Deng Xiaoping: Chronicle of an Empire by Ruan Ming, translated and edited by Nancy Liu, Peter Rand and Lawrence R Sullivan Westview Press $250 Steve Ball Deng Xiaoping: Chronicle of an Empire by Ruan Ming translated and edited by Nancy Liu, Peter Rand and Lawrence R Sullivan Westview Press $250 HOW will Deng Xiaoping be remembered? Furious controversy rages now, but when the passion dies away in 100 years perhaps all that will remain will be a one-line entry in a dictionary of quotations. It will list that most famous quotation of all, the one that encapsulates Deng's views on politics, on economics, on life: ''It does not matter if the cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice.'' A good quote, short, pithy and memorable. Rather a shame he never said it. In the original version, given on the morning of July 7, 1962, Deng said the cats were yellow and black. The effect was the same, but later that very day Deng got cold feet and tried desperately to delete the phrase before Chairman Mao noticed. This tale is just one of many priceless gems thrown up by Ruan Ming in this absorbing, provocative, occasionally brilliant, sometimes hilarious yet often maddeningly frustrating critique of Deng as leader of a quarter of mankind. Published two years ago in Chinese, its release now in English translation will have most Western scholars scrabbling to revise their views of mainland politics. But despite its importance, do not expect the author to come to Hong Kong for a book-signing session. The British Embassy in New York refused him a visa in May on the advice of the Hong Kong Government because, as Chief Secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang said so succinctly: ''Neither the Hong Kong Government nor the people of Hong Kong wish to see Hong Kong being used as a base for subversion.'' Make no mistake: Ruan Ming knows his stuff. He was for years speech writer and then secretary to Hu Yaobang, the chairman and general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. He stood at the edges of the decade-long debate on the future of China, but was sucked into the maelstrom, hounded mercilessly by Wang Zhen, then head of the Communist Party's Party School, and eventually forced into exile in 1988. Those experiences have given him a bitter hatred of the conservatives in China's Communist Party, a hatred made more deadly by his first-hand knowledge of the participants. Ruan Ming's analysis is at times sharp and to the point, and his exposure to the inner party struggles means he has at his fingertips a wealth of detail Western China watchers can only dream of. Some of the vignettes are remarkable, such as the image of arch-leftist ideologue Hu Qiaomu breaking into tears at a secret party conclave, or the vision of Hu denouncing Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind as an example of the corruption of bourgeois liberalism. But amusing as these details are, this book's strength is its analysis of Deng's Empire, the ideology that built it and the forces that propped it up. The author gives a chronology, its key events sharply at variance with most Western studies. For Ruan Ming the decisive point since the death of Mao was China's spectacular failure in its would-be punitive invasion of Vietnam in 1979. The defeat, for that is what it was, severely dented Deng's self-image as the greatest military leader China has had this century. He became worried about his position and so rapidly abandoned the campaign to bring democracy to China he had announced just months before. That decision meant swift strangulation for the Democracy Wall movement, a 15-year jail sentence for Wei Jingsheng, the introduction of the sterile doctrine of the Four Cardinal Principles and condemned China to on-again, off-again development for the rest of the decade. Ruan Ming does not flinch from acknowledging the considerable skill the conservatives used to fight their cause. Key players like Hu Qiaomu started off in Deng's doghouse, but they cleverly ingratiated themselves, made themselves indispensable, and ultimately became the only people Deng could rely on when he decided to crush the 1989 democracy movement. The most important conservative was Chen Yun. Ruan Ming says many Western analysts think Chen Yun is a semi-liberal economist, but actually he was instrumental in setting up the system of economic oppression that enslaved China's peasantry from the 50s until the 80s. Ruan Ming singles him out as the main opponent of reform. Zhao Ziyang comes across as a complete stinker who tried to get Hu Yaobang's job for years, sucked up to Chen Yun's faction, then when he became general secretary was completely outwitted by the conservatives. Zhao had a fleeting chance to save himself and his country in May 1989 and blew it. The author's analysis of Hu Yaobang is not as hard hitting. Presumably out of long-standing loyalty, Ruan Ming does not dwell on Hu's many mistakes, most importantly his failure to protect supporters such as Ruan Ming himself, which eroded his power base and ultimately led to the palace coup of 1987 and his dismissal from office. But the conservatives could only flourish because Deng Xiaoping suffered them to. In the final analysis Hu Yaobang's weakness was not the crucial factor. Without doubt Deng was the ultimate arbiter, and Ruan Ming gives us chapter and verse on the times when Deng came out against the conservatives and reduced them to quivering jellies. Yet Deng was not steering a middle course. Instead, the conservatives would present any attempt to liberalise China's political system as an attack on Deng's personal authority. They knew exactly where his ticklish spot was. As soon as he saw himself as the target, invariably Deng would crack down hard on the perceived threat. Deng was the master of Zhongnanhai tactics, argues Ruan Ming. But he never had a clue where he was going and ended up in a mess. The impatient reader will most likely deliver a similar judgement on this book. Like the source of Deng Xiaoping's power, the organising structure of the book is at times a mystery. Ruan Ming flits from year to year with little heed of chronology and his masterly conclusions at the end of one chapter crop up slightly paraphrased at the beginning of the next two. But perhaps the most annoying fault is the way the author deals with his own involvement in events. Ruan Ming never makes clear exactly why he hates Wang Zhen so much. At crucial times where we know he was directly involved, he recounts events as if he was some impartial observer watching on satellite television. These are disturbing mistakes because they cast doubt on the truth and accuracy of his other observations and bring into question how far we can rely on this tale of Deng Xiaoping's rule.