Faculty and students departing next week for China met Tuesday afternoon to hear from Yale President Richard Levin about the challenges facing China in the coming years.

In his remarks, Levin identified four major issues China must confront in order to maintain its strong economic growth: rule of law, education, environment and income inequality. He highlighted efforts at Yale to spur progress in several of those areas, and also connected ongoing reforms to the possibility of expanded human rights and democracy in China.

Levin Speaking

Yale President Richard Levin addresses the delegation of faculty and students headed to China next week. (Michael Blank/YDN)

The economic growth of recent decades has already prompted China to improve its rule of law because foreign companies have demanded consistent legal practices, Levin said, while the Beijing Olympics have spurred concerns about environmental conditions in the country. At the same time, concerns about how to continue to innovate once the country “catches up” to the United States in terms of labor costs are driving changes to Chinese higher education, he said.

China is trying to foster innovative thinking rather than rote memorization in its classrooms, Levin said, in an effort to learn from Japan, where the economy stagnated after years of rapid growth.

“In the last five year plan, which started two years ago, Hu Jintao declared creativity and innovation as the key concepts for China’s next 10 years,” he said.

This has led some top-tier universities in China to move toward an American-style liberal arts education in place of specialization — a process Levin said Yale has encouraged by offering training sessions for Chinese university administrators about how American universities are organized.

And these ongoing reforms in education and the rule of law may offer hope for the future of human rights in China, Levin said.

“If you’re training them to think more independently … that in the long run is bound to have some political implications,” he said.

But he acknowledged that it is “not an impossible scenario” that Chinese leaders would return to a closed economy if continued openness appears to threaten their political control.

Levin encouraged participants to ask questions about human rights while they are in China, particularly during meetings with faculty and students of Chinese universities. The trip itinerary includes meetings at Peking University, Tsinghua University, Xi’an Jiaotong University and Fudan University.

“Ask for yourselves,” he said. “You’re not the State Department, you’re individuals.”

In response to a student’s question, Levin also laid out the reasons for the Yale trip, which resulted from an invitation given by Chinese President Hu Jintao in his 2006 speech at Yale. China’s rapid economic growth has inspired some anxiety about the possibility of a future confrontational relationship between China and the U.S., Levin said, and this trip will help forge the cultural understanding that is needed on both sides to keep relations peaceful.

“[Hu] believes, as I do … that cross-cultural interaction and people-to-people contact is the best investment we can make for international security in the long-run,” Levin said.

After Levin’s talk, trip participants had a chance to mingle at a reception, which also offered them a small taste of China — in the form of dumplings and beef skewers.


Trip participants mingle at the reception following Levin’s address. (Michael Blank/YDN)