Princeton professor emeritus E. Perry Link ’66, who specializes in the history of China, visited a Harvard freshman seminar focused on Chinese rebellions Tuesday, where he spoke to students about the country’s history and politics.
The seminar, titled “Rebels with a Cause” and taught by Rowena X. He, focuses on the Beijing happenings of June 4, 1989, when the People's Liberation Army of China opened fire against students protesting in Tiananmen Square and neighboring areas.
Link, who was living in Beijing at the time of the events, was banned from re-entering China in 1996 because of his critical stances toward the Communist Party. During the two-hour seminar, he responded to questions that students fielded about his thoughts on the Tiananmen incident, his visions regarding the future of China, and his experience being blacklisted.
Before the session, the students in the seminar read Link’s book “Evening Chats in Beijing,” published in 1993. The book explores modern Chinese society through the lens of everyday life in the nation.
In a room dusty with chalk, Link stood before a table of approximately 12 students, several from mainland China, in the second floor of Sever Hall. Professors from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Harvard Business School also attended the seminar, which meets once a week.
“The legitimacy of the [Communist] Party hit bottom with the Tiananmen massacre, when the PLA opened fire on the Chinese people,” Link said. “What can be more delegitimizing than that?”
Link proposed an interpretation of the subsequent history of China as a direct response of the Chinese Communist Party to those events in Tiananmen Square.
“What could the party do? Nationalism was one of the big answers. The other was money,” Link said. “Go for it, make money. Shut up about politics and religion.”
Recalling his experiences at Princeton after June 1989, Link discussed the political struggles that happened within the university itself. According to Link, Princeton received a large sum of money from an alumnus with the goal that it should be used to bring in political refugees from China.
“Princeton in the early 90s got a reputation for being a hotbed of counter-revolutionary activity,” Link said. “Some wealthy Princeton alums who worked at Morgan Stanley didn’t like this...They brought pressure on the administration to start doing more friendly things toward China.”
When asked by several students in the seminar about his personal hopes for the future of China, Link said that he would like to see the country democratize and that he is confident this might happen in the long run.
“If you want to see a Chinese version of democracy, it is a great thing to just look at Taiwan,” Link said. “I don't like an authoritarian government’s argument that you can’t bring democracy to a certain place because that place’s culture is different.”
Link concluded the session by remarking that being banned from China hurts him most because of the impact the blacklisting has had on fellow scholars in the field.
“It isn’t that bad to be on the blacklist. The most unpleasant part is that my example gets viewed with fear by other people in the field, and they self-censor,” Link said. “I am used by the Chinese government as their tool to inducing self-censorship in other scholars.”
—Staff writer Antonio Coppola can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AntonioCoppolaC.
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