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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
As helicopters buzzed overhead and heightened campus security stood guard at the doors, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told roughly 800 Harvard students and professors yesterday that economic development must proceed democracy in China.
“There is no question that to develop democracy is part of our endeavor,” the third highest ranking Chinese official said through a translator, but “development in China is a big step to be taken first.”
Though elections are used at the town and village level in China, Wen said that several measures, such as improving the election system and raising education levels, must be taken before the country can transition to a socialist democracy.
The premier’s speech, held at the Business School’s Burden Hall, steered clear of such sensitive topics as Taiwan and Tibet, but was not without controversy.
Wen’s speech was interrupted by a leader of Students for a Free Tibet, who stood up, unfurled a Tibetan flag and chanted, “Tibet belongs to the Tibetan people. We will never stop fighting.”
The student was quickly escorted from the building, and it is unclear whether she will face disciplinary action.
In an address that lasted more than an hour, the premier touched upon his love of students, China’s historical development and Chinese-American political and economic relations.
To open the speech, Wen briefly donned the professor’s cap, addressing the students in the audience to give a brief history lesson on the development of Chinese culture and thought and its influences on the Western world.
“I know that China and the United States are far apart geographically; I hope my speech will help increase our mutual understanding,” he said.
The 5,000-year-old civilization is the source of pride of every Chinese citizen, he later added.
Despite this strong and rich history, Wen extolled the challenges posed today by China’s incredibly dense population, arguing that despite recent and rapid industrialization and urbanization, the country is not yet fully developed.
On the recently contentious issue of trade policy, Wen said that talks with President Bush were highly productive, noting that the President had agreed to give China more leeway in its development.
“What I propose is that we should not turn to economic and trade restrictions, the relationship is mature enough to withstand these small problems,” he said. “President Bush agreed to all my proposals.”
The U.S. faces a projected $120 billion trade deficit with China this year—the largest the U.S. has ever faced with another country, and a fact Wen did not fail to notice.
“I have to recognize that the U.S. runs quite a significant trade deficit,” he said. “We need to find a solution to the trade imbalance problem, but the answer is for the U.S. to increase its exports to china. Each side must take into interest the benefits of the other side.”
Wen did not delve much into the issue of China’s history of alleged human rights violations in yesterday’s speech.
“I am not suggesting that China’s human rights situation is impeccable,” he said. “The Chinese government has been making efforts to improve practices and correct efforts in this field.”
Some at Harvard have taken a particular interest in this issue recently, as a Harvard alum has been detained in China for more than a year-and-a-half.
Yang Jianli, a former Kennedy School graduate student and pro-democracy activist, was arrested for entering China using false documents in April 2002. He was tried this past August but has not been sentenced.
Yang’s wife, Harvard Medical School researcher Christina Fu, wrote to Harvard-based supporters urging them to sign a letter to Wen asking for her husband’s release.
Fu faxed a request to the Chinese Embassy in Washington on Monday for a meeting with Wen himself, according to The Boston Globe. But as of Tuesday night, she hadn’t received a response.
Fu was unavailable for comment this week.
University President Lawrence H. Summers has raised Yang’s case to Chinese and American officials and has written a letter concerning the matter to the Chinese ambassador to the United States.
A University spokesperson said yesterday he was not aware of the details of Summers’ discussions with Wen.
Rolling Out the Red Carpet
Wen’s visit to Harvard was met with much fanfare by the University.
The red and yellow Chinese flag flapped beside its American counterpart in the breeze outside University Hall yesterday, as fan boats glided down the frozen Charles River.
The event, arranged by the Office of the President in conjunction with the Asia Center and the Fairbank Center, comes six years after the last major Chinese official spoke at Harvard.
In November 1997, 1,000 people requested tickets to attend a speech by Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
Nearly 4,000 supporters and protesters rallied outside the event, including members of the Tibetan Association of Boston and The Coalition for Freedom and Human Rights in Asia who protested China’s policies and criticized its then-president.
But yesterday’s visit was greeted by relatively little protest on campus, partly due to a security perimeter that stretched from Allston to this side of the river.
Some members of a movement known as the Falon Gong were the only protesters gathered outside the entrance to Burden Hall.
And University Spokesperson Joe Wrinn told the Associated Press that “85 protesters took to a nearby street, protesting China’s human rights record and its policies on Taiwan and Tibet...Several dozen counterprotesters also hailed Wen’s visit.”
Meghan C. Howard ’04, the student who interrupted the address, said she snuck the Tibetan flag past security in her pants, because she was confident they wouldn’t search there, and waited for the right moment to make her demonstration. When Wen spoke of his love for “his people,” she said, she moved.
“I just thought, ‘The Tibetan people don’t consider themselves to be his people,’” she said.
Howard was escorted from the event when she refused to cooperate with police, who asked her to sit down and stop disturbing the event, according to HUPD Spokesperson Steven G. Catalano.
Wen responded to the act by stating, “I will not be disrupted because I am deeply convinced that the three hundred million American people have friendly feelings towards the Chinese people.”
Howard later said she thought Wen’s remark missed the point of her protest.
“I don’t have negative feelings toward China, and especially not the Chinese people,” she said. “Obviously you just don’t care about the Tibetans if you’re going to commit genocide and all the other things that go on in Tibet.”
It is unclear whether Howard will be disciplined for her actions.
As of last night, Howard said she had not been contacted by any university officials about disciplinary actions, although the police did tell her they would be submitting a report to the Administrative Board.
“We have incidents over the course of the year which involve students, where the info is forwarded to the College and then often times the College will take appropriate action through the Administrative Board,” Catalano said.
But he would not definitively comment on whether such a report was filed in this instance.
And though foreign news service Agence France-Presse reported that “university officials said she would be brought before a disciplinary committee for disrupting the event,” University spokespeople said they had no knowledge of whether any such action would be taken.
For now, Howard is sitting tight.
“I don’t know how it works...I’ve never been in trouble before,” she said. “I think it was embarrassing enough for [Harvard] that they’re not going to let me go that easily.”
—Staff writer Nathaniel A. Smith contributed to the reporting of this story.
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