Why the PKU partnership is good for Wellesley

By Charles Bu, Professor of Mathematics

In June 2013, a group of Wellesley students and faculty traveled to Beijing under a major global initiative with a critical mission: to educate the next generation of women leaders around the world. Twenty students each from Wellesley and Peking University (PKU) engaged academic exchange with the theme “Empowering Women for Leadership: Challenges of an Urban Future,” supported by faculty from both institutions. Wellesley’s Albright Institute for Global Affairs has developed an innovative educational model for preparing women for leadership on a global scale, a pedagogy based on a collaborative, multi-disciplinary approach to problem solving.

Prominent women from China and the United States, along with other special guests from around the world, spoke at a special conference to share their experiences and perspectives. These women included U.S. astronaut Pamela Melroy ’83, Yang Lan, China’s most celebrated media entrepreneur, Shirley Young ’55, former vice president of General Motors, and Wu Qing, daughter of Bingxin ’26 and strong advocate for women. Participants engaged and educated each other to help prepare the next generation of women leaders. President Kim Bottomly was interviewed by CCTV Dialogue Show and by reporters from major Chinese media outlets.

Many participants in the PKU exchange program offered high remarks. One student wrote: “Hearing from women leaders across all disciplines was inspirational! Not mention that having the opportunity to sit, eat and chat with women who are accomplished beyond words was once something I could only dream of having the opportunity to do! I know I can speak on behalf of all the fellows when I say how much participating in the conference added to our experience in Beijing. The speakers and panelists you lined up were absolutely phenomenal. On a personal note, this conference left me feeling more confident in myself and my leadership abilities. All of the women I met reminded me that, if I am passionate about it and if I strive for it, I can achieve success in any field of my choice.”

Another student said:  “Thank you again for giving me the opportunity to participate in the conference. It was amazing! There were so many great alums telling their experience in the working field and inspir[ing] me to dare to dream. It also gives me the image of many possibilities that lay ahead of me. The organization of the event was so efficient and elegant that it left me with no doubt that women have the capacity to be more successful.”

As Chair of the Board of Admissions for 2012-13, I was part of our delegation to promote Wellesley in China. In recent years we have received a record number of applications from Chinese students and international citizens living in China. We met with many Wellesley alumnae in Beijing and Shanghai, high school principals and counselors, and prospective students from all parts of China.

The PKU partnership has been wonderful for Wellesley, for our students. However, 136 Wellesley professors signed an open letter to PKU in September asking for reconsideration of the partnership if Professor Xia Yeliang, an outspoken activist, loses his job at PKU. Later, the PKU School of Economics Faculty Evaluation and Appointment Committee voted not to renew his contract, citing poor teaching evaluation. The School has received more than 340 complaints from students. There is also criticism that Professor Xia has not published a single authored research paper in CSSCI (Chinese Social Science Citation Index) in the past 5 years. The issue is complex with only limited and contradictory information available, involving internal affairs of another institution half globe away.

It is worth noting that Professor Xia’s case has attracted disproportionate coverage from U.S. news media, mostly one-sided. The reason for the outcries perhaps is that Professor Xia happens to be an outspoken activist against the Chinese government. Anyone familiar with China’s history knows that PKU is the most liberal university in China. All of the student movements in Chinese history originated from that campus. PKU faculty members are known to be outspoken about their political views which cover the whole political spectrum. Nobody has ever been fired for political reasons.

Even in this complicated situation, our belief in academic freedom is firm. My colleagues and I welcome Professor Xia to Wellesley as a visiting scholar under Freedom Project, pioneered by Professor of Sociology Thomas Cushman.

Wellesley and China share a rich tradition dating back to 1906. Bingxin and Mayling Soong were distinguished Wellesley alumnae from China. Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright ’59 said that the Sino-U.S. relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the 21st century. Richard Nixon opened the door to China when China was far, far worse than today. Wellesley’s partnership with Peking University should continue because young people from both China and the United States benefit from it.

A previous version of this article misstated Xia Yeliang’s name as Yeliang Xia. 

5 Comments

  • pjmooney says:

    Peking University (PKU) has failed to provide concrete evidence regarding its dismissal of economics Professor Xia Yeliang, and I certainly can’t pretend that I know what the real reason is. But Wellesley Professor Charles Bu’s ardent defense of the university in The Wellesley News, as well as in leading Communist Party newspapers, is disturbing.

    Mr. Bu says in this newspaper that the issue regarding the dismissal of Professor Xia Yeliang is “complex with only limited and contradictory information available, involving internal affairs of another institution half globe away.” But then he proceeds to completely rely on statements by the university, which he has no way of verifying, to decide that Mr. Xia was obviously dismissed due to his poor academic record, and he slaps Mr. Xia’s supporters for being one-sided. Isn’t he making that same mistake by just accepting the PKU claims and not giving Mr. Xia’s side of the story? Where’s the balance here?

