Deep in the Kangra valley of India’s Dhauladhar mountain range last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi unwittingly conjured a moral imbroglio for Yale.
“If freedom-loving people throughout the world do not speak out against China’s oppression in China and Tibet,” she said, “we have lost all moral authority to speak on behalf of human rights anywhere in the world.”
And if that is true, what about freedom-loving people who not only remain silent but also enable the Chinese regime through political and institutional support? This group, it would seem, stands to lose more than moral authority.
The University’s dilemma, in Speaker Pelosi’s terms, is simple. At this juncture, Yale’s leaders, specifically University President Richard Levin, can choose to either exert pressure or not. It is one or the other.
In 2006, perhaps, the right choice was ambiguous. For Levin to have pulled a Bollinger — the president of Columbia University, who publicly condemned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he came to speak — while introducing Hu would have been bootless. But today, with the Olympics fast approaching, the Chinese government is more conscious of its international image than ever before. And today, violence in Tibet has reached a boiling point that is alerting the world to the insouciance with which China treats freedom in Tibet.
Granted, the situation in Lhasa is unclear, largely because China has barred foreign journalists from entering. Conflicting reports have made it hard to tell who, exactly, is responsible for the violence and severity of recent riots.
The Chinese government maintains that Tibetans were “peacefully liberated” from “feudalism” and that Tibetans are better off under Chinese rule. And Tibetans have benefited from the economic development that China has brought to the region. But the unrest suggests strongly that Tibetans have suffered under the Chinese government’s systematic efforts to undermine the autonomy of sacred Tibetan religious and political institutions. And the international community suffers when a nation governing one-fifth of the world’s population disrespects basic human rights that have long been recognized elsewhere.
And so in 2008, the right path is clear: Yale administrators must begin to ask the tough questions of Yale’s ally in the Far East. Why have foreign journalists been barred from the region? Why has China continued to enable the Darfur conflict by maintaining close economic and political ties with the Sudanese government? Why have dissidents been abducted, Web sites censored, bloggers taken offline?
Although Levin remains the most effective active Ivy League president — his leadership in the education sector unparalleled and his plans to expand the University visionary — his hesitance to take public stands on contentious political matters, while well-intentioned, begins to catch up with Yale, and all its affiliates by extension, in moments like these.
Yale’s influence, of course, must not be overstated: there is no secret red telephone in Woodbridge Hall that patches directly to Beijing. Questions, however, that are pointed, wise and still tactful could go a long way in simultaneously fulfilling the University’s moral obligation without disrupting the academic partnerships that all agree benefit both parties.
An AP-wire story reporting the president of Yale’s momentary distaste with an otherwise close partner would be heard around the world. More fundamentally, how can the president of our university, who has made China one of the banner issues of his administration, stand by silent while the People’s Republic further undermines Tibetan self-determination? Are Yale students to remain as silent as Levin has been, asking no questions, seeking no answers?
When we asked Levin on Saturday night whether he had a role to play, he said: “Well, I’m always assessing that. At the moment, I don’t have anything to say about that. I’m always re-assessing what the most constructive role I can play is.”
He added, “Anyone has to be concerned about what’s going on right now,” but “it’s hard to get very good information.”
Well, there’s a place to start.