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It rarely happens that an American author writes a book about Japan that becomes a bestseller there, and it is even rarer for the same author to repeat that success in China with a book about China. Over the course of his career, sociology professor emeritus Ezra F. Vogel accomplished both feats.
In a talk Tuesday afternoon, Vogel discussed the complexities of selling his 2011 book “Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China” in the Japanese and Chinese markets.
The lecture was part of a semester-long seminar series on U.S.-Japan relations sponsored by the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.
Much of the talk focused on the process of publishing Vogel’s book, which evaluates the long-term impact of Deng’s leadership role in China. The book chronicles Deng’s success in forging a new era for the country at the end of the last century.
China’s strict censorship policies posed significant challenges to Vogel in trying to publish his book.
“I learned a lot about [the censurers’] objectives while I worked to get the book published,” he said.
Vogel chose to first publish an uncensored version of the book in Hong Kong before he moved on to the mainland market.
“The propaganda department discouraged discussion of the book before the annual anniversary of the Tiananmen Protests to prevent demonstrations,” he said.
Though Chinese officials altered some parts of the book, Vogel said he was glad that more than 90 percent of the book’s original text remained.
He also expressed satisfaction at the book’s success in shifting conversations within China about the Tiananmen protests.
“My saying these things about Deng Xiaoping expanded the range of acceptable discourse,” he said. “The government may have decided that the book was a good way of releasing basic facts about the reaction to the protests.”
Vogel also discussed the differences between the Chinese and Japanese reactions to the book.
“Many of the questions people, and especially students, posed in China about the book’s content were very frank,” he said. “U.S. perceptions of China being a closed, authoritarian state undermine the vitality of these types of discussions there.”
He also noted, however, that popular reactions in Japan were vastly different.
“People reacted with less interest in Japan to Deng Xiaoping,” he said. “Instead, they were intensely concerned about current Sino-Japanese relations.”
Recent territorial disputes and military escalations over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands,a group of islands in the East China Sea that are claimed by both countries, contributed to this difference, according to Vogel.
As the 110th anniversary of Deng’s birth approaches next year, Vogel said he expects a renewed Chinese interest in the former leader.
“A lot of readers in China just want to know what’s going on,” he said.
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