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End of An Era?

The death of Ezra Vogel, a renowned American scholar on China, prompted tributes from Chinese officials and scholars, as well as concerns over a generational change in American scholars’ attitudes toward China

By Yu Xiaodong Updated Mar.1

Ezra Vogel holds a Chinese version of his book, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China

Ezra Vogel, professor emeritus at Harvard University and a renowned American scholar on Asian affairs, passed away at the age of 90 on December 21, 2020 due to complications from surgery, his family said. His death prompted waves of tributes in the US, China and other Asian countries.  

For decades, Vogel served as a bridge between the East and the West. He was best known for his work studying the rise of two Asian powers ¨C Japan and China. On Japan, his 1979 book Japan as Number One: Lessons for America, an instant bestseller, was not only acclaimed in both the US and Japan, but it inspired other Asian countries such as Singapore to chart their own development course.  

China Expert 
On China, he was one of the first American scholars to focus on the reform and opening-up policy that led to China’s rapid development. Visiting China for the first time in 1973 during the era of late Chairman Mao Zedong, Vogel traveled frequently to China in the following decades. He lived in South China’s Guangdong Province for a year, which led to his 1989 book One Step Ahead in China, Guangdong Under Reform.  

But Vogel’s crowning achievement is his 2011 book Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China. Based on 10 years of extensive travels and research, including interviews with ordinary people, entrepreneurs and top officials, the award-winning book provided in-depth insights into one of the most important periods in China’s contemporary history. It is widely considered the most important political biography of the late architect of China’s reform and opening-up.  

“As an expert on China, Vogel represents those who understand, respect and are willing to communicate with China,” said Professor Wu Xinbo, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in an article paying tribute to Vogel.  

“He never displayed a condescending attitude. Quite the contrary, he kept an open mind toward opinions from Chinese scholars. His research on China was not based on American experience or the American model, but from China's own environment and conditions, and he focused on how China designed its own system and development strategies according to its own needs,” Wu said.  

In recent years, Vogel visited China at least once a year. In a 2015 interview with NewsChina, Vogel said that as an American scholar on China, he felt he had a responsibility to understand the true China and present it in a broader historical background. Vogel also said he was working on a book on Hu Yaobang, another iconic reform-minded Chinese leader who held the top office of the Communist Party of China from 1981 to 1987.  

According to Ren Yi, an influential commentator who studied at the Harvard Kennedy School and assisted Vogel on his book on Deng Xiaoping in the 2000s, Vogel opted to first complete his 2019 book China and Japan: Facing History, which reviews the history of political and cultural ties between the two nations over 1,500 years. 

“Fluent in both Chinese and Japanese and having spent a lifetime studying the two countries, Vogel was always concerned about the relationship between China and Japan, so he decided to finish this book and postpone his project on Hu Yaobang,” said Ren in a blog post on December 22 to commemorate Vogel. “It is really a pity [that he couldn’t finish the book].”  

‘An Old Friend’
Over the past couple of years, as US-China relations rapidly deteriorated under the Trump administration, Vogel was among the loudest voices opposing the new direction in China policies.  

In July 2019, he co-authored an open letter titled “China is not an enemy.” Refuting former US President Donald Trump’s claim of a consensus that US engagement with China had failed, the letter was signed by more than 100 American academics, foreign policy experts and military and business leaders who called on the US President and Congress to re-examine their approach to China.  

In April 2020, Vogel joined dozens of experts and former senior officials in a joint statement that urged the US to cooperate with China to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. In July 2020, he wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post, warning that US policies are “pushing our friends in China toward anti-American nationalism.” 

At a webinar of the Beijing Xiangshan Forum on December 1, 2020, Vogel said the election of Joe Biden to the US presidency will bring new opportunities for the two sides to promote ties on three levels - high-level meetings, exchanges between professionals, and at the working level. Vogel said that the US and China should find a way where they can compete with each other like sportsmen, but not fight with each other like enemies.  

At a regular press conference on December 21, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin called him “an old friend of the Chinese people.”  

Praising Vogel for his “tireless efforts to promote communication and exchanges between China and the US and to enhance the two peoples’ mutual understanding,” Wang said that his contributions to China-US relations “will not be forgotten.”  

The same day, Chinese Ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai also tweeted his condolences. “I have known Professor Vogel for a long time and learned a great deal from him. I believe his ideas and commitment will always have an impact on us,” Cui said. “His wisdom and insight on China have been of immeasurable value not only to people in the field of study, but also to the world.” 

Many Chinese scholars shared their feelings and experiences related to Vogel in both traditional and on social media. On Sina Weibo, a major Chinese social media platform, the hashtag “Ezra Vogel” got more than 400 million views.  

‘A Huge Loss’
For many, Vogel’s passing adds to the perception that the influence of the old generation of China experts is declining, as anti-China rhetoric seems to have become the new political correctness on the US relationship with China.  

“Even heavyweight figures like former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger have also lost influence,” reads a commentary titled “The world needs more scholars who have deep understanding about China” in Ming Pao, a Hong Kong-based paper. 

Considered one of the most famous diplomats and a renowned strategist on China who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, Kissinger, who will turn 98 in 2021, was removed from the Defense Policy Board on December 14 in a sudden purge of veteran experts by the Trump administration.  

“As politicians like [former] Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and self-claimed China experts like Peter Navarro tried to revive McCarthyism, objective and rational voices of scholars who genuinely know China have been drowned out by the fanfares of radical and extremist China hawks,” it added. 

Michael Swaine, director of the East Asia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a US think tank, tweeted that the passing of Vogel is “a huge blow to the field, especially at this critical time, because Ezra was a major supporter of the effort to inject greater sanity and balance into US thinking about China.” 

In an article run by the State-owned Global Times on January 5, the paper quoted Douglas Paal, vice president of studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former special assistant to President George HW Bush, as saying that younger generations of scholars on China studies in the US did not experience the dark periods of World War II or the Cold War, and lack first-hand experience of the potential catastrophic consequences of great power struggles.  

“The majority of the new generation of China researchers can neither speak fluent Chinese, nor have extensive experience of living in China, and they lack the in-depth knowledge of China’s history and reality,” reads the article, “The result is they primarily perceive the US-China relationship from the perspective of a zero-sum game and safeguarding US supremacy.” 

According to Ren Yi, unlike Vogel who is open-minded and genuinely respected his research subjects, many younger American scholars and journalists, including those who speak Chinese and live in China, tend to have a condescending attitude and an ideological bias against China. 

“I really think Vogel’s aspiration transcended that of most Western and Chinese scholars,” Ren said, “What he did was something truly great,that was promoting the mutual understanding and respect of different civilizations for the sake of a better future for all humanity.”