Ezra F. Vogel, an eminent scholar of East Asia at Harvard University whose writings about modern politics and society in China and Japan helped shape how the world understood the rise of those two Asian powers, died on Sunday in Cambridge, Mass. He was 90.
The death, in a hospital, was confirmed by his son Steven, who said the cause was complications of surgery.
In 1979, as Japan was ascending as an economic power, Professor Vogel published the book “Japan as Number One: Lessons for America.” It was a provocative title for a nuanced book, in which he outlined in no-nonsense prose how and why Japan had caught up with, and in some cases surpassed, the United States. Among the reasons he cited were Japan’s ability to govern and educate its citizens efficiently and to control crime.
Two decades and several books later, Professor Vogel embarked on a comprehensive survey examining the economic transformation of yet another ascendant Asian superpower: China.
“In 2000, when I was thinking about what book to write to help Americans understand what was going on in China, I thought the most important thing was this new policy starting in December ’78 of opening and reform,” he recalled in a lecture last year at Ohio Wesleyan University, his alma mater. “I felt the way to describe that was to tell the story of the leader who led that.”
The result was an 876-page book about Deng Xiaoping, one of the most in-depth biographies to date of the pragmatic leader who shepherded China out of the chaos of the Mao years and pushed through reforms that helped lift hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty. Published in 2011, “Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China” drew on a decade of research and interviews with the notoriously private children of key Communist Party figures like Zhao Ziyang, Hu Yaobang and Deng himself. Professor Vogel also interviewed the former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin.
The book won the 2012 Lionel Gelber Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography, among other honors. But it also drew criticism from some who said Professor Vogel had been too forgiving in his assessment of Deng, including of the leader’s role in the bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters around Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
Professor Vogel defended his work in a 2011 interview with The New York Times. “This is unfair, because in some places I’m very critical,” he said. “A lot of Americans’ view of Deng is so colored by Tiananmen Square. They think it was horrible. I have the same view. But it’s the responsibility of a scholar to have an objective view.”
Both “Japan as Number One” and “Deng Xiaoping” had been written with American readers in mind, and both sold well in the United States. But it was with Japanese and Chinese readers abroad that the books most resonated: Professor Vogel had held up a mirror to their countries, allowing them to examine the transformation of their…
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