Anasthasia Shilov

Emblazoned in bold capitals beneath Yale’s navy coat of arms, hangs a banner that reads “Lux et Veritas” — the University’s official motto. With these three words come a promise that Yale will aspire to “light and truth,” and that the college will make concrete a pursuit of honesty and integrity. Choosing silence to avoid controversy seems, therefore, antithetical to this vision. A number of moments in Yale’s relationship with China illustrate well this dilemma.

On Oct. 4, 2019, when Brooklyn Nets owner Joseph Tsai ’86 LAW ’90 posted an open letter to Facebook, affirming the Chinese party line in response to an NBA controversy over Hong Kong’s protests, Yale did not directly address the politically contentious and factually inaccurate statement, instead opting to reaffirm its support of free speech. Tsai is, notably, not only a wealthy alumnus, but also the donor of both the Tsai Center for Innovation and Technology at Yale and the Paul Tsai China Center at the Yale Law School.

“What is the problem with people freely expressing their opinion? This freedom is an inherent American value,” Tsai wrote. “The problem is, there are certain topics that are third-rail issues in certain countries, societies and communities. Supporting a separatist movement in a Chinese territory is one of those third-rail issues.” These comments effectively justify China’s repression towards Hong Kong’s protesters, who are not, in fact, separatists. Responding to Tsai was only the most recent occasion for Yale to speak out against authoritarianism in the nominally socialist country.

Last February, Yale President Peter Salovey traveled to China to meet with alumni and strengthen Yale’s research ties with Chinese institutions. This came amid allegations that a University geneticist designed the data used by Chinese state police to surveil and oppress over one million Uighurs, an ethnically Turkic Muslim minority from China’s Xinjiang province. Salovey has not explicitly commented on this controversy, reaffirming Yale’s “steadfast commitment” to Chinese students in a rare political statement three months later.

Just over a year ago, in November 2018, Yale hosted a panel titled “China 2049 — New Era or New Threat?” a discussion on the future of Sino-American relations. Moderated by Financial Times Asia Editor Jamil Anderlini, part of the conversation addressed freedom of expression within China’s international censorship machine. Anderlini asked President Salovey if the University might one day invite the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan religious leader, to speak on campus. According to the News report at the time, “Salovey answered that while Yale’s policies of free speech would prevent them from barring a speaker, the administration would still recognize the action as being offensive to the Chinese Communist Party and would have to manage protests to prevent any voices from being smothered.”

In a move received with great pride by University administration, then-Chinese President Hu Jintao delivered a key policy address at Yale on a historic trip to the U.S. in 2006. “I think we’re doing very well,” University President Richard Levin told the News at the time. “The fact that we were chosen by the president of China to be the site for his only campus visit does reinforce the sense that Yale is more deeply committed than any of our peer institutions.” One year later, a group of 100 Yale faculty, students and staff were invited by President Hu on an official 10-day tour of his country. Levin, who was president of Yale until 2013, went on this trip as well.

While time and changes in Yale leadership separate the above examples, together, they seem to illustrate three critical realities: That Yale is reluctant to speak out when an important alumni and donor contributes to a contentious issue, that the University prioritizes China’s good graces and that the public defense of human rights is apparently negotiable when the country’s economic potential comes into play.

In this regard, however, Yale is not alone. The University is but one element in a global trend of ‘kowtowing’ to Chinese pressure. The reach of China’s sharp power alone is enough to cause concern about the condition of free speech and assembly on campuses worldwide. Still, Yale stands out because of its deep and often admirable engagement with the nation. It does, after all, maintain a longer history with the East Asian country than any other American university. This is therefore a relationship that carries the weight of the past and the burden to speak honestly when concerns do arise.

If Yale, with 185 years of partnership with China, doesn’t speak out; if Yale doesn’t choose light and truth over its business adventures, then who will?


China emerged into the 21st century as a rising superpower, poised to develop exponentially after a century of debilitating internal turmoil. Strengthening ties with the East Asian nation, despite its less than adequate recent history with human rights, was therefore a logical step for both Yale and the world. Stepping into the presidency in 1993, at a time when just under two percent of Yale College students were from outside North America, President Levin told me in an interview that he “decided it was time to self-consciously make Yale a global institution.” And for him, China — already on its rise, and already boasting of 150 years of friendship with Yale — was the most obvious bet.

“We were planning a lot of major initiatives to roll out at the turn of the millennium,” President Levin explained. “Part of the strategic thinking was to make China a real priority. It was emerging as a global power even then, and it seemed to us that the new century would be a China century.”

