Few American university presidents can boast quasi-celebrity status in China, but Yale President Richard Levin hit the airwaves in early November when he traveled across the Middle Kingdom, speaking publicly about U.S.-China trade relations.

Whenever Levin visits China — as he did for four days earlier this month — he makes appearances on Chinese television programs. Though some have said Levin is less vocal in the United States than some former Yale presidents have been, in China his opinion is sought regularly on various issues. Recently, his Chinese interviewers have not just asked him about Yale, but have been interested in his thoughts about China’s trade relations with the United States.

Although he typically stays out of public political debates in America, Levin, who is also an economics professor, responded to such questions on his recent trip to China. An outspoken proponent of free trade, he told Chinese Central Television reporters that their government and the U.S. government need to take steps to prevent the diminishing amount of trade between the two countries. The Chinese reports aired last week.

China needs to make sure its economic policies do not give ammunition to protectionists in the U.S., Levin said, especially in light of the recent change-of-hands of the Senate and House of Representatives. Protectionist policies might include putting tariffs on Chinese imports or putting a quota on the amount of goods that could be imported.

“A trade war with China would be a disaster for the U.S., for China and for the world economy,” Levin said Monday night.

Yale economics professor T.N. Srinivasan said Chinese officials should also continue their efforts to liberalize the country’s currency and promote imports of agricultural products and machinery from the U.S. Restricting trade between the two countries is attractive to some American workers but would damage the economy in general, he said.

“You shouldn’t throw red meat before protectionists,” Srinivasan said. “China is the latest bogeyman – 20 years ago, it was Japan. Even if some [U.S.] jobs are saved, this will be at a very heavy cost to the economy.”

Levin said the Chinese ask him questions that Americans do not because they are interested in what influential members of the higher education community have to say about important issues.

“In China, the media are actually much more interested in the views of professionals with some expertise than in the U.S.,” he said. “Journalists in the U.S. don’t call me up and ask about my views.”

Levin’s status in China hearkens back to an earlier era in American higher education when university presidents were national celebrities, history professor emeritus and Yale Historian Gaddis Smith said.

While Levin generally keeps himself removed from contentious national debates, many of his predecessors did not. Smith said Timothy Dwight IV, who was president of Yale around the turn of the nineteenth century, was a vocal critic of Thomas Jefferson and even said that a vote for Jefferson was tantamount to selling one’s daughter as a concubine to the Illuminati. Kingman Brewster famously spoke out against the Vietnam War and the government’s handling of the Black Panthers while he was president. Brewster was the most quoted university president of his day, Smith said.

“University presidents 100 or even 50 years ago were covered by the press – they were celebrities,” Smith said. “There are so many other competing celebrities in the world these days that the press isn’t interested in what they have to say.”

Levin said he wants to champion the internationalization of Yale and American higher education in general, but does not have a further political agenda. He has advocated for loosening visa restrictions for foreign scholars and promoting relations with China, but stays out of most other public political discussions.

“I have been focusing on internationalization of the University more broadly,” he said. “That’s the sort of thing that I feel is an important part of what I’m trying to accomplish at Yale.”

In Feburary 2004, Levin was appointed by President George W. Bush ’68 to the Iraq Intelligence Committee, which is investigating possible intelligence failures in the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but Levin has said in the past that he role on the committee was one of neutrality.