Harvard University’s recent endowment investments in a Chinese oil firm ties the university to a company that has indirectly aided the Sudanese government’s agenda.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission reported last spring that Harvard owned 72,000 shares in the PetroChina company. According to a 2002 U.S. Congress report, PetroChina, a subsidiary of the Chinese state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation, has a 40 percent stake in a 1,000-mile oil pipeline sponsored by Sudan’s national petroleum company. The report found that foreign aid has bolstered Sudan’s oil industry, accelerating the regime’s policy of enslaving, killing and raping civilians, and burning their villages to clear the way for more oil fields.
The investment was first reported Monday by The Harvard Crimson.
Yale President Richard Levin said Harvard and Yale investment offices both follow ethical guidelines when managing their endowments. He said most universities have policies that are modeled on those adopted by Yale about 30 years ago.
Harvard officials did not return phone calls from the News yesterday.
Several human-rights activists, including American Anti-Slavery Group spokeswoman Liora Kasten, have pushed for companies to divest from Sudan. Kasten said PetroChina’s assistance to Sudan is well-documented and has given considerable support to that regime. She said she thinks academic institutions have a special responsibility to disassociate themselves from companies involved with abusive and dangerous practices.
“Many professors at Harvard, Yale and other higher-education institutions have come out in opposition to the Sudanese regime,” Kasten said. “These academic institutions have a certain amount of clout that comes with their titles, and if they stop investing I think they will make a big difference to these companies.
Thomas Oatley, a visiting scholar at Harvard who specializes in American foreign economic policy, said he thinks Harvard should sell its assets in PetroChina if it has not already done so. Even though Harvard only held a small portion of PetroChina stock, Oatley said Harvard’s divestiture of its holdings might set an example for other institutions to follow ethical investment policies.
“It seems that any institution of higher education would not provide recourse to a government that is, at the least, not doing anything to prevent genocide,” Oatley said. “In a symbolic sense, it seems reasonable to expect that divestiture would take place.”
But Oatley said divestiture would not necessarily end the brutality in Sudan. He said the regime in Rwanda carried out extensive genocide in the 1990s with few financial partners.
While Levin said he did not know the details of Harvard’s investment policy, he said he thinks Yale’s policies have been effective.
“By and large, the policies have served [the University] well,” Levin said. “We’ve had a couple of situations at Yale where our policy had mandated divesting ourselves of ethically questionable holdings.”
Since Harvard purchased it in late 2003, PetroChina’s stock, listed on the New York Stock Exchange, has risen by 51 percent. If Harvard still owns the share, its investment in the company could be worth $3.84 million today.