Indeed, China’s reopening to the world could have been a major opportunity to shape its development in line with Yale’s core commitments and values of Western liberalism. This, however, did not end up being the case.

But to understand the University’s timid approach to China today requires a comprehension of the deep legacy this friendship is built upon — a love affair that began in 1834, when alumnus Peter Parker 1831 journeyed halfway across the world as a missionary and laid the groundwork for years to come. It wasn’t until 1850, however, when Yung Wing matriculated to Yale and became the first Chinese student to attend a U.S. university that Parker’s steps were retraced. After graduating in 1854, Yung helped create the first academic exchange with China, and later became one of the first Chinese diplomats in America. His precedent was soon followed by Zhan Tianyou ’1877, who would later become the “Father of China’s Railway.”

As the 19th century drew to a close and the violent Boxer Rebellion spelled the end of China’s last dynasty, a group of Yale educated and affiliated missionaries came together to honor the Yalies who had perished in the upheaval. And so, the Yale Foreign Ministry Society was founded in 1901, with an emphasis on bringing Western medicine and education to China. The independent NGO, now known as the Yale-China Association, has since paved an ethical path to be honored in this transnational relationship.

However, this all came to a shuddering halt as Chairman Mao Zedong’s promulgation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 coincided with the Korean War, causing anti-American hostilities to soar. For the next three decades, Yale, like the rest of the world, watched from afar, not yet comprehending the devastation wrought by Mao’s socialist vision.

After a decade of thawing tensions, the bloody 1989 government crackdown on students protesting in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square once again caused the University and others to step back. But as the 1990s rolled around, China found itself once again at the center of a storm of interest, with Yale, and much of the West, seeking to increase ties with the region. This meant an expansion of Yale-China programs and the 1996 establishment of the Richard U. Light language fellowship. Meanwhile, Yale’s law school founded the China Center in 1999 under the directorship of Professor Paul Gewirtz. Pursuing an aim of fostering understanding about China and propelling Chinese legal reform, Gewirtz, who did not reply to my interview requests, accepted a US$30 million donation from Joseph Tsai in 2016, and the organization was rebranded as the Paul Tsai China Center after the donor’s late father.

Since then, Yale’s relationship with China has only strengthened — something that President Levin proudly highlighted in our interview. “Yale has had an important role in connection with China for many years,” he admitted. “But it would be fair to say it wasn’t until my time that the relationship was led by the institution, not individuals associated with the school.”

When Salovey became president of the University in 2013, he inherited a 180-year legacy of partnership and traced President Levin’s footsteps in his optimism towards mainland China. By 2014, Yale had nearly 100 programs in the country, as well as a brand-new, 16,500-square-foot Yale Center in the heart of Beijing.

Beyond this historic relationship, many of the University’s graduates have also played a major role in shaping U.S.-China relations. In 1974, George H. W. Bush ’48 became the first head of the U.S. Liaison Office in China. A series of Yale graduates — Winston Lord ’59, Clark Randt Jr. ’68 and Gary Locke ’72 — followed Bush in becoming U.S. Ambassadors to China.

Today, Yale’s faculty and students are engaged in projects in 22 Chinese cities, involving universities, hospitals, research institutions and other organizations across the nation. Conversely, over 800 Chinese students and approximately 800 Chinese scholars reside at Yale. Both the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the School of Public Health offer dual-degrees in partnership with top universities in China.

Amid the U.S.-government’s tightening of visa restrictions for Chinese students in recent months, President Salovey, who averages about three professional trips to China each year, told the state mouthpiece China Daily in February that Yale is “very proud of [this] history.”

“Anything is possible if our professors are in a cooperative relationship with professors from China,” President Salovey affirmed.


After nearly two centuries, Yale’s stake in the future of China is deep. But the Communist country’s rise as a global superpower has made its violations of human rights increasingly hard to ignore. President Levin himself acknowledged the undeniable need for change 13 years ago, in a speech introducing Chinese leader Hu Jintao: “We are hopeful that the development of [China’s] economy will be accompanied by continued expansion of the rule of law and strengthening of the rights of individuals.” His optimism, however, has yet to be met with direct, public action.

As the University chooses silence over an open acknowledgment of Chinese repression, Yale’s ongoing romance with China and the seemingly unending cross-national exchange of people and ideas has left some students and staff confused about Yale’s integrity. Students wonder what Yale is willing to give up to achieve this goal of expansive engagement and what the future of this love affair will look like.

