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Passing of Ezra Vogel a call of renewed US-China scholar exchanges

Global Times 2020-12-21

Ezra Vogel, a professor emeritus at Harvard University and leading US scholar on East Asian affairs, passed away at the age of 90 on Sunday. A growing number of scholars, both Chinese and American, voiced their sadness over the news, as they believe they have lost one major supporter of sanity and balance in US thinking about China.

As an expert on China, Vogel represents those who understand, respect and are willing to communicate with China. He never showed 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. He focused on how China designed its own system and development strategies according to its needs.

He proactively advocated the US to interact with China. In the 1990s, there had been a major debate in the US on China's emergence, with the question in dispute being whether to contain China. At that time, Vogel was director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, a post-graduate research center promoting the study of modern and contemporary China from a social science perspective. He supported engagement policy toward China and came to China in person with his team to exchange views with Chinese academics.

When US President Donald Trump's administration jeopardized people-to-people exchanges with China, he showed strong opposition. That's why he was one of the main drafters of the open letter, "China is not an enemy," written to the US government and Congress in early July.

Young American researchers who now study China have undergone great changes in their mind-sets. Quite a few of them now observe China as a rival, which is very different from Vogel's research. This mirrors a generational change in US' China studies programs. At a time when the US needs objectivity and rationality the most in its China policy, Vogel's passing brings an incredible, irretrievable loss.

During the Xiangshan Forum in Beijing in early December, Vogel suggested that the US admit China's contributions to the world and treat it fairly. It is not known whether the US government will accept his advice. After all, Vogel was a scholar, not a policy advisor like Henry Kissinger. But he was a heavyweight expert, so his voice will at least be taken seriously.

The last time I met Vogel was on a webinar initiated by Harvard University over the US presidential elections and US East Asia ties. I can feel he was delighted about the outcome of the presidential election with Joe Biden's win. He said it was an opportunity to turn the tide from all the damages done to China-US relations brought about by the Trump administration. It will open chances for both sides to take proactive efforts to improve bilateral ties.

Vogel believed that there was no consensus that US engagement with China had failed. His open letter "China is not an enemy" is a clear proof. Another piece of commentary penned by him entitled, US policies are pushing our friends in China toward anti-American nationalism, also articulated his views. "How would we feel if we were in the position of those tens of thousands of Chinese who had returned home and worked hard to prepare China for better adherence to international rules and who then read that prominent Americans claim that engagement had failed?" he asked. He also wrote that some Americans are ignorant of their sacrifices for international rules and are pushing them toward anti-American nationalism.  

In general, US scholars' attitude toward China will keep turning negative in the future. Yet it does not mean that there where will be no room to make new and improved changes. China should increase its communications with the US to prove itself, and to break Americans' biases through China's development and contributions to the world.

Moreover, there are still rational persons among US China scholars who treat China and China-US ties with positive perspectives. Take, for example, Michael D. Swaine, director of the East Asia Program at Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, and Taylor Fravel, Arthur and Ruth Sloan professor of Political Science and director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who were also co-authors of "China is not an enemy."

Nevertheless, it will be difficult for us to see another rational and heavyweight figure like Vogel in US academic circles in the future.

Professor Wu Xinbo is  Dean of the Institute of International Studies and Director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University.

Source: Global Times