Is Yale kowtowing to the Chinese?

Clearly, the University has followed a policy of engagement toward the most populous nation in the world. When the Secretary’s Office announced the imminent arrival of President Hu Jintao, the atmosphere at Yale turned electric. The administration lauded the occasion as a glorious moment in the University’s history. Students scrambled for tickets to see the ruler of 1.3 billion people. Should Yale be cultivating such a relationship with a repressive dictatorship?

Perhaps it is an indication of the University’s failure to take a stand on sensitive issues that the Communist leader chose to visit only Yale among all the United States’ elite institutions. Yet Yale may be more effective at destroying the Communist stronghold than many might think.

This past summer, if the War on Terror and the London bombings were not on people’s minds, the rise of China dominated the headlines. In July, a $19 billion bid by a Chinese oil company to buy Unocal raised a storm on Capitol Hill, unleashing latent China-bashers who distrusted Chinese intentions. In August, a high-ranking Chinese general warned of nuclear war with the United States, affirming neoconservative hawks’ perception that deadly confrontation between the two world powers is inevitable. In issuing its annual report on the Chinese military, the Pentagon also cited the country’s military buildup as cause for alarm.

In the long run, China’s nascent emergence onto the world stage has three possible outcomes. The first is that China might emerge as a peaceful superpower, adapting itself by establishing liberal institutions. The second is that China may crumble under its own weight of internal contradictions. Finally, and most ominously, China could transform into a dangerous and formidable foe of the United States.

It is then relevant to consider what role educational institutions like Yale play in determining which outcome materializes and thereby in shaping the Sino-U.S. relationship. Yale, more than any other university in recent years, has made a strategic effort to reach out to China. In 2001, Levin met with President Jiang Zemin and toured three of the most prestigious universities in the mainland. In 2003, he received an honorary doctorate from Peking University. This year, Yale enrolled 21 students from Fudan University in Shanghai in a six-week educational program. Yale also hosted presidents from prestigious Chinese universities, introducing them to the curriculum and administration of a liberal-arts college. With more than 300 students at Yale, China sends more scholars to Yale than any other country. According to the Office of Public Affairs, nearly 500 Yalies study Chinese every year, and Yale students have a strong presence in Chinese universities through fellowships.

Although U.S. policy can certainly shape our political relationship with China, exposure to Western thought and liberal concepts, such as the rule of law and tradition of free speech, is a less noticeable but more powerful force that will eventually modernize China and bring down the Communist dictatorship. Nearly one century ago, a Western-educated man by the name of Sun Yat-sen led a revolutionary movement that overthrew the oppressive Qing monarchy. But the seeds of the revolution were planted nearly 60 years earlier, in 1854, when Yung Wing graduated from Yale as the first Chinese to receive a degree from an American university. In 1872, he successfully petitioned the Qing government to send 120 students to secondary schools in the Connecticut Valley. Many ended up graduating from Yale, eventually returning to China to push for economic and political reform.

Zhan Tianyou, class of 1881, was one of these reformers. He came to the United States at 12 years old, graduated from Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School, and went on to build China’s entire railroad network system. Yan Fu, renowned for his widely published Chinese translations of J.S. Mill, Montesquieu and Adam Smith, was a vocal critic of the oppressive late Qing dynasty. He eventually became a strong and influential supporter of Yuan Shikai, the first president of the Republic of China.

Although engaging a repressive regime might seem morally objectionable, history shows that Yale is in an especially powerful position to influence China from the inside. As economic pressures and the expanding scope of the Internet gradually undermine the Chinese regime, Yale can spread the ideas that will ultimately cause the implosion of the oppressive leviathan.

Eric Tung is a senior in Branford College.