“Yale’s relationship with mainland China is strongly symbiotic,” Kelsang Dolma ’19 described in an email to me. Dolma, who is ethnically Tibetan, spent her time as an undergrad advocating against Yale’s relationship with what she called a “genocidal country.” Dolma acknowledged that the two-directional exchange of students and scholars should be a point of pride for both sides. Still, “there is no moral reason as to why the University has remained silent about China’s human rights abuses,” she wrote.

When I tried to reach President Salovey for comment, I was forwarded to Donald Filer, the Director of the Office of International Affairs at Yale. Responding to a question about how or when the University chooses to make statements in response to controversy, Filer told me over the phone that “individuals at Yale are always welcome to make comments as individuals on subjects that interest or concern them.”

University spokesperson Karen Peart affirmed Filer’s comments in a News article about Joseph Tsai’s open letter. “Yale vigorously supports free speech on our campus, and the University encourages all our students to participate in open discussions,” Peart told the News. “Whether students agree or disagree with [Tsai], Yale encourages them to [voice opinions] about matters important to them.”

This fall-back on free speech is inadequate for Dolma. “This may be a little naïve but I used to have this idea that universities could be a beacon of freedom of speech, morality, and education,” she told me. “I learned very quickly that ideas, such as freedom of speech, could be used as shields for University administrators from speaking out against people like Joseph Tsai. If people like Tsai have freedom of speech, surely so do Yale administrators. For a University that sells itself on its quest for light and truth, it is appalling that it would consistently turn a blind eye to disinformation in order to appease a foreign nation.”

While Yale-China and the University are separate entities, David Youtz, the director of the Association, believes that a parallel can be drawn between the two organizations that informs how they each engage with China and the restrictions this partnership might pose. They’re both in it for the long-haul, he said, they’re thus doing all that they can to “build things that will last.” Yale-China maintains its apolitical emphasis on understanding and learning, Youtz explained. “I feel that our job is to stay being a bridge if that’s possible. Yale-China, like any organization working in China, has to pick its battles. You have to figure out why you’re there. We try to follow rules, we don’t want to get in trouble and have things closed off.”

The perhaps irreconcilable views of Dolma, Filer, Peart and Youtz are compatible when taken together: Each person is making the case that institutions, like people, are entitled to their opinions. That is what freedom of expression means. But Yale University is not Yale-China, despite Youtz’s comparison. The college does not have the freedom to stay out of politics the way Yale-China can because the college’s aims expand beyond the educational. Additionally, unlike Yale-China, while the University might aspire to political neutrality, reality seems to  suggest this is unattainable. The issues Yale chooses silence over, and the statements Yale opts to make, suggest a strong tilt toward compromising with China. And by falling back on individual — and not institutional — freedom of speech, University administrators seem to indicate  that the liberty to think critically is not being used by the college.

Yale’s sin, therefore, is its lack of voice. The University claims to be striving for political neutrality in its Sino-American engagements, but surely, silence is never neutral.

“What would happen if there were another Tiananmen?” professor Mimi Hall Yiengrpraksawan, former chair of Yale’s Council on East Asian Studies, told the News in 2005. “Where would Yale stand?”

The question was, and is, a hypothetical, but it pokes at something scarily real given China’s repressive tendencies and Yale’s continued silence. While the nature of the violence in Tibet and Xinjiang is more systemic than the 1989 crackdown, a Tiananmen-esque suppression of Hong Kong is within the realm of possibility — especially as violence on college campuses escalates and government patience wears thin.

That is why Yale’s silence in response to Tsai’s statement and China’s actions are so troubling.


During a March speech at Peking University last year, Harvard President Lawrence Bacow brought up about the situation in Xinjiang, quoting a Uighur verse to highlight the intensifying abuse against the Muslim population. Bacow also referenced the May Fourth Movement, an anti-imperialist, student-led campaign in 1919 — another sensitive topic for China’s leadership. He told the audience that the intellectual revolution was “a proud moment in [Chinese] history that demonstrated to the world a deep commitment on the part of young Chinese to the pursuit of truth — and a deep understanding of the power of truth to shape the future.”

Amid growing reports of repression in the Communist country, Bacow’s speech came at a fraught time for U.S.-China relations. But he was able to strike a balance between his critical comments and a celebration of the similarly long ties Harvard has with China. This, and Bacow’s comments on the importance of “truth, excellence and opportunity,” are what Chinese state media focused on in their coverage of the visit.

“[This speech] should’ve served as precedent for other University presidents to take heed,” Kelsang Dolma said. “Unfortunately, President Salovey has not done anything remotely heroic for Uighurs languishing in concentration camps, yet.”

