Ezra Vogel, China watcher lauded for urging Sino-US understanding, dies aged 90

Jun Mai
·6-min read

Ezra Vogel, a towering China academic with Harvard University, has died, his home institute announced. He was 90 years old.

“It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of our former director Ezra F. Vogel (1930-2020),” Harvard’s Fairbank Centre for China Studies posted to Facebook and Twitter on Sunday night.

“Professor Vogel served as director from 1973-75 and from 1995-99. He was a true champion of our centre, an erudite scholar and a wonderful friend. He will be truly missed.”

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Vogel’s son Steven also tweeted the news. “My father passed today, from complications after surgery. He was completely healthy a week ago. He thoroughly enjoyed life, especially in his later years. And we enjoyed him,” he wrote.

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Vogel was one of the most prominent China experts in the United States, and had studied China’s elite politics and society since the Mao Zedong era.

He is best known in China for Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, a landmark biography of China’s supreme leader who kicked off the country’s long-needed market reform in the 1980s. The book was first published in 2011 in English and was later translated into Chinese and published in Hong Kong and mainland China.

Fluent in Mandarin and Japanese, Vogel also closely followed other issues in Asia. He wrote Japan as Number One: Lessons for America, published in 1979 and a bestseller in Japan.

For decades, Vogel was an important voice in US-China relations in the academic world. In his 30s, as a rising scholar, Vogel was one of 10 academics who penned a 1968 memorandum on China policy addressed to the incoming Richard Nixon administration.

Calling on Washington to explore “confidential, even deniable conversations” with leaders in Beijing, the memo was delivered to the then president-elect Nixon later the same year by Henry Kissinger, who was to become Nixon’s national security adviser and later his secretary of state. In 1972, Nixon became the first sitting US president to visit mainland China.

Vogel travelled frequently to China after his first visit in 1973. His access reached to the very top of China’s political elites and he met family members of party elders including Deng and Chen Yun, China’s second-most powerful man in the Deng era.

When Jiang Zemin, China’s then president, visited the US in 1997, Vogel organised his visit to Harvard and hosted him.

A moderate who sought to understand the complexity of Chinese politics, Vogel was sometimes criticised for his stance on Deng’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

“The students were naive and pushed too hard,” he said during an interview in 2011, when his biography of Deng was published.

He had also in recent years been working on a biography of Hu Yaobang, a relatively liberal-minded Communist Party general secretary in the 1980s, who was dismissed by Deng for his sympathy for China’s liberal intellectuals.

Vogel’s most recent visit to China was in January this year, just before international travel was disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. He visited the South China Morning Post’s office in Hong Kong during that trip.

Vogel remained prominent, albeit virtually, during the pandemic. He gave video remarks at seminars on China – including the Xiangshan Forum, a platform for Asia-Pacific security and defence issues held in Beijing this month – and continued to leave an impression with his humility and diligence.

“He was always asking for people’s advice for his work and very good at listening to their opinions,” said Wu Si, a Beijing-based historian who was a visiting scholar to the Fairbank Centre in 2018-19. “And he always started taking notes only a short time into a conversation.”

That observation was shared by Ren Yi, a former assistant of Vogel at Harvard. “I helped him set up a number of interviews for the book [on Deng], and he was very inclusive and willing to hear voices from the left and the right to present an objective picture,” Ren, an influential blogger and commentator in China, said.

Ren recalled Vogel as being constantly aware of his privilege as a foreign scholar in being able to tell “the real China story” and the responsibility that came with his access.

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“He was able to transcend ideological differences and promote understanding among different political systems,” Ren said.

“But there were too few people like him … unfortunately his narrative on China is not too relevant in the United States now, and his influence has faded.”

More recently, Vogel was among a number of moderate China watchers who acknowledged that China’s aggressive international behaviour needed a strong response from the United States, and he had become more critical of China’s increasingly authoritarian government.

“If power is highly concentrated in one person’s hands over the long term, then any time serious problems arise, as for example from the slowdown of the economy which is likely in the next few years, then the one person will have to accept responsibility for everything,” he wrote in 2018 after Beijing dropped the presidential term limits for Xi Jinping.

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“Therefore, I think it would be good for China and for Xi personally if Xi could find some way to preserve a system that provides regular procedures for making decisions and selecting new officials.”

But Vogel was also among the loudest voices opposing US President Donald Trump’s China policies in the past four years. In an opinion article published in The Washington Post in July, Vogel argued that Trump’s China policy was pushing America’s friends in China towards anti-American nationalism.

“The [Chinese Communist Party] includes people who have been pro-American, including businesspeople, scientists and intellectuals,” he wrote. “But when Americans attack the Communist Party as a whole, members – particularly those who would like to see more democratic procedures – rally to support the party and, by extension, the nation.”

On his Twitter page, China’s US ambassador Cui Tiankai on Monday thanked Vogel’s efforts to encourage mutual understanding between the nations.

“So sad to learn the passing of Professor Ezra Vogel,” Cui wrote. “He was an outstanding scholar on China and an old friend of the Chinese people. “Throughout his lifetime he was dedicated to greater mutual understanding between the Chinese and American people.”

Vogel remained productive until the final months of his life. Last year, aged 89, he published China and Japan: Facing History, which reviewed 1,500 years of ties between those two countries.

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