Amid growing pressure from students and others in the Yale community to speak out on the subject, University President Richard Levin has disclosed that he “expressed concern” last week to a top Chinese official about the recent instability in Tibet.
Levin, who has forged close ties with the Chinese government in recent years as part of his effort to transform Yale into a global university, met with Chinese Ambassador Zhou Wenzhong in Washington, D.C., last Thursday to discuss Yale’s newest initiatives in his country. In that meeting, he and Zhou also discussed the situation in Tibet, Levin said in an interview late Monday.
“I urged China to seek a peaceful resolution to the current situation, through dialogue,” Levin said.
Levin’s announcement came two weeks after he first acknowledged concerns regarding the situation in Tibet, where last month protesters clashed with Chinese security forces in the bloodiest confrontation in two decades. At the time, he said he was “re-assessing what the most constructive role I can play is,” but declined to take any public stance on China’s actions in suppressing the disturbances.
Since then, various politicians, including Sen. Hillary Clinton LAW ’73, have called on President George W. Bush ’68 to boycott the opening ceremony of this summer’s Olympic Games in Beijing — and students on campus have raised doubts about Yale’s involvement in China, too.
But Levin argued against boycotting the opening ceremonies of the Olympics or taking any other steps to disengage China.
“I don’t think that’s the solution,” Levin said. “I remain really committed to the idea that open exchange and collaboration with China is the best route.”
As an example, Levin highlighted the work of the Yale China Law Center, which has endeavored since 1999 to advance the rule of law in China.
“By providing lots of opportunities for our students to go abroad and engage with their peers in China,” Levin said, “my hope is we can develop … a deeper appreciation of cultural differences and a deeper appreciation of what we have in common.”
A spokesman for Zhou did not return a telephone message Tuesday. But Levin described the ambassador, with whom he has met regularly in recent years, as understanding of his concerns.
“I think he recognizes that it’s a difficult situation,” Levin said.
Levin’s disclosure comes as Eli Bildner ’10, a Davenport College sophomore, gained traction in an effort to pressure the president into taking a stand on the situation in Tibet. Some 400 Yale students, faculty members, alumni and parents have signed a petition over the last week that urges Levin “to put the weight of Yale, an institution dedicated to liberal values, behind human rights in Tibet.”
“We ask you to urge the Chinese government to engage in open-minded dialogue with the Dalai Lama,” it reads. “We hope that you might help convince the Chinese that the safeguarding of essential freedoms — freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom from fear — serves to strengthen, not undermine, national unity.”
Levin said in the interview he did not learn of the petition until after he met with Zhou. Told of Levin’s disclosure to the News, the Bildner ’10 said he was pleased to hear the news.
“I didn’t want institutional silence to be mistaken for communal apathy,” Bildner said. “I personally respect and value the University’s relationship to China’s educational institutions, organizations and even government — but I don’t think it can be an amoral one.”
Bildner said he hopes the petition and Levin’s meeting can serve as a jumping-off point to pursue for the kinds of educational exchange with Tibet that the University has already established elsewhere in China. “Hopefully we can take this energy that the petition has generated and take it a step further,” Bildner said.
Bildner is a staff reporter for the News.
Levin’s statement will hardly shift the focus away from the situation in Tibet, especially as this summer’s Olympic Games in Beijing approach. On Tuesday, hundreds of protesters gathered in San Francisco to demonstrate in advance of today’s relay of the Olympic torch. On Monday, the torch had to be repeatedly snuffed out and transported in a guarded bus during its abbreviated journey through Paris, where chaotic protests raged for much of the day.
It was that disquietude that has focused pressure on Yale, and particularly Levin, who led a delegation of 100 Yale affiliates to the country for a 10-day junket last spring at the invitation of Chinese President Hu Jintao, who had spoken at Yale a year earlier. And in China, Levin is seen as nothing short of a celebrity.
Students and faculty expressed concerns that, in not speaking out, the University could be interpreted as offering at least tacit support for the Chinese government over the Tibet conflict. It is essential “that Yale’s collaboration with China not be used by the Chinese to gain legitimization for policies that clearly run contrary to some of Yale’s core values,” said religious studies professor Steven Fraade, among the faculty members who signed the petition.
Fraade said he was pleased to hear about Levin’s meeting.
But he had one more request for Yale’s president of nearly 15 years: “It should not be a one-time expression,” he said.
Indeed, in a country whose leaders keep their distance, it is clear Levin has unusual influence — or at least unusual access to its top officials. It is that access on which students and alumni alike called Levin to capitalize.
“There is leverage,” said Steven Wagenseil ’70, former deputy director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. “Now, I don’t say Yale should threaten to pull out or divest, because that can be self-defeating … [but] as an institution of learning with a worldwide reputation and a relationship with China, for the president to ‘express concern’ is perfect. That’s exactly right.”
Despite the concerns he expressed to the ambassador, Levin said the University’s involvement with the Olympics will proceed as planned. In July, Yale’s Philharmonia Orchestra is to perform at the finale for Beijing’s Cultural Olympiad, a music festival sponsored in part by the Yale School of Music before the Olympic Games begin. The School of Management is also set to host a much-anticipated executive-education program in Beijing.