Cornell Students Call to Halt China Partnership

Students join profs to stand against lucrative China deal

Cornell University / Source: Robert Barker/University Photography
March 30, 2021

Cornell's student assembly unanimously demanded that the university "halt" plans for a new joint degree program funded by the Chinese government, a further setback for administrators grappling with a faculty revolt over their close ties to the authoritarian country.

The university's student leaders have chimed into the faculty-administration row over a multimillion-dollar partnership with Peking University, demanding during a March 25 meeting that Cornell suspend the partnership and "reevaluate all current international collaborations" for compliance to ethical standards.

"Obviously there were people in the student assembly who weren't happy with the cooperation with Peking University," Youhan Yuan, a student assembly member, told the Washington Free Beacon. "There is a risk that Peking University might do something despicable that you do not like. And that would be bad for your ethical standards."

The resolution—which passed with 18 yeas, 0 nays, and 4 abstentions—is not binding. University rules, however, require Cornell president Martha Pollack to respond to the petition within 30 days, forcing the president to provide an on-the-record statement about the partnership for the first time. Cornell University has thus far refused to acknowledge that China is committing any human-rights abuses that warrant a response from the university. 

The resolution's passage is a sign that students, not just professors, increasingly see the Peking University partnership as an unseemly collaboration with a regime that inflicts genocide on Muslim Uighurs and jails students for speaking their mind. The growing campus-wide discontent threatens to upend not just Cornell's partnership with Peking University, but the entirety of its multimillion-dollar association with China.

"Continuing to partner with [Peking University] and other institutions in China normalizes and accepts the genocide that is currently ongoing," Laila Abd Elmagid, another student assembly member, said during the March 25 deliberations. 

Since the beginning of the row in February, Cornell administrators feared that opposition toward the Peking University partnership might morph into a larger movement questioning whether Cornell should be in China at all. In a Feb. 24 faculty senate meeting, Michael Kotlikoff, the university's number-two administrator, conceded that professors opposed the Peking University program out of human-rights concerns that "could be leveled" at "many programs, existing programs in China." 

The student resolution indicates that the administrator's fears are now reality. The resolution targets not just Cornell's ties to China, but with all countries "where academic freedom is in question," such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. 

Cornell has a mixed track record when it comes to its response to student demands for divestments. In the last two years, the university administration rebuffed student demands to boycott Israel but accepted their petition to divest from fossil fuels. But even if Cornell yields to faculty and student demands, the university must decide what its new relationship with China will look like in light of the country's human-rights abuses. Should Cornell withdraw from China entirely, or only from some programs?

Weifeng Yang, a Chinese student activist at Cornell, opposed a "complete ban" on Chinese partnership. Instead, he proposed that the university should jettison all "academically unfulfilling" programs but keep immersion programs in China that will help raise the next generation of China hands in the United States. Yang said the Peking University partnership should be on the chopping block because it is an obvious cash grab by the university. Administration officials have admitted as much, calling the partnership a "very profitable venture" that will raise up to $1 million in annual profit.

"Cornell gets cash and Peking University gets prestige," Yang told the Free Beacon. "Cornell is selling its prestige at a particular time when China needs this prestige because of the s— they have done."

But whatever the university's new relationship will look like, Cornell Republicans president Weston Barker said Cornell must acknowledge that the Chinese government is committing crimes against humanity.

"Cornell University should at the bare minimum take the stance of both the Trump and Biden administrations in acknowledging the Uighur genocide," Barker said. "The actions being taken in Xinjiang by the CCP have been increasingly documented and cannot be ignored."

The university did not respond to a request for comment.