Of Dissidents and Scholars

Activist’s case reveals the important international role of American universities

This Saturday, Chen Guangcheng arrived in New York City, finally escaping the ordeal of persecution he suffered in his native China. The blind activist, recognized worldwide for his legal efforts on behalf of the disenfranchised, and most notably for his struggles against forced abortions and sterilizations in Shandong Province, has come a long way since he dramatically escaped house arrest in April. It appears that the Chinese government allowed Mr. Chen to leave the country on the condition that he not do so as an asylum seeker—instead, he has been given a law fellowship to study at New York University.

This last detail might be considered but a minor one in Mr. Chen’s unlikely saga, yet it hints at the important role held by American universities in fostering democracy and good governance abroad. In this particular case, Mr. Chen’s affiliation with NYU is a way for the Chinese government to save face. In the eyes of Beijing, amnesty for Mr. Chen would only legitimize his suffering and his cause. While the communist regime maintains a tight control on the media at home—one state-run tabloid condescendingly claimed that “dissidents…fail to make a dent among the Chinese”—it is highly sensitive to criticism from the international community. Yet it seems likely that Mr. Chen will benefit from his time at NYU, and, if he one day returns home, he will arrive better-equipped to battle the injustices he may there encounter.

On another level, American universities have a unique opportunity to encourage democracy abroad. Nearly 700,000 foreign students currently pursue higher education in the United States. Many of them will return home and, one day, serve as leaders in their national communities. During their time in America, these students are exposed to a vibrant environment of open discourse they might not find in their own countries. By becoming part, if only temporarily, of a society that prizes freedom of speech and civil liberties, foreign students may come to better appreciate that such values are crucial to national wellbeing.

Harvard, due in part to its unparalleled resources and international prestige, has long served as a center for molding world leaders. In fact, the University frequently welcomes to its fold the children of current global figures. The recent controversy surrounding Bo Guagua—a student at the Harvard Kennedy School whose father, former regional Chinese Communist Party leader Bo Xilai, suffered a well-documented political downfall—serves as an uncomfortable reminder of this.  For better or worse, a comparatively large number of foreign students at Harvard are uniquely poised to hold positions of influence in the future. Still other international students, armed with the prestige that a Harvard education confers, may very well be powerful figures one day. We hope that their time here allows them to grow as persons, so that they may one day better serve their countries.