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Letter to the Editor: In Response to ‘The End of the Harvard Century’

By William P. Alford
William P. Alford is the Director of the East Asian Legal Studies Program and Jerome A. and the Joan L. Cohen Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.

To the Editor:

Thank you for the opportunity to share a few comments regarding your recent article, “The End of the Harvard Century.”

I have worked extremely hard for decades to engage with China in a principled manner. Over the years, I have hosted innumerable scholars, lawyers, activists, and programs concerned with all manner of sensitive issues related to China, including Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, dissidents, the South China Sea, censorship, trade, IP infringement, corruption, and more. These included Teng Biao, who I readily invited to spend a year at Harvard when he first arrived in the United States after fleeing China and for whom I tried hard to open opportunities into the intellectual life of Harvard Law School throughout the year. My writing, both academic and general, has consistently argued for the importance of human rights and the rule of law in China for more than 30 years. And I have been heavily involved in pro bono work regarding rights and legal development in the People’s Republic of China from 1982 onward.

My hope is for students to be exposed to a broad range of ideas (which is why I invited Mr. Teng, among others, to speak in my class in the spring of 2015) and to form their own judgments about China's past and present. I have always encouraged open dialogue and debate at the Law School — as my colleagues, students and hundreds of others can attest (and as many have underscored since the article's publication). Endeavoring to take full account of both China's successes and its failures (including, most importantly, with respect to human rights) is constantly challenging, but critical and energizing.

I did ask that the event Mr. Teng was planning to hold timed to coincide with former University President Drew G. Faust meeting the Chinese President be postponed until after she had concluded her short Beijing visit because I thought that timing might harm Harvard activity there (including regarding academic, scientific, humanitarian and rights matters). As the person who had first invited Mr. Teng to Harvard, I felt some responsibility for whatever impact his undertakings might have for others at the university. Contrary to the article's speculation, there were no secret or other requests from anyone in China or at Harvard about it. Prior to that point, Mr. Teng had freely and frequently used the year to speak publicly on human rights, politics, and any other issues he wished, and it was my expectation that this particular event could and would be held later in the spring of 2015. I did not ask that my conversation with him on that or any other topic be kept secret.

William P. Alford is the Director of the East Asian Legal Studies Program and the Jerome A. and Joan L. Cohen Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.

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