// editor's note //
China, Academic Freedom, and the Failure of Columbia’s Global Program
Max Daniel and Joshua Fattal
This past October Peking University fired Xia Yeliang, an economics professor and vocal supporter of democracy and human rights, citing “teaching evaluation scores” that were among “the lowest of the entire university.” Despite the university’s claim, there is no precedent for a dismissal based on academic performance; in fact, a firing on these grounds hasn’t occurred at Peking in the past 30 years. Along with verbal threats and warnings Xia received prior to his dismissal, and the widespread political arrests in China, this development casts serious doubts on the claims made by Peking University and the state-run press. Both Xia and Western critics argue that the purged scholar’s record of advocating for liberal government reforms (he helped draft the pro-democracy Charter 08 manifesto) and his associations with political dissidents are the true motivations behind the university’s decision. What makes this particular case of political suppression unique, however, are the strong ties Peking University has with American universities, Columbia among them. However, few of these advocates for academic freedom have found the courage to speak in support of Professor Xia, a man who was almost certainly fired for promoting democracy in a single-party, Communist nation. At The Current, our hope is that Columbia’s administration and faculty will take seriously the threats to academic freedom hounding their colleagues in China, and incorporate this concern in our university’s interactions with Peking and other institutions.
It should be noted that much has improved in the way of civil liberties and democratic rights in the single-party communist country since Mao’s reign. Still, present threats to academic freedom and public criticism in China, as in Prof. Xia’s case, are shockingly common. In the past several years, especially in the months since President Xi Jinping took office in March, China has seen a crackdown on public figures such as artists, businessmen, and academics who are vocally outspoken against the Chinese government. Jiao Guobiao, a journalist who was an associate professor at Peking University, was dismissed in 2004 after he criticized the government’s Central Propaganda Department. In 2011, Ai Weiwei, the internationally acclaimed Chinese artist, architect, and activist, was held in police custody for 81 days without charges on suspicion of “economic crimes.” The prominent human rights activist Liu Xiaobo was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 11 years in jail for leading the creation of a manifesto on human rights – and subsequently won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize while in prison. The list goes on. Professor Xia’s dilemma is, unfortunately, only the most recent example of Beijing’s actions against academic freedom and free speech.
The political and economic relationships between China and the United States rest on an easily upset scale, making substantive reproaches and actions from the US government on behalf of human rights abuses unlikely and unwise. Yet the power balance between Western and Chinese academic institutions is more fluid and mutually beneficial. The international reach and global brand of institutions like Columbia – which are manifest in its Global Centers initiative and different cooperative ventures with universities abroad – ensure invaluable cross-cultural encounters and the formation of a rich and productive international academic network. Likewise, China’s government-run Confucius Institutes (one of which was recently established at Columbia last April) engage in similar ventures at universities around the world. There are plenty of good reasons —moral, academic, cultural, economic — for these institutional exchanges. In fact, Professor Xia, Ai Weiwei, and Liu Xiaobo (who taught at Columbia in 1989) all received some type of higher education in the West. These prominent figures, along with many other intellectual, economic, and academic leaders in China, have gone through Western universities like Columbia, which is reflective of the prestige and respect these institutions have in their home country. But few of these places have actively stood up for or identified with the dissidents that have benefited from their education and academic community.
To date, one of the only American institutions that has responded to Prof. Xia’s case is Wellesley College, which established a partnership with Peking University this past spring. Nearly 40% of Wellesley’s faculty signed a petition in support of Professor Xia, and are now questioning their relationship with Peking because of Xia’s spurious dismissal. Many signatories are now looking to offer him a position as a visiting scholar for the school’s Freedom Project. Even Wellesley president H. Kim Bottomly has issued a statement supporting bringing Xia to campus, although it is vague and diplomatic, and is careful not to ascribe political motivations to Peking University’s decision. Yet by inviting Xia to their campus, it seems as if President Bottomly is implicitly refuting Peking’s claim of his poor academic performance. If Wellesley’s faculty can be outspoken in their support of a distressed dissident like Xia Yeliang, why doesn’t Columbia — a beacon of academic freedom, with an unmatched level of global influence and prestige — do something similar?
