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For a country still draped in the red of world-wide Communist revolution, China has been acting quite pro-Western of late. Indeed, straying from its historical central planning, China has built up ties with American businessmen, joined the World Trade Organization, allowed private enterprise—and an entrepreneurial class—to flourish and liberalized trade around Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai. The Chinese state’s latest overture of good will—the forthcoming visit of Premier Wen Jiabao—arrives in Massachusetts next week.
Wen is the third most powerful man in the Communist Party of China, and he has a strong record of deal-brokering, from setting up free-trade zones to implementing a multilateral deal with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to fight illegal immigration, drug trafficking and terrorism. In the United States, the Chinese premier will likely discuss recent American trade sanctions on Chinese textiles with President Bush, dine with Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino and offer an address at Harvard Business School.
University President Lawrence H. Summers should respectfully welcome Wen to Harvard next week. But after the requisite formalities, Summers should not let the premier get away unscathed. China’s steady economic liberalization and the international goodwill Wen is trying to cultivate are both heartening developments. Nobody wants China to be a rogue state. But the country’s strides on the economic front cannot justify its stumbles when it comes to democracy and human rights, and Summers should not allow Wen to sweep China’s record of wholesale human-rights violations and violent crackdowns on democracy advocates under the rug.
Most importantly, Summers has to push Wen to release Yang Jianli, a 1995 graduate of the Kennedy School of Government, now languishing in a Chinese prison. Yang is an unapologetic democracy activist, and the Chinese authorities threw dubious espionage charges his way after he entered the country with fake papers a year-and-a-half ago. And even though Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and a number of other Washington politicians have called for Yang’s release—including forceful letters from members of Congress sent to President Bush and Premier Wen last week—Summers has so far kept silent. Wen’s visit is a golden opportunity for Summers to finally speak up for one of Harvard’s own. Yang is a member of the University community, and his cause is one that Harvard should champion with words and deeds. As of now, Summers has not even gotten to the former. It would be unconscionable for the University president to further neglect advocating for Yang’s release during the visit of such a high-level Chinese cadre.
Premier Wen once demonstrated considerable courage when he visited pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square with seemingly deep concern for their safety, before the bloody Party crackdown in 1989. Summers would demonstrate true leadership by appealing to Wen’s demonstrated sympathy for Chinese democracy agitators and encouraging Yang’s release. Harvard students past and present should expect nothing less of their University president.
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