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International students Zooming into class from outside of the U.S. may find themselves studying material considered politically sensitive in their home countries. Anticipating this issue, Harvard’s Information Technology Department published a web manual in late August for professors to support at-risk students whose country of residence “would be hostile to the discussion of certain topics.”
While the manual does not directly name the countries where class discussions might prove “socially, culturally, or legally problematic,” given the prevailing U.S.-Chinese tensions and China’s incessant interference with free speech — both domestically and internationally — it is natural for this topic to draw our eyes to Harvard’s complicated relationship with China. These tensions have already bubbled up in the Zoom-era, when a U.S.-held virtual commemoration for the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre was shut down by Zoom at the request of the Chinese government this June.
Concerns over rising Chinese aggression pervade academia and geopolitics. Indeed, for China, where universities are governed by the state, there seems to be little difference between the ascent of China the global power and China the academic powerhouse. As such, China’s tense international relations with other nations have been felt at the university-level, as evidenced by Chinese meddling that has targeted, for political gain, Chinese university students in the U.S. and abroad.
Despite U.S.-China hostility, both Harvard and China certainly benefit from their interactions. For Harvard — for us — it is clearly useful to build ties and familiarity with the most populous country on Earth; additionally, a strong working relationship can enable international research efforts. The work done by the Harvard-Yenching Institute, the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, the Harvard Asia Center, and the Harvard China Fund to critically understand and engage China — politics, society, history and people — gives testament to the benefits of constructive engagement.
However, when dealing with an autocratic regime with a history of human rights abuses and disregard for academic freedom, it’s been difficult for Harvard to maintain its so-called “foreign policy [of] Veritas.” Without a doubt, the Chinese academic system is strictly controlled by the state. There are seven topics that are banned on campuses in China, and professors have been wrongfully detained for their political views. How, then, should Harvard evaluate and maintain its relationship with China, such that it does not become complicit in China’s attack on rights and freedoms?
Previously, Harvard has attempted to avoid political controversies, claiming that the University’s express goal will always be the advancement of research and other academic pursuits. But if the University compromises on academic freedom out of the desire to promote collaboration and avoid embarrassing its counterpart, it will no longer deserve the motto of Veritas. The Crimson reported a dangerous precedent earlier this year, when Teng Biao, a Chinese dissident and visiting scholar at Harvard, was asked by an administrator to postpone his talk for fear of offending China and “harm[ing] Harvard activity there”.
Academic freedom — the ability to, out of a desire for truth and knowledge, probe unwelcome topics and challenge prevailing narratives and governments — is a powerful ideal that, unfortunately, can be easily undermined. At Harvard (unlike some peer institutions around the world), academic freedom has not been publicly challenged by the Chinese government, but, as evident from the treatment of Teng’s event, the chilling effect of self-censorship can be challenging enough in itself.
As Harvard stands at the forefront of the international academic world, it must do its part and uphold academic freedom around the globe. Harvard cannot simply stand idly-by, cherry picking when to promote knowledge and when to allow suppression. To stand true to the principle of Veritas, it should ensure that, within its abilities, students and academics everywhere may learn, teach and research without duress and retribution, or the fear of it. This means substantively and symbolically standing up against all attacks on academic freedom, whether it be from foreign countries or domestic xenophobia and nationalism. There are good examples of this work, such as the Scholar-at-Risk program and the University’s legal rebuke against the federal government’s barring of international students; Harvard just has to steadfastly commit to its beautiful rhetoric.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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