January 24, 2007: Features


(James Steinberg)

Rules of engagement
As American universities rush to China, how much should they push on issues of free expression and human rights?

By Mark F. Bernstein ’83

The whole world, it seems, is rushing to engage with China. Shaomin Li *88, however, knows to be wary of getting too close.

In February 2001, Li, a naturalized American citizen and, at the time, a professor of business at City University of Hong Kong, was arrested while visiting Shenzhen, a city just over the Chinese border with Hong Kong. The U.S. consulate was able to tell Li’s wife only that he had been detained in an unspecified place for an unspecified crime.

Li had written about Taiwan-China relations and had received financial support for his research from Taiwanese foundations. To many in the West, Li was a political prisoner, the victim of a campaign by the Chinese government to harass and silence critics of the regime. The House of Representatives voted unanimously to call on President Bush to seek his release and that of other academics detained in China. Harold Shapiro *64, then Princeton’s president, wrote a letter to then-Chinese president Jiang Zemin on Li’s behalf, and more than 250 Princeton students and faculty members — along with other scholars — signed a petition calling for his release and staged a rally at Reunions.

Chinese officials interrogated Li for five months before charging him as a Taiwanese spy. After a three-hour trial, he was convicted and deported.

Whether the government’s decision to expel Li rather than imprison him was the result of Western pressure is an unanswered question. Many observers of the case believe the pressure from academia helped — after all, they say, the Chinese need access to top Western universities, particularly in the sciences, if their economy is to grow. Li himself believes that universities, no less than governments, have influence, especially if they work together. “The Chinese don’t want to be isolated,” says Li, who is now a professor of management at Old Dominion University in Virginia. “They can’t afford to go back to the Maoist era. If Princeton, Harvard [and other Western universities] all hold a clear principle to China on human rights and democracy, then the Chinese regime would be forced to listen.”

For universities and business alike, the roaring Chinese market — with a population of 1.3 billion and a $2.26 trillion economy that grows by almost 10 percent each year — is too lucrative an opportunity to miss. China is now the world’s second-largest economy — a huge potential source of customers for businesses and of top students for American universities. That’s good, says the U.S. government, which believes that Chinese who study in America and other Western democracies — or have contact with American-style capitalism at home — will come to embrace Western values. But others question whether the price of engaging China is compromise on important values.

“Princeton should ask itself, ‘What am I here for?’” Ying-shih Yu suggests about the University’s growing role in China. “If we are there for truth, pursue truth no matter what the cost is.” Yu, a Chinese native, is the Gordon Wu ’58 Professor of Chinese Studies emeritus, and recently the co-winner of the John W. Kluge Prize for the Study of Humanity. He is also perhaps the most widely read contemporary historian writing in Chinese — a scholar of great influence in both the East and West — and is well known for his support for the Chinese democracy movement. He has been a particular supporter of the young activists who left their homeland after the suppression of protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and still refuses to travel to China because of his dislike for the Communist regime.

“Human dignity,” he says, “is a basic right. The Chinese have been searching for freedom throughout their history.” Yu, however, is loath to prescribe specific steps that Western universities or academics should take in support of the pursuit of truth, calling it a matter for each person to judge for himself or herself.

In 2004, Shirley Tilghman became the first Princeton president to visit China, a trip made with the object of increasing the University’s visibility in a country that is increasingly a source of students. During three whirlwind days in the country — part of a wider Asian tour in which she was accompanied by Dean of the Graduate College William Russel, Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye, and other top University officials — Tilghman met with Princeton alumni, the American ambassador, and Chinese officials and educators. She also toured a stem cell research laboratory and taped several interviews.

The goal of the trip was “to encourage excellent students from China to consider studying at Princeton and to encourage scholarly exchange,” says Robert K. Durkee ’69, Princeton’s vice president and secretary. Since Tilghman’s journey, several other University officials have made trips, including representatives of the undergraduate admission office; Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School; and Maria Klawe, then the dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Indeed, China has seen a parade of American university presidents in recent years. No American university tops Yale in its courtship of the Chinese, however; that university participates in 80 academic collaborations with China and maintains established partnerships with 45 Chinese universities, government agencies, and research institutions. Chinese president Hu Jintao spoke at Yale in 2006, and shortly afterward the Chinese government made the university one of only 40 foreign institutions permitted to buy highly restricted but very valuable “A-shares” in Chinese businesses. (Princeton is considering whether to apply for that status, according to Andrew Golden, the president of Princo, Princeton’s investment arm.)

Compared to Yale, certainly, Princeton’s presence in China is relatively small. Princeton’s principal presence in China is Princeton-in-Beijing, which for the last 14 years has provided an intensive Chinese language study program hosted by Beijing Normal University. The Tibet Site Seminar, a four-year project that Princeton hosts, will take a team of Ph.D. students to study in Tibet next summer. And the Princeton-Harvard China & the World Program, a joint undertaking established in 2005, will offer fellowships to help promote the study of China in the United States (although it will not have a formal presence in China). Among other subjects, the program will promote study of “China’s responses to the diffusion of global norms.”