On Oct. 29, the London School of Economics announced its decision to suspend a proposed China program funded by Eric X. Li, a Shanghainese businessman known for his staunchly pro-Beijing ideology and his justification of the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen’s protesters. But LSE academics did not believe that those unsupportive of the contentious Chinese regime would be welcome to the program. And so the shelving of Li’s plan showed the university’s commitment to its community and to the protection of free speech.

It therefore appears that Yale has the strongest historical ties to China and proportionately the weakest commitment to core University values.

According to the Institute of International Education, there were over 363,000 Chinese students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities in the 2017-18 school year. Given this, how can Yale follow the lead set by Harvard and LSE, and facilitate respectful discourse on controversial Chinese issues? How might the University’s leadership and administration be involved in shaping this dialogue?

As Yale Office of International Affairs Director Donald Filer explained to me, “the President or other people in the university capacity only issue statements or make comments on issues as they affect the institution or as they directly affect the work of the faculty, students, research and educational mission of Yale.” What Filer apparently misses is that the Yale community is directly involved, and is every day being impacted by University policies towards China. As millions of Uighurs are subject to a cultural genocide; as Tibet all but disappears; as activists and lawyers are persecuted for advocating for human rights; as Hong Kong hangs by a thread; and as a terrifyingly systemic police state is established, the choice to partner wholeheartedly with China stains Yale’s hands.

Still, it seems impossible to imagine a world where Yale, the United States, or others, actually disengage. So now what?

Some faculty, students and staff have responded by challenging the complacency of their peers and of Yale. Part of this involves emphasizing that everyone has an obligation to preserve the kind of academic space that allows for free speech and thought.

But when Hong Kong pro-democracy activist and Yale student Nathan Law GRD ’20 gave a talk about Hong Kong at the Law School’s Schell Center for International Human Rights on November 15, 2019, mainland Chinese students heckled him from the audience: Disagreeing vehemently with Law’s assessment of police brutality, and insisting that protesters were the true instigators of conflict. In response, Law acknowledged the contentious nature of the situation, reminding attendees of the importance of keeping an open mind and fostering respectful discussion.


As China’s political and economic power expands, so has its ability to shape and censor speech around the world. As the number of controversies emerging from the country increases and as U.S.-China tensions escalate, colleges are becoming hotbeds of international tension, thereby inhibiting the “free exchange of ideas” promised by Yale’s Mission Statement.

When Nathan Law matriculated to Yale this August, he found himself the target of online harassment. Law said he began receiving social media threats, including suggestions of physical violence, soon after he arrived for his yearlong Master’s degree with the Council of East Asian Studies. The more aggressive of these posts were part of a massive smear campaign launched in mainland China, Law told me. Still, he said that some messages were circulated within a WeChat group for Chinese students at Yale, which made Law hesitant to interact with mainlanders, fearing possible biases and potential conflicts.

To their credit, the Yale Police Department and the CEAS offered to implement safety measures, including the monitoring of online harassment. For the most part, though, while individual students and professors have extended an olive branch to Law, the University administration has left him alone, remaining silent against this attack on free speech and the safety of a student.

“I honestly am not sure what the benchmark is for top institutions like Yale,” Law admitted to me, commenting on the continued violence in Hong Kong. The city is, notably, home to over 800 Yale students and alumni, according to February demographic statistics, thereby making the Yale Club of Hong Kong one of the largest in the world. It’s therefore surprising to Law that neither the Club nor the University made public statements about the unrest.

The situation in Hong Kong is not a small issue, Law told me, it is a “humanitarian crisis [caused by] a government Yale works really closely with. And as an institution that has this big corporate relationship with China, Yale should at least address problems like this. No matter mild suggestions or harsh condemnation, they should voice the problems and emphasize the values embedded in the institution and university education.”

Stepping back from the scrutiny of a public statement, Yale could privately address students and staff from Hong Kong, many of whom are emotionally affected by the violence back home, Law told me.

“Where I see our role as educators of the next generation is to do the best we can to promote understanding among people,” President Levin said. This understanding, however, requires University administration and leadership to recognize the consequences of their inaction. By choosing business with China over an acknowledgement of Chinese repression, Yale’s actions appear to neglect the nuances of the University Mission Statement and motto. This is especially true, as the case of Nathan Law’s harassment shows, when the physical and emotional wellbeing of students are threatened. An adequate response does not necessarily require institutionally endorsed public statements for every controversy. To many, though, it means that Yale should reach out to community members affected by situations caused by China or elsewhere — to be “student-focused” and “ethical” in accordance with its Mission.

Otherwise, Yale’s noble strive towards ‘light and truth’ is nothing more than an empty promise.

Hana Davis |