Though Yale President Richard Levin, who has publicly pushed for greater engagement with China, gave Chinese President Hu Jintao a warm reception before his Friday speech, faculty and students at Yale have continued to criticize the developing country’s record on human rights and what it means for the global community.
One of the concerns most frequently stated by faculty and students who watched Hu’s speech — either in Sprague Hall or on television throughout campus — was that he largely ignored issues of human rights in his home country. Although some who watched the speech said such changes will come with time and economic growth in China, others said the social reforms cannot wait for the nation’s power to grow.
“China can be and must be a global leader, but only if they play by global rules,” Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh said at a faculty panel in Battell Chapel following Hu’s speech. “You can’t be a 21st century leader with 19th century attitudes toward human rights.”
Despite some recent increases in personal freedom, Koh said, most Chinese citizens still have little power to make decisions in their lives. He said there are five important points to remember when talking about human rights in China: strong censorship against freedom of expression and democratic participation; a deprivation of freedom of thought and religion; widespread and unlawful detention and torture; the use of forced labor and the refusal to allow unionization, and what he called “appalling” conditions in Tibet.
“You have to use every channel available to try to get them to change, and that means pushing from both the inside and the outside,” Koh said.
But sociology professor Deborah Davis, former chair of the Yale Council of East Asian Studies, said U.S. intervention is not the only way to enact reform in China. She said the Chinese are in the beginning stages of their own domestic revolution.
“Americans and other Westerners expect more of Chinese leaders than they did five years ago, and people expect more of Chinese citizens politically,” Davis said. “I don’t think anyone in the U.S. was surprised to see the mobilization of Chinese citizens in the streets of New Haven.”
Davis said the Chinese people are beginning to demand better and better-paying jobs, more accessible health care and a more transparent media that is not as heavily controlled by government censors.
Some students and professors who watched Hu’s speech said they predict that such social reforms will develop with China’s economic strength.
But some students said Hu’s view of the Chinese economy does not adequately address human rights issues. Chris Gibson ’09 said he disagrees with Hu’s assertion that a growing economy alone is evidence that the Chinese political system is working as it should.
Ishaan Tharoor ’06, who watched a telecast of Hu’s speech in the Hall of Graduate Studies, also said he was disappointed by Hu’s speech.
“Everything he said was assimilated into an eerie narrative of totalitarian civilization,” Tharoor said. “There was no trace of recognition of any economic problems or hardships, but Yale is, of course, not leaning on him to talk about that.”
Still, some listeners said they remain cautiously optimistic that Hu’s stated goals will become a reality.
“I think that Hu’s vision seemed to be a bit out of touch with some of the economic realities of his country,” David Myles MED ’09 said. “I’ll anxiously await to see if he follows through with some of the more progressive announcements he made.”
— Maggie Reid contributed to this report.