A recent column in the News criticized Light fellows for enjoying “glitzy” summers in Beijing, even as the Chinese government placed thousands of ethnic Uyghurs in internment camps in western China. As a 2018 Light fellow who studied in China this summer, I must disagree. Although the Chinese government actively commits grave human rights abuses and the author of that column was brave to speak out, refusing to study in China is not the way to advocate for justice. Yale students should actively, or perhaps especially, pursue opportunities to study abroad in countries that have policies with which we disagree.
It would be difficult to learn East Asian languages to proficiency entirely in New Haven, even under the instruction of our excellent professors. Chinese, for example, is an infamously tonal language that uses tens of thousands of pictographic characters instead of an alphabet. Rigorous daily study and exposure to daily life in China is the only way to ensure proper pronunciation and fluency in reading. Funding from the Light Fellowship has allowed thousands of Yale students to graduate with the ability to live and work in Asia.
Though mastering a difficult language can be an immensely fulfilling experience in its own right, Light fellows do not study abroad solely in the name of personal enjoyment. By definition, the Light Fellowship is awarded to encourage “academic preparation, professional development and personal growth.” Many of my peers will pursue careers in diplomacy, journalism or advocacy with nonprofit organizations. In doing so, many will seek to promote human rights and adherence to the rule of law in China and around the world.
In the past century, we have seen that embargoes are not an effective way to encourage reform in countries with oppressive regimes. Human Rights Watch, for instance, lobbied to end the Cuba embargo. In China, democratic and market reforms only took place after it resumed diplomatic relations with America in 1972. Strong diplomatic, political, cultural and economic relations are the only way we can hope to solve human rights abuses. As Yale students, we are privileged to receive a superb education – and funding opportunities for language study abroad – that can prepare us for this important work.
Yale students who travel to China on the Light Fellowship are not unwitting actors in a grand “conspiracy” between Yale administrators and the Chinese government, nor are we blind to the plight of the ethnic Uyghurs and Tibetans. In Beijing, my classmates and I had daily conversations on the meaning of freedom, human rights and Chinese politics with our teachers, recent graduates of elite Chinese universities. Many of them had studied abroad in America and were familiar with the political education camps in Xinjiang from reading Western news sources.
Mass surveillance, censorship and government propaganda are obvious features of daily life in Beijing. The experience of living under an illiberal regime was new for me and my peers; I found myself more sympathetic for, and in awe of, Chinese dissidents who speak out against the government. If Yale is engaging in a conspiracy to make its students more supportive of the Chinese Communist Party, it isn’t working.
The language fluency I acquired in eight weeks will allow me to read articles and documents in Mandarin, from which I can gain a deeper understanding of Chinese politics. A few Instagram pictures of cocktails and historic attractions do not outweigh this crucial linguistic and cultural education.
As a powerful institution with the ability to shape young minds and lobby governments, Yale should absolutely work to educate students about human rights abuses in China and other nations. But Yale also has a responsibility to train the next generation of diplomats who can solve these problems. Our education is only useful if we also have sufficient familiarity with foreign languages to allow us to work to end human rights abuses around the world. To criticize Light Fellows for acquiring the skills to promote human rights abroad is both unfair and unproductive. Insisting that Yale students only travel to states with policies we agree with in the name of “actively prioritizing human rights,” while a rhetorically convincing point, makes little sense in the long run.
Isaiah Schrader is a sophomore in Benjamin Franklin College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .