University takes tentative approach to Chinese collaboration
Yale will maintain, not expand, ties to Chinese universities in light of ongoing political issues.
Yale Daily News
Yale will now take a more cautious approach to collaborations with China and not expand research projects. While some students have long objected to the University’s neutral stance about the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghurs and its attempts to control Hong Kong politics, professors have recently outlined another complex facet of the relationship between Yale and the PRC, one jam-packed with intellectual and moral considerations for how Yale conducts cross-national research.
In an address to Congress on Wednesday night, President Joe Biden acknowledged that the United States is “in competition” with China and called on China to play by the “same rules in the global economy.” Despite tensions in the political realm, Yale has a history of close work with Chinese scholars and students, Vice President for Global Strategy Pericles Lewis told the News. The research Yale does helps the more positive forces in China flourish, he added, and Yale will continue to collaborate with Chinese universities on issues including health, climate change, education and rule of law. Still, many aspects of the U.S.-China relationship, particularly those related to human rights and intellectual property, complicate Yale’s approach and mean that collaboration will likely not expand.
“We feel very strongly about our positive relationship with [Chinese] universities,” Lewis said. “But it’s also the case that when there are political pressures on the universities and so on, we want to be cautious and not enter into new programs that might create political difficulties. Where environment, health, rule of law are concerned, we think there are opportunities for growth, but we’re just taking a slightly more cautious approach given the political realities.”
In his first phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Biden criticized China for its “crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and increasingly assertive actions in the region, including toward Taiwan,” according to a readout from the White House. The Biden administration has maintained many of the Trump administration’s policies toward China, notably by not repealing tariffs ordered by the former president.
According to a report from the Council on Foreign Relations, “Beijing has been chipping away at Hong Kong’s freedoms since the handover [in 1994].” This includes a 2014 bill proposed by the Chinese allowing Hong Kongers to vote for the city’s chief executive but only from a Beijing-approved short list of candidates. This set off a mass protests movement in Hong Kong, known as the Umbrella Movement. More recently, however, Hong Kong saw its largest protests ever when Beijing attempted to pass legislation that would have allowed criminal extraditions to mainland China.
In the westernmost province of China, Xinjiang, the government has been accused of perpetrating a genocide against its Uyghur ethnic minority. According to a report from the Brookings Institution, this oppression includes “an intensified regime of technologically-driven mass surveillance, internment, indoctrination, family separation, birth suppression, and forced labor.” On his last full day in office, former President Donald Trump designated the oppression of the Uyghurs a genocide.
“I personally strongly regret the Chinese government’s recent actions in Xinjiang and also in Hong Kong,” Lewis said. But Yale generally leaves public statements to faculty experts who have a range of opinions, he added — and so far, Yale has made no University-wide comment on any of these situations.
The University will take a more cautious approach to relations with China in response to Beijing’s actions, preserving but not expanding existing collaborations, Lewis said. Programs out of the Yale Center Beijing, which holds lecture events and allows Yale alumni to connect, will likely continue to expand, he added. But cooperative research projects might not grow for a variety of reasons related to intellectual property and moral considerations.
Elihu professor of history Arne Westad said he supports protesting the Chinese government’s treatment of minorities, particularly of Muslims in Xinjiang. He expressed that he would probably be in favor of the University taking a stance on these issues, but he is not sure how much change it would effect. Instead, Yale should try to actively support the people who are harmed, potentially by creating fellowships or arrangements so Uyghur students or faculty could come to Yale, Westad said.
Yale does not want to be involved in research that could be seen as giving political support to the Chinese government, Lewis said. It does not encourage research that would entangle it with the oppression of Uyghur Muslims, he added.
Faculty members’ interests inform the direction of Yale’s research, however, Lewis said. If faculty want to pursue a research partnership with a Chinese university or individual, they generally first approach their dean. If their dean has concerns, Lewis and Vice Provost for Research Michael Crair chair the International Research, Programs and Activities Policy Committee, or IRPAP, which reviews every significant international research program to ensure that it is within the law and appropriate for Yale’s mission.The IRPAP creates a risk mitigation strategy for qualifying research and can use its authority to disapprove a proposal. Lewis said that Yale does not participate in classified research, so much of the committee’s work is making sure that faculty obey the regulations governing University research.
Government agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, fund the majority of the University’s research, Lewis said. Such partnerships also come with guidance from government agencies, which work to ensure that the United States maintains control over intellectual property and monitors international sources of research support. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have had professors arrested for not properly declaring their Chinese sources of income or hiding affiliations with China.
The U.S. government is understandably concerned about the relationship between the Chinese state and universities, Lewis said. Still, he added that China is not “monolithic.”
Yale tries to make sure its faculty members embarking on cross-national research have the appropriate guidance and advice, Lewis said. If a research project would carry the Yale name, last for multiple years or pose a risk to the reputation of the faculty member or University, Yale wants to examine it carefully.
For the last 20 years, Yale has also used the International Operations and Compliance Committee alongside the IRPAP to coordinate support for the research across University offices, Lewis said. The Yale Institutional Review Board is one step above these committees and approves research, Lewis added.
But still, Yale School of Medicine professor emeritus Kenneth Kidd came under fire in 2019 for the way in which his research was used by the Chinese government in their persecution of the Uyghur people. Kidd made genetic data from his study publicly available; it was then used in a subsequent study, which was used to form a DNA database that could help track down Uyghurs, according to Kidd and a 2019 New York Times report.
Kidd, however, told the News that it was unlikely that his data could even be used in this way, given the kind of the DNA samples from his study, which he said would not be able to easily distinguish among ethnicities in China.
Given the nature of free and open publication of scientific data, Kidd said that it was difficult to stop the misuse or misinterpretation of research.
He added that he was unsure as to the reach of University advice and regulation on research, given the nature of tenured professorships. In the case of his own research, Yale did not intervene.
“I’m sure there are people that discuss it, but one of the aspects of being an independent tenured professor at Yale is that who you collaborate with outside of Yale is largely outside the realm of what University administration deals with,” he said. “They never exercised any influence in the past over who I collaborated with.”
He further acknowledged that the University faces a conflict between the scientific progress enabled by international collaboration and the moral and political considerations that one must take into account when engaging with China. However, there are Chinese researchers who “could be very good collaborators” on scientific research, he said.
“From a purely scientific research position, there are lots of reasons to continue collaborating with China,” he said. “[But] from a political and moral perspective, I am, at this point, not in favor of collaborating with China.”
In contrast, Westad said that Yale should try to have as much contact as possible with faculty and students at Chinese universities while trying to avoid getting entangled in U.S.-Chinese politics.
This will be increasingly difficult under the current circumstances, Westad said. “But that’s not a reason why we shouldn’t try,” he added.
One change he has noted is that people in China to whom he has spoken are becoming more and more afraid of talking about Chinese government’s policies. They fear they are under government surveillance, so it is more difficult to have discussions on the topic.
Still, though the Chinese government attempts to control Chinese universities, faculty and students push back against government control and censorship, Westad said.
“We have everything to gain and they have everything to gain … from these kinds of contacts,” Westad said. “Not the government, but ordinary students and professors.”
Yale’s relationship with China dates back to the mid-1800s.
Correction, Apr. 30: An earlier version of this story referred to the Yale Center Beijing as the “Tsai Center Beijing.” The story has been updated with the correct spelling.