was run out of power by his old comrade Mao and Mao’s more radical friends, including Mao’s wife and her infamous “Gang of Four.” The deadly Cultural Revolution hit him almost as hard as anyone. Luckily Mao let him live. Toward the end of Mao’s career, he was “resurrected” and his star began to rise again. After Mao’s death he emerged on top.
Despite his lifetime of work in the Chinese Communist establishment, and working under Mao, one of the most murderous and brutal “leaders” in history, Deng then began to modernize the worlds’ most populous nation. Gradually many attributes of capitalism began to appear. Perhaps Mao’s one-time epithet for Deng, “Capitalist Roader” – for one who wanted to go down the “evil” road toward capitalism – was not that far off.
Deng’s hands are not completely clean. It was in his era that the Tiananmen Square massacre took place. But when I study the whole of his accomplishments, what took place before him, and how rapidly he improved the lot of hundreds of millions of people, I have to stand in awe of what he achieved.
Today China is clearly emerging as the world’s largest economy. It has only begun to rise to its potential greatness. China certainly has its share of challenges – how to give more freedom and possibly even the vote to a growing middle class, how to deal with censorship, whether to allow a freer press, increasing income gaps between urban middle classes and rural poor, how to integrate Hong Kong and potentially Taiwan, and pollution, to name just a few. But what China has accomplished in the almost-thirty years since Deng took over indicates to me what can be accomplished in the next thirty years, the next sixty years.
To understand this man and his story, one of the best books is Deng Xiaoping and the Making of Modern China, by Richard Evans (1993, Penguin Books). This excellent biography, at about 330 pages, is only about half as long as most new biographies seem to be, yet covers his life and his work completely. You’ll learn as much about the history of Mao and Communist China as you will about Deng, since his life was entirely intertwined with that tragic story. But to me the most amazing part is how Deng survived, how he held to his belief that China should “open up,” and how he was able to make his vision into reality as an old man. One tough cookie.
Another tough cookie who I think is perhaps the smartest living (Deng died in 1997) former world leader is Lee Kuan Yew, the man who took a poor, third world island city named Singapore and turned it into a nation that today has a higher per capita income than the United States (when adjusted for purchasing power). I have visited Singapore several times, including in May of 2009, and a few weeks ago posted my latest review. This man’s accomplishments are remarkable, and I am always made smarter by reading his books. Or by watching his interviews like those with PBS’ Charlie Rose, who has had him on more than once and which interviews are available for free viewing online. On the right I list Lee’s most important book, From Third World to First.
I guess I should say that I am not dismissing the greatness of the United States when I fail to place any of our twentieth century leaders at the top of my list. But our greatest, nation-shaping leaders lived well before 1900, whereas Deng and Lee had a huge impact on the world we live in today, and completely reshaped their nations – one a small country, the other perhaps the most important one on earth as we go through the 21st century.