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How Ezra Vogel strove to break down barriers

By CHEN WEIHUA in Brussels | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2020-12-28 08:46
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Nixon memorandum

Born to a Jewish family in Delaware, Ohio, on July 11,1930, Vogel graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University in the small college town in 1950, with no knowledge of East Asia.

However, on Nov 6, 1968, when he was a Harvard professor of social relations, he was among a small group of scholars from that university, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Columbia University who wrote a memorandum to US president-elect Richard Nixon, asking him to review hostile US policy toward China.

Nixon had hinted before the presidential election of establishing a new relationship with the People's Republic of China, but it was several years before National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, a former colleague of Vogel and others at Harvard, made his secret visit to China in July 1971.

John Fairbank and other top China scholars such as Lucian Pye, A. Doak Barnett, Dwight Perkins and Jerome Cohen were among the signatories of the memorandum.

In the 1960s, when traveling to the Chinese mainland was impossible for US citizens, Vogel spent a year in Hong Kong in 1963. He interviewed Chinese arriving in the city from across the border. At the time, Hong Kong was under British colonial rule.

He made his first trip to the mainland in May 1973 with a delegation from the US National Academy of Sciences, during which they met Premier Zhou Enlai and other high officials.

The fact that he never had the chance to meet and talk with Deng in person remained a source of regret for Vogel. Their closest contact was on Jan 30, 1979, during a reception at the National Gallery in Washington, where Deng made a speech during an official visit to the US.

Vogel, who spent almost his entire career teaching at Harvard until his retirement in 2000, visited China at least once or twice a year since 1980. That year, he spent two months at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province. Seven years later, he spent seven months in that province.

For his book on Deng, he spent seven months in Beijing, Shanghai and other areas of China.

I interviewed Vogel many times. For the first few articles, he surprised me by asking to read them before they were published, to ensure he was quoted accurately.

However, he never asked for any changes. In one typical email, he wrote, "Dear Weihua, You quoted me accurately, and I liked your article. I appreciate your sending it to me. I am pleased to cooperate with journalists when they report me accurately. Ezra Vogel."

I last saw Vogel in late March 2018 at the Association of Asian Studies Annual Conference at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel just across the street from my apartment in Washington. It was about 10 weeks before I completed my posting in the US.

I was walking toward the hotel room of Thomas Rawski, a leading scholar on the Chinese economy at the University of Pittsburgh, for an interview appointment when a door I was passing suddenly opened.

There stood Vogel, looking at me with a kind smile and offering greetings.

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