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.