Harvard’s Vogel: Deng Would Be Delighted

April 30, 2012

The new biography on Deng by Harvard’s Ezra Vogel is must-reading for any investor interested in China.


The speed of China’s transition from a largely agrarian society to an industrial giant is unprecedented in human history. “Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China,” by Ezra Vogel, the Harvard University social sciences professor emeritus, tells the story of Deng’s reforms and how they paved the way for China to become the world’s second-largest economy. Vogel’s book, a 2011 National Book Critics Award Finalist, has been named a “Best Book of 2011” by the Washington Post, The Economist and the Financial Times. Reviewers have hailed the biography for its insights into a man so driven and focused on the future that he was nicknamed the “Steel Factory.” IndexUniverse.com Correspondent Alex Ulam caught up with Vogel recently to talk about the book, Deng’s legacy and China’s current economic challenges.


Ulam: Your book describes how a group of U.S. professors visited China after the Cultural Revolution and one of them said that the country’s top educational institutions were at the level of a junior technical college in the U.S.

Vogel: I was on that delegation. And it was Victor Weisskopf, MIT’s famous professor, who said that. He told that to me as we were going around. It was at Peking University, 1973, when we were visiting the place. And it was so cold and dominated by worker, peasant and soldier classes. Admittance was not by examination; it was strictly by recommendation. And the quality of education was unbelievably low.

Ulam: What were Deng’s key initiatives in turning around the country?

Vogel: Deng was just absolutely insistent on opening up the world to Chinese study. It had been closed before that. So as you know, now over 1 million have gone to abroad since 1978, but that was new in 1978 when Deng started it.

I would say opening markets, allowing foreigners to come in, sending students abroad and de-collectivization are probably the most important changes that Deng introduced.

Ulam: Has Deng’s legacy now trumped that of Mao’s?

Vogel: Oh absolutely. Mao has been elevated and put into a museum. The flags fly, and the mottos and the sayings are Mao’s, but the content and what’s really happening is Deng’s. So there is still an official reverence for Mao that’s not translated into reality. They have his picture at Tiananmen, where his body lies, and some people can go see it. The ultimate triumph of capitalism in that the little Mao buttons and books and all kinds of things now are sold on markets, which is in a way the ultimate irony, and the ultimate deceit of what Mao really stood for, even though his name is officially revered.

Ulam: So are Chinese leaders still following the concept of socialism with Chinese characteristics that Deng promoted?

Vogel: Well, what Deng did was invent a phrase that was sufficiently flexible that it could be adapted to what people wanted to use it for. And I think that Deng’s followers have basically done the same thing. And if new things come, and new adaptations come, they can do that and still call it “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

It was a wonderful phrase that allowed him to move ahead in reality without thoroughly alienating the Old Guard.



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