Criticizing China in the name of social progress

Last weekend, unbeknownst to many, another shameless attempt by the Chinese government to stifle free speech transpired. On March 2, 2008, CUSY, the Chinese Undergraduate Students at Yale, hosted a debate between Chinese and Yale students through the dodgy Lenovo-IMUSE or Initiating Mutual Understanding through Student Exchange project, to purportedly facilitate “greater understanding of modern China,” (especially when the 2008 Beijing Olympics are around the corner) and “stimulate discussion on the most pressing issues facing China today.” The Chinese government, as you may well know, is effectively the largest stakeholder in Lenovo, which bought IBM’s PC division in 2005.

The event, replete with police presence, was apparently “open” only to Yale students and faculty. This can only be seen as an undeniable effort to prevent Falun Gong practitioners, Tibetan exiles and allies, and other concerned members of the greater New Haven community from attending and raising awareness about the real state of human rights in China and exposing as mere propaganda the sham of any Chinese government sponsored debate. In fact, a Yale professor of Chinese descent, who apparently refused to show his ID on the grounds that he was singled out among other members of the audience, was threatened with arrest for trespassing private property. Apparently, he was told the event organizers had “rented” the LC building.

Yale, being the “truly global university” it is, should not let event organizers dictate the kind of audience that will be attending and should make it clear that this kind of profiling is incompatible with its values. Restricting events of general interest, however controversial they may be, to Yale affiliates also sets a dangerous precedent, at a time when Yale is trying to engage the entire world community and especially China. Obviously, if Falun Gong or Free Tibet activists were let in and did disturb the event, then they should be shown the door, but to preemptively ban dissent is unacceptable. During President Hu Jintao’s visit in April 2006, students in opposition to China were indeed offered “free speech zones” well away from the spotlight.

The moderated debate itself was a huge farce. Although some of the questions posed gave the semblance of scrupulous scrutiny, they gave the impression of trepidation to frame the debate in lucid and tough language. While the response of the Chinese team was reserved or otherwise evasive, that of our CCTV prize-winning team was mind-boggling. When the Chinese team was questioned about the failure to combat environmental degradation accompanying China’s meteoric economic rise or about the issues surrounding the migration of rural migrant workers to big cities, we were told by a member of the Yale team (hereafter “Yale team” collectively) that the United States is not any better, so perhaps we should not criticize China too much.

When queried about the increasing disparity between the rich and the poor, the Yale team peddled the reassuringly deceptive, culturally relativistic notion that perhaps the Chinese were reticent to ask for help, as doing so would make them seem vulnerable, which the Chinese team were quick to use as a crutch. When asked whether “the rule of law system is viable in the absence of liberal democratic rights and democratic institutions,” the Chinese team told us that democracy is a new idea from the West and that the American model is not applicable. When asked whether China is likely to “democratize” due to modernization and whether “democracy” is “good” for China, they categorically declared that “democracy” occurs nowhere in the ancient culture of China. More bizarrely, the Yale team suggested that although Communist governments tend to be totalitarian, China maybe is an exception to the rule.

The United States is not perfect either, but it does not mean that our criticism of other countries’ human rights record is sheer hypocrisy. That is why Amnesty International is fighting the erosion of internationally recognized human rights in more than 150 countries. At the same time, we also have to acknowledge the progress, although regrettably slow, made by China, which, unlike the United States, has ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Surely, China would not have done so if it did not consider human rights to be important or compatible with Chinese culture. But it is time for the country to make good on its promises.

Moreover, it is not our project to somehow subvert Yale-China relations. Rather, it is Yale’s plea that as one of the world’s foremost universities and with its unique leverage in China, it should actively seek respectful, constructive dialogue on the more difficult issues, even if it means the occasional, sharp criticism. It is the responsibility that friendship sometimes demands.

Vinod Saranathan is a graduate student in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. He is a member of the Amnesty International club at Yale.


  • Vinod Saranathan

    First, my comment about Yale providing "free speech zones" is meant to be taken in a critical sense, in case if it doesn't come across that way.

    Secondly, It is not Yale's plea to engage China more responsibly, but rather it is our plea to Yale.

  • Anonymous

    Democracy is incompatible with Chinese culture? Would either team like to explain to me what aspects of Chinese culture would be irreparably damaged by civil rights and democratic representation? Would anyone like to describe to me what part of Communism existed in ancient China? Are torture, abduction, and censorship cultural practices?

    I'm an long-standing advocate of culture sensitivity and tolerance, but to say that a political system is a part of culture is a disgusting use of culture as a shield for self-interest. China has a long history of intrusion by the West that can be discussed and redressed, and I'll be first in line to back China up in that arena. That has nothing to do with the critiques of human rights abuses under the current government or with those (within and without China) who would like to see the Chinese people have the right to represent themselves through democratic processes.

    You can democratically elect a Communist government, if that is the choice people want to make.

    Luis Medina
    Saybrook 09

  • Conor McHale

    Well on you Mr. Saranathan. I hope we can expect more letters as thoughtful as this whenever the University community is subjected to Chinese apologism veiled as ‘conversation’ designed to further understanding.

  • William

    I am really amazed that people can say so much without doing serious research about a subject.
    There are many things that we can condemn the Chinese government of, there are many problems with China, just as there are many with the States. There is no absolute right or wrong. But after investigating into the whole IMUSE program, i found no evidence that it is linked to the government. So there is no point biting a student exchange program like a mad dog to propagate one's opinion. There is similar to terrorism in which some people hurt others for no good reasons just to get their voice heard.