When Chinese President Hu Jintao arrives here next week, the engineer-turned-statesman will receive an honor afforded to neither Kofi Annan nor Bill Clinton: Classes will be canceled during his visit. The main reason, of course, is security, but the move points to the tremendous importance administrators are according the event — and leaves no question that Yale sees Sept. 8 as a crucial endorsement of its self-proclaimed role as a global university.
That Hu’s first trip to the United States as leader of the world’s most populous nation includes a speech at Yale is indeed a coup for the University and for President Richard Levin, who invited the Chinese president to New Haven when he visited Beijing last year. China isn’t simply a growing economic and military power — it is a growing academic power, too, graduating nearly as many engineering Ph.D.s as the United States. With Hu’s visit, Yale is receiving an unparalleled opportunity to make its name, absolutely free of charge, in what is quickly becoming one of the most important talent pools worldwide.
But the ugly side of the Chinese government should not be ignored in Yale’s euphoria at landing the Hu’s speech. Hu governs what Human Rights Watch calls a “highly repressive state,” characterized by religious repression, forced evictions and violations of labor rights. And even as technology helps link Yale and other American universities to China, the country’s government is actively trying to stop the flow of ideas through the Internet. Indeed, many of Yale’s most valued principles — free expression, tolerance, open inquiry — are still sharply limited by Hu’s regime.
Those facts don’t change the reality that China will play a pivotal role in world affairs in the coming decades, or that increased cooperation with the country — particularly through education — may help liberalize it over time. But the less laudable truths about China should be aired publicly in the days before and after Hu’s speech. Yale should be a respectful and hospitable host to Hu, but it does not need to be a compliant one.
Consequently, while the need for security is paramount, Yale should not create unnecessary barriers if groups wish to conduct peaceful protests on campus. Perhaps more importantly, we hope the University takes the opportunity to initiate an open debate about the implications — good and bad — of both China’s growth and Hu’s government.
From all appearances, Yale may be prepared to do just that. The University is hosting a panel discussion following Hu’s speech, headlined by history professor Jonathan Spence, one of the world’s most respected scholars on China. But we hope that any tough questions raised in the panel are asked before Hu’s visit, too.
Since Yung Wing became the first Chinese student at Yale just over a century and a half ago, both Yale and China have profited from an ever-growing relationship with one another, and Hu’s visit is an endorsement of that. A spirit of open inquiry attracted Yung and his successors to New Haven. It would be a disappointment if that spirit were lost in the excitement of a high-profile visit.