Levin’s influence can free the press

Let the Olympic Fanfare sound! From the bells of Harkness Tower, that is.

It is already clear that Yale will be featured prominently at the 2008 Beijing Olympics: the School of Music at the Cultural Olympiad and the School of Management through the Yale Global Business Initiative. Add to that the contribution of sailor Stu McNay ’05 and potentially other Yale athletes to the Games themselves.

But as Yale is thrust onto the center stage of this international spectacle, it is also inevitably thrust into a heated debate over China’s respect for human rights and civil freedoms, both at the 2008 Games and as a matter of national policy going forward. This has manifested itself perhaps most prominently of late with regard to the country’s treatment of journalists.

Although the crisis is often underplayed, China has become increasingly hostile to the press under President Hu Jintao — a marked contrast to the regime of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin. To be sure, Nov. 8 marked National Journalists Day in China. But it was an empty, and gravely misleading, gesture for a government that presently sees at least 29 reporters in jail, more than any other country in the world.

This is reason enough to call for reform, but Yale is now uniquely responsible for joining the chorus of change: China’s media mistrust has seeped into the Olympics.

Earlier this month, reports revealed that China had resolved to compile a national database of journalists planning to cover the two-week event and that the Minister of Public Security is reviewing the list for potentially “troublesome” names, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Officials in Beijing have denied this much, but in the words of its Executive Director Joel Simon, China has “repeatedly failed to meet its Olympic pledges or take meaningful steps to improve press freedom.”

President Levin is in a unique position to effect change.

That’s not to say he should publicly — even through whispers — argue for reform; that would be ineffective, as the president of China will be averse to taking orders. But in private conversation, Yale’s president could suggest not only the early release of the journalists behind bars whose sentences expire this year — Li Changquing, Zhang Wei, Fan Yingshang and Hua Di, a researcher at Levin’s alma mater Stanford — but the other 25 as well. And while he’s at it, he might want to urge Hu to reconsider his antiquated attitude toward press freedom. (Of course, Levin might already be pushing for this privately; if so, we hope he continues to vent his concerns.)

The spirit of international cooperation that drives the Olympics — and the long-standing Yale-China relationship — demands no less.

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