Last night, the Lecture Fund and the International Relations Club hosted a spirited discussion entitled “Striking the Balance: How Should American Universities Engage the Chinese Government?” Provoked by a recent Voice feature (Full Disclosure: Perry is the author of this feature) that detailed the University’s growing relationships with Chinese government institutions, the event became an evaluation of the history of modern Chinese human rights and a debate over the ethics of the University’s efforts in China.
In a discussion moderated by Father Stephen Fields of the Theology Department, the panelists were Wei Jingsheng, a prominent Chinese dissident who was exiled for his pro-democracy activism, Ciping Huang, the Secretary General of the Overseas Chinese Democracy Coalition who also served as Jingsheng’s translator, T. Kumar, the Director of International advocacy for Amnesty International USA, and Professor Thomas Banchoff, the Director of the Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.
The most contentious part of the dialogue concerned Georgetown’s response to China’s denial in 2008 and 2009 of University professor James Millward‘s visa requests. Kumar and Wei disagreed with Banchoff over the University’s position on academic freedom and China.
Kumar criticized Georgetown for strengthening ties with China after Millward was denied a visa, advocating a “red lines” ethical stance.
“Georgetown maintaining it’s relationship with China after they deny the visa of a professor here,” Kumar said, “It’s an insult to Georgetown itself.”
“The policy of red lines is a bit dangerous,” Banchoff responded. “Are we going to cut off our relations with China? Are we going to expel the 120 Chinese scholars who are here? Are we not going to let our students study abroad? We have 20 agreements with Chinese universities on exchanges, so it’s not that simple. We have to be proportionate in our response.”
“If you don’t stand up for your own colleague or professor, then why are you there?” Kumar asked. “What matters is principle.”
“We should never compromise our principles,” Wei weighed in. “Then you compromise everything.”
The question and answer portion of the event demonstrated that many in the audience were there not to hear a discussion of Georgetown’s engagement with China, but to see Wei. One Chinese student asked him what actual contributions he has made to the Chinese in addition to his criticism of the nation’s government. In response, Wei cleverly defended his record in exile.
“You mentioned I have been criticizing the Chinese government,” Wei said. “This is the one very important thing I have been doing for the Chinese people.”
Daniel Lamagna (COL ’13), one of the organizers of the event, wrote an op-ed in the September 29 issue of the Voice that outlined the challenges he faced in bringing Wei to Georgetown. In the article, Lamagna said that “not only did the majority of professors seem reluctant to even entertain the idea, many advised that Georgetown’s ‘extremely sensitive’ relationship with the CCP made inviting a pro-democracy dissident to campus too ‘delicate.’ One faculty member said that while he supported the concept, he feared possible ‘repercussions’ from the University.”
After the panel, Lamagna said he was happy that Banchoff was able to provide balance to the panel and offer the University’s perspective on its engagement with China.
Photo: Jackson Perry