Yale’s silence lets China off easy

Deep in the Kangra valley of India’s Dhauladhar mountain range last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi unwittingly conjured a moral imbroglio for Yale.

“If freedom-loving people throughout the world do not speak out against China’s oppression in China and Tibet,” she said, “we have lost all moral authority to speak on behalf of human rights anywhere in the world.”

And if that is true, what about freedom-loving people who not only remain silent but also enable the Chinese regime through political and institutional support? This group, it would seem, stands to lose more than moral authority.

The University’s dilemma, in Speaker Pelosi’s terms, is simple. At this juncture, Yale’s leaders, specifically University President Richard Levin, can choose to either exert pressure or not. It is one or the other.

In 2006, perhaps, the right choice was ambiguous. For Levin to have pulled a Bollinger — the president of Columbia University, who publicly condemned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he came to speak — while introducing Hu would have been bootless. But today, with the Olympics fast approaching, the Chinese government is more conscious of its international image than ever before. And today, violence in Tibet has reached a boiling point that is alerting the world to the insouciance with which China treats freedom in Tibet.

Granted, the situation in Lhasa is unclear, largely because China has barred foreign journalists from entering. Conflicting reports have made it hard to tell who, exactly, is responsible for the violence and severity of recent riots.

The Chinese government maintains that Tibetans were “peacefully liberated” from “feudalism” and that Tibetans are better off under Chinese rule. And Tibetans have benefited from the economic development that China has brought to the region. But the unrest suggests strongly that Tibetans have suffered under the Chinese government’s systematic efforts to undermine the autonomy of sacred Tibetan religious and political institutions. And the international community suffers when a nation governing one-fifth of the world’s population disrespects basic human rights that have long been recognized elsewhere.

And so in 2008, the right path is clear: Yale administrators must begin to ask the tough questions of Yale’s ally in the Far East. Why have foreign journalists been barred from the region? Why has China continued to enable the Darfur conflict by maintaining close economic and political ties with the Sudanese government? Why have dissidents been abducted, Web sites censored, bloggers taken offline?

Although Levin remains the most effective active Ivy League president — his leadership in the education sector unparalleled and his plans to expand the University visionary — his hesitance to take public stands on contentious political matters, while well-intentioned, begins to catch up with Yale, and all its affiliates by extension, in moments like these.

Yale’s influence, of course, must not be overstated: there is no secret red telephone in Woodbridge Hall that patches directly to Beijing. Questions, however, that are pointed, wise and still tactful could go a long way in simultaneously fulfilling the University’s moral obligation without disrupting the academic partnerships that all agree benefit both parties.

An AP-wire story reporting the president of Yale’s momentary distaste with an otherwise close partner would be heard around the world. More fundamentally, how can the president of our university, who has made China one of the banner issues of his administration, stand by silent while the People’s Republic further undermines Tibetan self-determination? Are Yale students to remain as silent as Levin has been, asking no questions, seeking no answers?

When we asked Levin on Saturday night whether he had a role to play, he said: “Well, I’m always assessing that. At the moment, I don’t have anything to say about that. I’m always re-assessing what the most constructive role I can play is.”

He added, “Anyone has to be concerned about what’s going on right now,” but “it’s hard to get very good information.”

Well, there’s a place to start.


  • thrawn

    There are plenty of for Tibet and against Tibet info on the web. Judge objectively for yourselves.

  • Jose

    Hahaha. I spilled my coffee over my keyboard. This is the funniest piece I've read in weeks. Great satire!

    Pelosi talking about moral authority - pray tell us why you have let the biggest mass murderer of the 21st century(Dubya) off the hook when he continues lying, fear-mongering, torturing and destroying America's international image.

    The US has killed a million Iraqis just to steal their oil, has made refugees out of over two million of them and now has the guts to tell the world that China is the problem.

    A year or two from now, the US will be synonymous with false-flag terrorism, genocide, illegal wars and resource theft.

    Get a second citizenship if you're smart!

    Google "patriots question 9/11" so you can start understand the fire that is beginning to ignite old glory.

  • Human Rights Watch

    Thanks for a good one. Glad somebody at Yale still cares.

  • No Way Jose

    @ Jose:

    Ever heard of Mao Zedong? Try to keep your rant in perspective.

  • Jose

    @ No way Jose

    Ever hear about Prescott Bush, our president's grandfather, being indicted for bankrolling Nazi Germany?

  • Anonymous

    While I agree that Tibet deserves at least the moderate autonomy sought by the Dalai Lama, it would send entirely the wrong message if either the United States or the President of Yale chose to apply pressure to China because of this riot. As it happens, The Economist had been granted a press pass to Lhasa for the week of the riots, and it was strangely not revoked when they broke out. The correspondent reports that the Tibetans burned nearly every Han-owned shop in Lhasa, destroying the livelihoods and in several cases the lives (the correspondent supported the government reported figure of at least 13 Chinese civilian deaths) of innocent Chinese civilians. The Chinese crackdown (due largely to the increased media scrutiny occasioned by the Beijing Olympics) has been more moderate than it has in the past. If we take this occasion to apply pressure we tell the Tibetans that violence against civilians is the best way to win international sympathy and the Chinese government that a relaxing of oppressive measures will garner even more international outrage, so why not just apply full force. Yale should support the Dalai Lama's message of moderate Tibetan autonomy achieved through nonviolent means, and it should denounce any instances of unwarranted violence by both the Chinese authorities and the Tibetan rioters.

  • Anonymous

    I really disagree with the idea that it is Yale's job to tell the Chinese government how to run their own country. I'm sure that Nancy Pelosi wouldn't appreciate it if the presidents of Tsinghua and Beida started giving her daily policy recommendations on how to appease her union constituency.

  • LU

    Oh boy. People in civilized world tend to pretend they know everything and have the "moral authority" to interpret everything in their settings for their purposes. Keep lecturing. Keep whining. Way to go.

  • tibetan

    thank you for your article. doubt your president will "speak out" for us but your article means a lot for us to know that there are people who still care.