    Maybe Mr. Xia is an incompetent academic. I have no way to prove or disprove this claim. But there’s good reason to at least question the veracity of PKU’s claims. Many people may be unaware that the real authority in Chinese universities is the party secretary, and not the president of the university. And it should also be noted that the party has a dark history of intimidating Chinese scholars and intellectuals. Can Mr. Bu be unaware of that.

    He has criticized Wellesley faculty for either not having traveled to China, or for not understanding it. But his own comments betray a painful lack of understanding about the situation in China.

    Most troubling is his claim that “PKU faculty members are known to be outspoken about their political views which cover the whole political spectrum. Nobody has ever been fired for political reasons.”

    Yes, many PKU faculty are outspoken. I worked as a journalist in Beijing for 18 years and I relied on the courage and knowledge of many Chinese scholars in my reporting. However, the truth is that there’s a price to pay for being outspoken. Many academics are afraid to express their opinions out for fear of getting into trouble. Often, scholars refused to speak to me because they were afraid, and when they did speak, many asked that I not use their names.

    There’s a long list or Chinese scholars who have been punished or who have lost their jobs at PKU, as well as other major Chinese universities, for the simple act of expressing non-violent political views. Yet Mr. Bu ignores this.

    As Cao Yaxue has pointed out this week in her ChinaChange blog http://chinachange.org/2013/11/25/why-is-a-math-professor-at-wellesley-so-hard-hitting-against-an-economics-professor-fired-by-peking-university-in-china/, there are many examples of political persecution at Peking University from the past two decades right up until now: Chen Po, Department of International Studies, Wang Tiancheng, Department of Law, Yuan Hongbing, Department of Law, and Jiao Guobiao, who was fired for writing an article Crusade against the Propaganda Department in 2005.

    I have personal knowledge of Prof. Jiao’s case, as I wrote about his situation for The Chronicle of Higher Education while I was their correspondent in Beijing. On the morning that he was to leave for a fellowship in the United States, a nervous Prof. Jiao telephoned me to tell me that a police car was waiting outside his campus apartment, in what appeared to be an attempt to prevent him from going to the United States. A car from the US Embassy drove to the PKU campus to pick him up and drive him to the airport. When he came back to Beijing the following year, the university fired him under the pretext that he’d been absent without leave. But the university had canceled his classes in the journalism school before he even left China. The cancelling the classes of independently-minded scholars is common in China.

    Some have also been physically attacked. In 2011, Teng Biao, a respected rights lawyer and legal scholar, had a black hood thrown over his head, was pushed into a car, and was beaten and tortured by police who illegally detaijned him for 68 days. For years, Ilham Tohti, an outspoken economics professor at the Central Minorities University, has been harrassed by police and state security agents. A few weeks ago, a police rear-ended his car, allegedly for speaking to foreign journalists, frightening his wife and daughter who were in the car with him. Mr. Tohti is often followed, is sometimes put under hosue arrest, and was recently prevented from traveling abroad.

    Prof. Bu says that Prof. Xia has not authored a single CSSCI Chinese Social Science Citation Index paper in the past five years. There may be a good reason for that. There are far from enough key journals in China available to accommodate the huge number of manuscripts that Chinese scholars are required to publish each year by China’s Ministry of Education, and the journals fall under the control of the Communist Party. It’s very likely that someone as outspoken as Prof. Xia would not have found it possible to get published in a key Chinese journal. If one searches Prof. Xia’s name in Chinese on the Chinese-language Baidu website, one can find page after page of non-academic writings that were published in the more liberal media in China. He may not have published academic works, but he was quite prolific under the circumstances.

    In a statement published in several leading Communist Party mouthpieces in China, Mr. Bu argued that there were also limits on freedom of expression in the US. Is this not an admission that politics may have been involved in the case of Mr. Xia? If not, why make such a comparison?

    It’s interesting that Mr. Bu refers to Wellesley graduate Bing Xin, one of China’s most famous contemporary writers. Is he unaware that she also suffered for expressing her beliefs? Following the launch of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, Bing Xin’s house was confiscated and, like many other intellectuals, she was forced to live in “cowshed.” In addition, she was denounced and attacked by Mao Zedong’s Red Guards. Then in 1970, at the age of 70, Bing Xin was sent to a May Seventh cadre school in Xianning, Hubei province, where she was subjected to reform through labor.

    Despite such party persecution, Bing Xin steadfastly held to her ideals. In 1989, at the age of 87, she was one of 33 prominent and courageous Chinese intellectuals who signed a petition calling for the release of dissident Wei Jingsheng.
    I have no doubt where Bing Xin would stand on the issue of academic freedom in China today.

    Paul Mooney, Freelance journalist based in Beijing from 1994-2012.

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