Western universities are not used to working in a culture that restricts what can be said or taught. How should they respond to attempts to restrict their own freedom of expression when acting in China? Is it part of their mission to try to spread democratic values? Should Western universities acquiesce in restrictions on intellectual freedoms by the Chinese government as a cost of doing business there? Do they exert more influence over Chinese behavior by continued and expanded engagement — or by reproach and protest?

In 1992, when Professor of East Asian Studies C.P. Chou, co-director of the highly regarded Princeton-in-Beijing language program, first presented to Chinese authorities the textbook he proposed to use, the officials physically tore out the preface, epilogue, a cartoon, and some articles. In 2000, Chou was told to modify another textbook because it was thought to portray the country in an unflattering light. Chou eventually learned that someone at Beijing Normal University had criticized the book.

In this case, the program cooperated and removed the offending pages. “It was a difficult decision,” Chou says, “but sometimes I have to say ‘yes’ [to acceding to Chinese demands].” While Chou says he was willing to make these deletions, he says he would refuse to teach anything that is untrue, calling that sort of act the spreading of propaganda.

Chou’s co-director, Professor of East Asian Studies Perry Link, takes a similar view. “Yes, it was worth toeing the line” in this instance, he says. “I don’t mind ripping a few pages out of a textbook in order to have a whole Chinese language program.” He adds that he also thinks such restrictions are self-defeating from the government’s standpoint. “Whenever you censor a textbook and tear pages out, students become super-interested” in the excised material, he says, “so it’s counterproductive.”

Pages torn from books have not been the only problem for Princeton-in-Beijing. In 1996, Link was denied entry to China after years of traveling there, and has not been able to obtain a visa since. Although he never received an explanation for his blacklisting, Link believes it is due to his role in helping a noted Chinese dissident and his wife escape to the U.S. embassy in Beijing immediately after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Such blacklisting, he says, is not uncommon and has a “vague intimidating effect” on those studying China, including the fact that researchers worry about getting on the blacklist and so shy away from working on or speaking out on topics that Chinese authorities might find offensive. The graduate students who helped Link and his co-editor Andrew Nathan, at Columbia University, translate documents for a book about the massacre, The Tiananmen Papers, for example, did not want their names associated with the book — a heavy price for a young scholar to pay in the publication-centered world of academe. “How healthy is democratic theory when the China case is avoided or handled with kid gloves?” Link asks.

Link took President Tilghman to task for not raising the subject of his blacklisting with Chinese officials while on her high-profile trip to China in 2004, though she did raise the issue of the inability of Chinese students to obtain American visas due to post-9/11 restrictions. That view is shared by Bruce Gilley *06, the author of China’s Democratic Future, who believes that the blacklisting of China-studies scholars, and the arrest of Chinese academics, are important topics for American university leaders, including those at Princeton, to raise. “What [not addressing the topic] says to China is that they don’t have to worry about it,” Gilley says. “Princeton hasn’t made academic freedom [in China] a top priority. They just haven’t.”

Since the Tiananmen Square crackdown, there have been few instances in which Western universities or scholarly organizations have cut back on their engagement with China as a means of protesting Chinese human-rights abuses. Yet professor Stanley Katz, the director of the Princeton University Center for Arts and Cultural Policy and president emeritus of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), says that even those actions were unwise. Katz, who was in Shanghai on his way to Beijing at the time of the 1989 uprising, recalls that he was “appalled” to learn that the National Academy of Sciences was cutting off ties to China in protest. Meeting immediately upon his return with the president of the NAS, Katz argued that disengagement with China was “the last thing we ought to be doing because the people we care about there are the ones most at risk.” (The NAS re-established ties with China two years later.)

Katz, who now chairs an ACLS group working to extend scholarly ties to Cuba, argues that while it may be cathartic to curtail relations with an unfriendly government as a form of protest, it is usually counterproductive. “I always prefer to err on the side of cooperation,” he says, and suggests that one reason Cuba remains a repressive regime is because the longstanding U.S. trade embargo has prevented the pollination of democratic ideas.

Sociology professor Gilbert Rozman, who has written extensively about contemporary Chinese and Asian culture, also argues that American engagement in China is far more beneficial — to both countries — than protests that could curtail the relationship. He says this even though he himself has been denied an entry visa to China since 2002; as with Link, he has received no explanation. Nevertheless, citing China’s potential strategic importance in international affairs, he says: “Gaining Chinese cooperation on nuclear issues [with respect to proliferation in North Korea] is far more important than specific human-rights abuses.”

Princeton officials believe that chastising the Chinese government about Link’s blacklisting, and about academic freedom in general, would have been unproductive and harmful, embarrassing the Chinese and hardening their position. Durkee says Tilghman did not speak out about Link’s blacklisting during her China trip because University officials had been advised beforehand that the only way to make progress on such issues was by discussions “at the very highest levels of the Chinese government.” He says that Tilghman did raise the issues with the U.S. ambassador, who could raise it with the Chinese, but that Princeton has not been told if any action was taken. Link remains on the blacklist.

