Ezra Vogel: On the Leadership of Xi Jinping

Commemorative post

Ashley Esarey - 22 December 2021



Ezra Vogel, path breaking scholar of East Asia and author of numerous books, passed away one year ago. A towering scholar of China and Japan at Harvard University, where he worked for four decades prior to his retirement from teaching in 2000, Professor Vogel remained an active researcher past his 90th birthday. One of his last publications appeared in a 2021 special issue of the Journal of Contemporary China on the “The Leadership of Xi Jinping: A Dengist Perspective,” co-edited by myself and Rongbin Han.

Dr. Vogel’s Journal of Contemporary China article is a revised version of a keynote address that he gave at a webinar hosted by the University of Alberta China Institute, titled “Xi Jinping Effect in China and Beyond.” The address is particularly illuminating, as the two leaders seem to be polar opposites in many respects: For example, Deng has been associated with the in-direct exercise of authority, decentralizing policies, and support for entrepreneurship, whereas Xi is associated with highly personalized leadership, political centralization, and Communist Party involvement in business decisions.

Ezra Vogel argued that despite common assertions that Xi Jinping is the most powerful leader since Mao, Deng Xiaoping was the more authoritative and transformational figure.

China Matters - the China Institute podcast · Ezra Vogel - Clip 1

In addition, whereas Xi’s China has become known for dramatically worsening relations with democracies around the world, Deng Xiaoping led China toward a great expansion of opportunities for international cooperation and improved foreign relations.

China Matters - the China Institute podcast · Ezra Vogel - Clip 2

The different experiences of Deng and Xi prior to becoming China’s top leader, Professor Vogel maintained, help to explain their divergent leadership styles. Deng had extensive experience as a military leader in the Chinese Civil War, ran the Chinese Communist Party for a decade as General Secretary, and served as Mao’s envoy in foreign affairs. Xi Jinping had served as Party leader of key provinces and Shanghai, but had much less experience in central government or national Party work.

China Matters - the China Institute podcast · Ezral Vogel - Clip 3

China was at a very different place in terms of development and international clout during the times of the respective leaders. Still, Professor Vogel saw Deng and Xi as facing a common challenge: How do you exercise central authority in such a large and complex society? 

China Matters - the China Institute podcast · Ezra Vogel - Clip 4

While debates about Xi Jinping's political leadership will continue, Ezra Vogel’s contributions to such conversations and to China Studies, more generally, will be greatly missed. For further reflection on Professor Vogel’s life and impressive career, including the reminiscences of more than 150 colleagues, friends, and former students, see Martin K. Whyte and Mary C. Brinton, eds., Remembering Ezra Vogel, Harvard Asia Center Publications Program, Cambridge, MA (forthcoming, Fall 2022).


 "The Xi Jinping Effect" - In China and Beyond