Ezra Vogel’s hallmarks will be continued

By Michael D. Swaine Source: Global Times Published: 2020/12/23 18:24:51

Ezra Vogel, Professor Emeritus at Harvard University Photo: VCG

Ezra Vogel was the epitome of what every policy-interested scholar of China and Japan should be. He was extremely well-versed in the history of both countries. He was an excellent researcher with the required language and inter-personal skills to draw critical information from his sources. He had a very logical and systematic approach to conducting research. He kept an open mind toward his research topics and let his research findings, not some pre-conceived assumptions or speculations, guide his conclusions. As a person, he was extremely gracious and humble, always looking to learn from others and mentor others without preaching to them. This trait, along with his knowledge, boundless energy and basic optimism, allowed him to develop a very broad array of contacts across the world. 

It is extremely difficult to find all these traits in one person, but Ezra had them. Many scholars and policy analysts would benefit hugely from emulating them; too often, they do not.

Many of Ezra's traits were exhibited in his treatment of young scholars. My own experience is one such example. I first met Ezra when I was a graduate student at Harvard, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He was of course by that time already very well known for his work on both China and Japan. I had read his pioneering study of Canton (Guangzhou) during the cultural revolution, and his work Japan as Number One. Ezra was at that time the head of the East Asia Studies Program and I taught several tutorials in that program and thus had many opportunities to interact with him. During my studies, I also began to focus on Japan, and Ezra and another scholar then at Harvard (Terry MacDougall) encouraged me to learn the Japanese language, which I did (to some level short of real fluency!). Ezra also encouraged me to finish my Ph.D. dissertation, as I had a tendency to do well more than what was needed. 

Through all these contacts with Ezra, he showed that he was a dedicated mentor and dispenser of good advice and insights helpful to my studies. Although I never took a course from Ezra (he taught in the Sociology Department and I was in the Government Department), I certainly was able to discuss China and Japan with him and learned much from the experience. He was always unfailingly polite and considerate, although at times firm in his advice! 

On the basis of this foundation, I maintained fairly close ties with Ezra after graduating, as did many other of his students. In fact, in recent years, as Sino-US relations worsened, I found myself having more regular contact with Ezra than in previous years. This was no doubt in part because we seemed to agree on many issues involving China, and because Ezra had become more interested in policy questions over time, and I am a policy analyst, not a university scholar. I think his brief period of time as a senior civilian intelligence officer in the US government also strengthened his interest in policy questions.

Ezra's view of US-China relations was both sophisticated and compelling. He of course recognized that China and the United States were very different in many ways but had both divergent and convergent interests. He did not think that the two countries were fated to be adversaries. I think he very much believed that individual leaders within governments make decisions not faceless "systems," and that they behave on the basis of many factors, not simply political ideology or narrow political interest. And he believed that leaders too often relied on incomplete or inaccurate information about the other side when making policy decisions. Hence I think he was a great believer in examining one's assumptions, learning how the other side really thinks, and taking into account the cultural and other factors that influence individual decisions. And he believed that for scholars of politics and society, conveying knowledge of all this to leaders was very important. 

At the same time, Ezra also believed in the value of contacts between our two countries at all levels of society. He was a huge believer in communication and learning first-hand from direct experience with as many individuals as possible. As a result, Ezra was a great supporter of US-China interactions at all levels, not just between officials. And he thought that the two countries could certainly craft a reasonable and mutually productive set of policies that avoided worst-case, zero-sum biases. Although he was a very strong supporter of the US-Japan alliance, I think he also believed that that alliance could actually contribute to a strong US-China relationship, if properly configured. He recognized that many officials and ordinary citizens in both Japan and China saw the value of maintaining constructive bilateral relations with one another and with the United States

As with many other scholars of China and Japan (myself included), Ezra was very troubled by the deteriorating Sino-US relationship and frustrated with the adversarial stance taken toward the other in both Beijing and Washington. While certainly not overlooking Beijing's contributions to the downward slide in relations, he was particularly perplexed by the excessively ideological, adversarial stance toward China taken in public by many politicians and policy officials in Washington. As a result, Ezra enthusiastically joined the efforts that I and other colleagues undertook to convey a more balanced, fact-based assessment of China to leaders and policy types in Washington. At the same time, he also worked with other scholars, such as Graham Allison, to increase dialogues with influential Chinese think tank analysts and scholars, in order both to learn their views and hopefully influence them to some extent. Although always polite, he would not shirk from telling his Chinese interlocutors when he thought they were wrong. 

Ezra's association with all these undertakings gave them additional gravitas and credibility. So, Ezra's passing will mean that a major, well-informed voice in support of Sino-US communication, restraint, and balance will be absent from the debates in both countries on the current and future state of the relationship, and its larger connection to East Asia. This is a great loss, especially when a new US administration is coming into office that might be more receptive to some of Ezra's views. But those of us who largely agree with Ezra will of course continue to argue in both China and the United States for the kind of reasonableness and understanding that were the hallmarks of his career and life. He would want it no other way.

The author is Director of the East Asia Program at Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft Washington, DC. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn 

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