Small Man, Big Country: Ezra Vogel Talks Deng Xiaoping

February 7, 2012 • Blogs, The World at Yale • Views: 1502

By Rachel Brown:

Although slight in physical stature (measuring only five feet tall), Deng Xiaoping exerted an outsize influence on China’s recent history and development. Although he never held the highest titles in Chinese politics, Deng served as China’s primary leader from 1978 until 1992 and guided the country through the turbulent era following the death of Mao Zedong.

On February 6, in a talk entitled “Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China,” Ezra Vogel, author of a recent biography of Deng and the Henry Ford II Research Professor Emeritus in the Social Sciences at Harvard University, addressed the crucial role that Deng played in opening China to the rest of the world. The span of Deng’s life is far too broad to cover in a 90-minute lecture (Vogel’s book is more than 900 pages), so Vogel focused on Deng’s international travels and his contacts with foreign leaders.

Deng Xiaoping watches China from one of the billboards his policies enabled. (sstmmd99/Flickr Creative Commons).

Deng’s international exposure began at age 16, when he traveled to France as part of a work-study program. During this time he worked in multiple low-paying jobs and became involved in political activities, including joining the Chinese Communist Youth League in Europe, of which future Chinese leader Zhou Enlai was also a member. Vogel began his talk by discussing the impact of Deng’s time in France, and returned to this topic towards the end of the lecture before noting that most members of the current Chinese leadership do not have comparable experience living abroad.

Deng repeatedly played crucial roles in Chinese foreign policy throughout his complex political career (he was purged from the Communist Party multiple times due to conflicts with Mao). In particular, Vogel noted Deng’s 1963 trip to Moscow, when he was dispatched by Mao to effectively sever Sino-Soviet relations, and Deng’s 1974 speech at the United Nations, one of the first presentations of China as a leader of third-world nations.

According to Vogel, as Deng began to reform China after Mao’s death, he placed a particular emphasis on improving education, science, and technology. Deng recognized that foreign nations, particularly the U.S. and Japan, could provide crucial knowledge in these fields and worked to repair relations with these countries. For example, during a 1978 trip to Japan, Deng toured a steel plant that became a model for China’s first modern steel factory. Following the normalization of U.S.-China diplomatic relations in 1979, Deng also traveled to the U.S. where, among other excursions, he visited the White House and a Ford factory. He also attended a rodeo in Texas, where an iconic photograph of Deng sporting a cowboy hat was taken. Vogel explained that this image captured both the American notion that Deng, while a Communist, was a friendly leader the U.S. could work with, and showed Chinese citizens that it was acceptable to enjoy aspects of American culture.

Throughout his talk, Vogel emphasized Deng’s remarkably good relationships with a diverse array of foreign leaders, including Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore. While he offered some criticism of Deng’s handling of events surrounding the Tiananmen Square incident, Vogel’s depiction of Deng was largely positive and in response to a question about whether great men really shape historical events, Vogel answered that “in this case, it was a case where a man made history.”

Rachel Brown ’15 is a freshman in Saybrook College. Contact her at

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