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Jiang: Return Democracy's Call


On the eve of Jiang Zemin's visit to Harvard, we welcome both the Chinese president and his critics. From Jiang, we expect words of historic importance. From his critics, we hope to see a vociferous and memorable protest.

For the first speech by a Chinese president in the University's history, Harvard has provided its largest auditorium in Sanders Theatre and additional broadcast space in the Science Center, making the speech accessible to a large audience. The determined efforts of the administration, and especially the Fairbank Center for East Asian Studies under the direction of Ezra F. Vogel, have allowed this event of global significance to take shape smoothly.

And so the stage is set. Jiang, a professed fan of American culture, will have his chance to see American-style political activism up close--perhaps too close for comfort. Here and nowhere else will Jiang take questions from students interested in the issues, who are not fawning before a powerful head of state. Unfortunately, at Jiang's request, he will have seen the questions beforehand--a far cry from the unscripted question period agreed to by most political speakers at Harvard. Still, as former Chinese political prisoner and Kennedy School of Government graduate Wang Juntao told The Boston Globe last week, "The protests will test Jiang, but the real test will be the questions from the audience at Harvard."

That Jiang followed through on his intention to include Harvard on his short list of American stops--despite warnings by his handlers that he would face a protest the likes of which he has never encountered--suggests a willingness to further engage in an open dialogue with the West. At Harvard, seen by many abroad as a bastion of American liberalism, Jiang will be forced to confront calls for democratic reform more than anywhere else on his U.S. tour. At Harvard, more than anywhere else, Jiang will be forced to see that in America, the right to free expression is not his alone. He will see how protest and dissent are voiced in a democratic society that respects personal freedoms.

Here, the right of free expression also belongs to the former political prisoner Harry Wu, who will speak just after Jiang, at 1 p.m., on the steps of Memorial Church. Here, it also belongs to the 10 Buddhist monks from India who will join dissidents and students in a rally called "No One Is Safe Under Jiang Zemin's Dynasty," to begin tomorrow at 8 a.m. along Kirkland and Oxford streets. Here, it belongs to the members of the Tibetan Association, who are conducting a 48-hour hunger strike in Swedenborg Chapel, just opposite Memorial Hall. Although we acknowledge that these protests have mostly symbolic value, we would hope that Jiang learns from them.

While China's recent human rights violations are condemnable, the country under the current regime has progressed. We hope neither Jiang nor China will shy away from increasing world involvement and the world's democratic influence. Not a few observers have predicted that China, with five times the population of the United States, will fill the economic, political and military power vacuum left by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In this emerging balance of power, with the stakes as high as economic and military security for all, we hope Beijing does not retreat into defensive isolation.

Indeed, the protests will have accomplished little for the suffering citizens of China, or for the cause of democracy worldwide, if Jiang does not return home with a new commitment to reform. Hopefully, once back in Beijing, Jiang will build on his reputation as an economic modernizer to become a force for social and political change as well, by ordering the release of political prisoners, ending the abusive laogai system of prison labor, strengthening freedom of speech at China's universities, guaranteeing freedom of the press and opening a dialogue with advocates of Tibetan independence. Among the many reforms China needs to make, these are five of the most pressing.

Ultimately, we can only call on Jiang to listen to the sounds that will surround him here tomorrow--the sounds of protests by the citizens of America. Furthermore, we ask those diverse groups represented at the protests--liberals, conservatives, Tibetans, Taiwanese, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, business people and academics--to unite behind what is right. Unite behind freedom.

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