On First Trip to U.S., Vietnam Prime Minister Visits Harvard

The Vietnamese prime minister’s four-city tour of the United States brought him this Friday to Boston, where he met with education leaders at Harvard and MIT before encountering protests from the local Vietnamese population.

Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, who brought more than 200 delegates with him, is the highest-ranking Vietnamese communist official to visit the United States since the Vietnam War ended in 1975.

His schedule on Friday included meetings with University President Lawrence H. Summers and MIT President Susan Hockfield. Khai, who claimed higher education as a theme of his visit, spent part of the afternoon on a Kennedy School of Government (KSG) panel discussion devoted specifically to that topic.

Summers spokesman John Longbrake said Summers and Khai discussed ways to use education to fight global challenges.

“In particular they spoke about the role of higher education in driving economic growth and of the importance of global cooperation on public health threats such as avian influenza and AIDS,” he said.

The afternoon KSG panel, led by former Dean of the Faculy of Arts and Sciences Henry Rosovsky—who is currently co-chair of a joint UNESCO-World Bank committee on higher education in developing countries—addressed the future of higher education in Vietnam. Harvard Business School Professor Tarun Khanna, as well as scholars from MIT and Tufts University, also participated in the discussion.

That the prime minister spent his afternoon at the KSG was appropriate. The school presently runs a special Vietnam Program, which tries to help bring about economic reform in the country.

Harvard is also responsible for two smaller programs in Vietnam, both addressing different facets of the country’s the HIV-AIDS epidemic.The AIDS Public Policy Program at the Kennedy School’s Center for Business and Government examines the problem from a public policy point of view, while the CDC-Harvard-Vietnam HIV AIDS Project at the Department of Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School studies its medical ramifications.

Khai has been criticized for religious intolerance and violation of human rights in his role as a communist leader, and Vietnamese immigrant populations all over the country—many of whom fled Khai’s government—have been staging protests against the Prime Minister’s visit.

The Vietnam American Community of Massachusetts (VACM) organized a Boston protest in Copley Square, right outside the Westin Copley Hotel, where Prime Minister Khai delivered a lunchtime address sponsored by Liberty Mutual. Most of the protestors were waving the yellow and red South Vietnamese flag—which is now the official banner of Boston’s Vietnamese population. They chanted in both Vietnamese and English.

According to Thanh Nguyen, one of the VACM organizers who left Vietnam in 1988 to escape the communist government, the Boston protest itself drew demonstrators from all over the country.

“We’re all here today fighting for freedom, democracy, and Vietnam,” he said.

At the Copley Square luncheon, whose guests included Senator Edward M. Kennedy ’54, D-Mass., and Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Khai said that Boston’s success in forging a bond between its universities and technological innovation is a strong model for countries like Vietnam.

“I have always asked myself how Boston could be turned into a leading economic, scientific and educational hub in the United States as it is today within such a short time span,” Khai said, according to a transcript of his remarks. “That question has somehow been answered through...the perfect links between first-class universities and state-of-the-art technology on the one side and business investment on the other.”

“The first thing to do to apply this experience is to build an international-standard university in Vietnam and we look forward to your assistance to make this happen,” he told the American officials in attendance.

—Staff writer Jenny Tsai can be reached at tsai3@fas.harvard.edu.