It’s not a surprise for most Harvard students to hear of the diversity of the University endowment’s investments: over $3 billion in the stock market, entire forests in New Zealand, real estate and other assets galore totaling some $22.6 billion. Yet the University’s stock in a Chinese firm doing business with the government in Sudan is raising some eyebrows on campus, and with good reason. As of June 30 of this year, Harvard owned 72,000 shares valued at about $3.87 million in an oil company named PetroChina—almost wholly owned by the Chinese government—which is participating in a joint-venture with the Sudanese government, in effect providing that regime with cash that has been used to wage a brutal war on its own people.
This is not the first time Harvard’s investments have crossed paths with a controversial African regime: In the 1970s and 1980s, the University seemed to do its best to maintain its state and private investments in the white-minority South African regime, still in the grip of apartheid. Even the election of anti-apartheid activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu to Harvard’s Board of Overseers in 1989 did not convince the University to fully divest.
With the cries for intervention and action against the barbaric, state-sponsored slaughter and mass rape in Darfur, Sudan reaching a fever pitch, we hope Harvard doesn’t find itself on the wrong side of such an important issue again.
In all fairness, if the University still owns the stock, the estimated value of the investment in PetroChina is a mere 0.02 percent of Harvard’s endowment and a fraction of that company’s public holdings. Yet the relative amount of money does not matter in this case: Any amount of money, any fraction of a dollar that Harvard invests in a company with such a disregard for the ethical implications of its activities is too much.
We don’t expect that Harvard alone can do much damage to PetroChina. But as one of America’s most recognizable and respected institutions, Harvard has an opportunity to spur a divestment campaign in this country. If the University divests, other investment funds susceptible to public pressure, such as state pension funds, may choose to divest as well. With formal economic sanctions in the U.N. rendered impossible by China’s veto power on the Security Council and military intervention in Sudan unlikely at best, Harvard must lead the movement to divest—starving the Sudanese government of the support it requires to fund the genocide in Darfur and signaling American support for human rights in Africa.
Even if University divestment has a negligible impact on PetroChina or the government in Sudan, we consider dumping the shares to be a moral imperative. In the recent past, we have declined to call for Harvard to divest from investments that were at best ethically neutral, such as the money Harvard had in conglomerates that owned defense contractors before the Iraq War. Not every case for divestment is as clear as this one. The money Harvard made off its PetroChina investment is bloodstained crimson; if the University still has holdings in PetroChina, it should get rid of them immediately.