One of the best reasons to keep intellectuals around is that they ask the hard questions. They demand answers for every problem and, in doing so, they help us improve our lives. It is for precisely this reason that the Amnesty International club at Yale campaigns vigorously for the release of imprisoned gadflies, jailed for being too intellectual. And it is for precisely this reason that Yale University’s faculty and administrators must intensify their scrutiny of selfish governments, like the current one in China.
In his column last Friday, “Flawed Criticism of China breeds propaganda” (1/18), Robert Li wrote that a “university is a moderator, a facilitator, a host — not a judge of awe-inspiring moral issues.” Perhaps this is the current state of affairs but, if so, it must change. Yale must not, as Li seems to suggest, keep moral issues caged up like animals in a zoo.
Consider, for instance, the recent violence in Burma (Myanmar). In cities, dissidents are rounded up and imprisoned; in the countryside, any “troublesome” village is flattened and all its inhabitants killed by government soldiers. Burma’s military junta runs on money from foreign investors and gets most of its guns from China.
Morally, there should not be a dictatorship in Burma, nor should there be any injustice in the world. For that reason, we should not reserve the fighting of injustice to any one permanent institution; to do so would be to concede defeat. We must not “leave [the judgment of moral issues] to the church,” as Li suggests. When our Burmese brothers and sisters are beaten down, we must all take a stand. When the Kenyans are cut down by machetes in response to recent election results, we all have to help them find peace. And when our Chinese brothers and sisters are tortured for expressing their faith, we must not betray them with silence.
The faculty and administration of Yale University have great reserves of knowledge, expertise and respect. They must employ these gifts to shine a light on human-rights abuses and they must start now. This year, Beijing hosts the Olympics. As the Chinese Communist Party tries to improve its image in advance of the Games, Chinese leaders are more willing to listen to their critics than at any time in recent memory.
In his argument last Friday, Li agreed that “criticism is necessary.” We must criticize the Chinese government for its abuse of peaceful Falun Gong practitioners; for its lassiez-faire environmental policies; for deporting North Korean refugees; for supporting brutal dictatorships like that in Burma; and for myriad other failures. We must continue to do what intellectuals do best: Ask the hard questions. Where is human-rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng? Why was Zhisheng, a veteran of the Chinese army, harassed for years by plainclothes police? Why did he, a defender of poor Chinese citizens, suddenly disappear last fall? Gao Zhisheng is not the only human-rights lawyer to suffer in China lately. According to Amnesty International, Gao’s colleague, Li Heping, was abducted for eight hours Sept. 29, 2007. Presumably due to his human-rights and public-defense work, a dozen plainclothes police officers beat him with electric batons and then threatened further violence unless he left Beijing.
It would be inappropriate to criticize only one nation’s flaws while ignoring the rest. For that reason Amnesty International fights moral abuses like the abominable spread of nuclear weapons, excessive and cruel applications of the death penalty, the detention of peaceful dissidents and other problems that are not limited to China. (Still, all are major issues there.)
Perhaps all this criticism seems gloomy. But we must not stop at criticism. The reason we call out China for imprisoning journalists, the reason we call for legal protection of gays in Saudi Arabia and the reason we demand an end to extralegal detentions in the United States are one and the same. We see a brighter future. Yale administrators and faculty should help fight for this future with every tool at their disposal.
Edwin Everhart is a junior in Saybrook College. He is the coordinator of the Amnesty International club at Yale.