“You always have to start these conversations [with the Chinese] by emphasizing that fundamentally, [Princeton] is about teaching and research,” Durkee says. “We certainly hope that, over time, through engagement in teaching and research, we would have a positive impact on freedom in China, both through the Chinese students who come here and through the active programs we have there.” And he notes that Princeton has engaged China in other ways. In 1989, with a grant from John Elliott ’51, who died in 1997, Princeton hosted 26 Chinese students who had fled the country following the Tiananmen Square massacre. Prince-ton is also a member of the Fair Labor Association, a consortium of universities that monitors companies to ensure that they do not employ sweatshop labor.

Others also suggest that a heavy-handed approach with China simply would not work. “There’s an attitude from the U.S. side that’s self-righteous ... like we’re always doing something right,” says Chou. “We should try to know more about them, how their system works” before making prescriptions, he counsels, noting that China’s history and traditions are unlike those of the United States.

“I think the proper role for a university is to aggressively engage scholars for collaborative research and teaching,” says Eva Lerner-Lam ’76, a transportation consultant who has worked with Chinese businesses and lives part-time in Beijing. “If you’re invited by a foreign university, they have their own rules. If you don’t like it, you can turn around and go back. It’s certainly appropriate for us to expose [human-rights abuses]. But to influence it — I don’t know that that’s our role.”

Other Western organizations — including companies that focus on information and communications technology — have faced similar dilemmas in dealing with free expression in China. Last summer, Google took flak for its decision to allow the Chinese government to censor information on its Web browser. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last winter, Google CEO Eric Schmidt ’76 defended the company’s actions: “We concluded that although we weren’t wild about the restrictions, it was even worse to not try to serve those users at all.”

YoungSuk Chi ’83, vice chairman of the publishing company Elsevier, recalls his role as chairman of Random House Asia in publishing Robert L. Kuhn’s 2005 book, The Man Who Changed China, a biography of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin. Both inside and outside the company, there were complaints that the book inevitably would be a propaganda piece, as Kuhn would have the cooperation of former and current Chinese officials but would be limited in the type of research he could conduct. Nonetheless, Chi approved the project, believing that a less-than-comprehensive book was better than none at all. “What I want is a seat at the table, to be able to discuss these issues,” says Chi, the son of Korean diplomats. “I value the ability to sit at the table too much to jeopardize the ability to be invited.”

One businessman who has been successful in engaging the Chinese on human-rights issues is John Kamm ’72, a former vice president of the Occidental Chemical Co. who in 1991 founded the Dui Hua foundation (the word means “dialogue” in Chinese), which is dedicated to improving human rights in China. In particular, Kamm and the foundation work to obtain information about Chinese political prisoners; he believes that the foundation has assisted approximately 400 prisoners. The secret, Kamm argues, is not whether pressure is applied, but how it is applied. Success in dealing with China requires a balance between engagement and pressure — what he calls “walking the tightrope,” or what a New York Times reporter more colorfully called the practice of “tactical obsequiousness,” like the stroking and flattering of Chinese counterparts. That job, Kamm believes, is better suited to businessmen than to academics. “Business types,” he tells PAW, “have to sell really hard things. It’s hard to sell the Chinese government on releasing political prisoners. ... I’m a little more skeptical about my friends in the academic community being able to walk that tightrope.”

For all their efforts in China, it seems likely that American universities will exercise their greatest influence over the Chinese who travel to this country to study. Chinese students at Princeton learn lessons about freedom of conscience and freedom of inquiry that they then take back home with them, supporters of engagement insist. Writing in the December 2006 issue of The Atlantic, James Fallows marveled at the cadre of young Chinese who have gone back to work in their own country after studying in the United States. “From being in the United States, many of them learned ... many traits still very difficult to cultivate in China itself. These include professional managerial skills; the idea of open democratic debate, even with one’s elders; techniques for funding start-up firms and other organizational structures that encourage innovation; and a sense that bribery, petty or grand-scale, is at least in principle wrong.”

That’s what American university leaders want to see. “I recognize that people here have a lot more freedom” than do people in China, says Shuyang Pan, a Princeton graduate student in chemical engineering and president of the Association of Chinese Students and Scholars, a nationwide organization that some believe is supported by the Beijing government. But he continues: Political freedom is better suited to a wealthy, well-educated country such as the United States than to China, which still has a large agricultural and illiterate population. “They [Chinese citizens] would just listen to whatever people told them,” Pan says, “and that would cause chaos.”

Pan says he intends to return to China after finishing his work here. But when it is suggested that studying in the United States has given him a greater appreciation of democracy, he is quick to correct that mischaracterization. “I didn’t say I had a greater appreciation of it,” he insists. “I said I had a greater understanding.” end of article

Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.



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