It is perhaps too much to ask that the university issue a critical response at an institutional level. Concerned about upsetting the Law School’s recently cemented exchange program with Peking University, as well as running the risk of deterring other current and future cooperative engagements with China, it is understandable that Columbia is reluctant to speak out. Yet, our faculty should sympathize with dissidents like Xia who are fired because of their political views and outspokenness. It should be expected that our admired teachers and mentors acknowledge and stand up for those activists who are part of the university family, like Liu Xiaobo and Wang Gongquan —a successful Chinese businessman and visiting professor at Columbia a few years ago, who was recently arrested for petitioning the release of a political dissident. With the influence of a university like Columbia, voicing concern about academic freedom abroad does not need to take the shape of rescinding partnerships or making threats to proposed funding. By speaking out in favor of greater academic freedom in Chinese universities with which we enjoy fruitful relationships and by supporting reform-minded dissidents, Columbia can live up to its core values while proving the efficacy of its global outreach, which has impacted the careers of many of those in China acting on the ground. This is a remarkably appropriate opportunity for President Lee Bollinger, a champion of Columbia’s international growth and an esteemed scholar of the First Amendment and free speech, to say something. When our university checks its values at the door of better public relations, they insult those who care about Columbia, believe in academic freedom, and support human rights in China.
Thus far, however, Columbia has failed to act at the institutional level or through any strong faculty voice. The Current reached out to the office of Columbia’s Global Centers and members of the administration, and received an unsolicited message from Columbia’s Office of Communications and Public Affairs in response. “Along with freedom of speech and thought, academic freedom remains our highest priority, and we will always be vigilant in protecting these core values. In our view, any report of the infringement of academic freedom warrants the utmost scrutiny,” the statement read. Why has Columbia not done anything publicly to protect or advocate for this “highest priority” when threatened at places like Peking University, a Columbia partner? “The limited physical scale of Columbia’s presence in each foreign locale and the flexibility inherent in this model supports our institutional independence and our commitment to academic freedom,” the statement concludes. It would appear as if Columbia recognizes the limits placed on academic freedom abroad, and so maintains a “flexible” model that allows Columbia to maintain relationships with institutions which do not live up to its own academic standard. In essence, Columbia has set up the system so that it can turn a blind eye when a case like Professor Xia’s arises. Commitment to academic freedom seems to stop where the checkbook does.
Andrew Nathan, a professor of political science at Columbia who specializes in Chinese politics and human rights and serves as a board member for Freedom House and Human Rights in China, told The Current that he doesn’t see “a need for Columbia as an institution to do anything about the Xia case.” He distinguished between cases of academic freedom that involve Columbia directly and the Peking-Xia controversy that does not directly affect Columbia. He continued, “as for Columbia faculty, each person should work to protect academic freedom here at home, in China, around the world, according to his/her views on the case, connections, opportunities, etc.” Columbia’s silence marks a situation where neither the administration or faculty have taken any kind of stand in the face of a breach in academic freedom at an institution with whom Columbia has a relationship. Certainly, there are reasons for their failure to respond or challenge Peking’s official line on Xia, as we mention above. Yet they are grounded in fear: fear of the security and freedom (ironically) of our faculty and students abroad and fear for the stability of institutional and academic exchange.
The Current recognizes the value of maintaining engagement with Peking University; indeed, the only way to influence the climate of Columbia’s Chinese institutional partners is to remain academically engaged with them and set an example. At the same time, this kind of violation of academic freedom at such a prestigious university as Peking warrants a public response, such as Wellesley’s, by more institutions of Columbia’s caliber and reputation. Columbia’s legacy can only benefit from supporting academic freedom of the highest kind in its pursuit of a global reach abroad. As students dedicated to the transformative power of the written word, especially when it champions free speech and academic freedom, The Current calls on Columbia and its faculty to account for their silence.