To the Editor:
There is no question that Yale faced extraordinary pressures as it prepared for a visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao on Friday. China is primed to become the world’s next superpower, and Yale’s uniquely close relationship with the country gives it unrivaled access to China’s students and markets. The sort of ugliness that occasionally has greeted previous speakers could be disastrous for the future of Yale-China relations. But my sympathy for the University’s awkward position does not change the fact that nearly every decision officials made in handling Hu’s visit was wrong.
Concerns about Hu’s security do not justify how far protesters were kept from Sprague Hall. In the last five years, Yale has seen speeches from President George W. Bush ’68, former President Bill Clinton LAW ’73, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak — none of whom required the full block perimeter Hu was granted. The only explanation is that city and Yale officials wanted to keep protesters as far from Sprague Hall as the Constitution would allow.
Students also deserve more detail from the University about how attendees to the speech were handpicked. Given the small venue, it is sensible that Yale chose students with demonstrated interest in China and excluded those with a history of causing disruption. But that includes students who support Taiwan, who adhere to Falun Gong and who are fighting against international human rights violations. Hu has a right to be heard by an audience that is respectful, not one free of detractors. And given the lack of transparency Yale showed in the selection process, there is ample reason to be concerned.
The University’s handling of the press is also extremely disconcerting, particularly its expulsion of a CNN reporter after he shouted a question at University President Richard Levin about whether Hu had seen the protesters. Yale spokeswoman Helaine Klasky’s glib answer that the reporter was invited “to cover an event, not to hold a press conference” does not suggest much respect for the role of the media. It is Klasky’s job to put a wholly positive spin on Hu’s visit, not CNN’s. Reporters should be commended, not punished, for bristling at the carefully choreographed media event Yale tried to create Friday.
It is possible, of course, that all of last week’s restrictions were prerequisites for Hu to visit at all. If that is the case, Yale weighed its values of open dialogue against the prestige of a visit by the Chinese president and chose the latter. President Hu is Yale’s most important guest in my four years here, and it was only fitting that he was kept safe and treated with respect. He should not, however, have been able to feel at home.
William Sullivan ’06
April 23, 2006
The writer is a former managing editor for the News.