Harvard Canceled Human Rights Event as Its President Met With Xi Jinping

Human rights scholar says university trades free inquiry for Chinese dollars

Then-Harvard University president Drew Gilpin Faust and Chinese president Xi Jinping / Getty Images
May 4, 2020

Harvard University canceled a panel discussion on human rights issues in China because the event coincided with the university president's meet-and-greet with Chinese president Xi Jinping, according to a former university scholar.

Teng Biao, a former fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's human rights center, attempted to host a panel discussion on Chinese human rights issues in 2015. A vice dean at Harvard Law School, however, ordered him in February of that year to cancel the event because it would have been "embarrassing" for the university, according to Teng.

"He called me into his office and he told me that the Harvard president was meeting Chinese president Xi Jinping," Teng told the Washington Free Beacon. "It seems that for Harvard leaders, it was very embarrassing if we had a talk at Harvard about human rights issues in China when the Harvard president just came back from China after meeting with the Chinese president."

Teng is a human rights lawyer who fled China after authorities kidnapped and tortured him for his participation in the 2014 Hong Kong protests. Professor William P. Alford, a vice dean at the Harvard Law School, played a role in bringing Teng to Harvard. He also ordered Teng to cancel the event, according to the Harvard Crimson. Alford confirmed with the Free Beacon that he told Teng to postpone the event, a decision he made on his own accord, rather than at the administration's urging. He said that he allowed Teng to host other events during his time at Harvard. While Teng did participate in other events, he said the panel discussion was never rescheduled.

Alford told the Free Beacon that he intervened because he did not want to endanger the university's Chinese operations.

"I did ask that an event Mr. Teng planned to hold to coincide with a meeting between this university's President and the Chinese President be postponed until after her short Beijing visit because I thought that timing might have an impact on university activity there (regarding academic, scientific, humanitarian and rights matters)," Alford said. "As the person who first invited Mr. Teng to spend a year here, I felt some responsibility for whatever impact his undertakings might have for others at the university."

As China grew wealthier in the 21st century, its state-backed institutions targeted higher education, seeking access to cutting-edge research and high-quality education. Western universities, in turn, looked at China as a lucrative new revenue stream, partnering with Chinese universities and cashing grant checks from controversial Chinese firms such as telecommunications giant Huawei. The regime's ties with these elite institutions, however, have gradually eroded the principles of free inquiry, academic freedom, and free speech. Teng's case is emblematic of the erosion, which has only accelerated since 2015.

"Academic freedom should be an important principle of Harvard or any universities," Teng said. "I was shocked when I saw this obvious self-censorship by Harvard. The Chinese government's increasing influence on American universities is really alarming."

China has spent eye-popping sums of money on elite Western universities. Chinese companies, universities, and nationals have gifted more than $900 million to U.S. universities since 2013, according to the Department of Education. Harvard has received $93 million, nearly 10 percent of all grant money of Chinese origin. Those figures, however, may be underestimating the degree of financial dependence between elite schools and the Chinese regime. The Education Department launched a probe into Harvard and Yale University in February, citing concerns that the two universities might have failed to report hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign gifts and contracts. Harvard did not respond to a request for comment.

While university administrators are quick to defend the Chinese grant money as benign donations, U.S. officials see some of the grants as a national security risk. A 2019 Senate report concluded that recruits of China's flagship Thousand Talents Program, a state-backed initiative that offers grant money for researchers, are illegally stealing U.S. funded research. The controversial program's reach extended to Harvard, where Professor Charles Lieber, the chair of the chemistry department, was arrested this January for concealing his ties to the Thousand Talents Program to federal agents.

Teng, now a professor at Hunter College, said that these sorts of ties have allowed China to exercise an undue influence on Western institutions, compromising their commitment to academic freedom as scholars censor themselves out of deference to Beijing.

"That kind of self-censorship is everywhere among scholars in universities, think tanks," he said.

Teng said this was not the only time Harvard canceled one of his events. In June 2015, he tried to host an event commemorating the 26th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre at Harvard. The university told him one day before the event, however, that the room was unavailable—ostensibly due to audio issues.

"They said there was an audio problem in the classroom," Teng said. "I'm very skeptical and I think Harvard Kennedy School got pressure from Chinese student organizations or the Chinese consulate."

Teng's difficulties continued after he left Harvard. In 2019, Columbia University also canceled one of his events on human rights issues in China. The university told the Free Beacon that the event was canceled not for political reasons but because the student organizers failed to complete the proper paperwork. The American Bar Association also offered Teng a book deal to write about the experience of human rights lawyers but rescinded the offer in 2015 because the book might upset the Chinese government.

Thor Halvorssen, president of the Human Rights Foundation, slammed Harvard's censorship of Teng, arguing that it exemplifies the "gutless venality, greed, and censorship that pervades so much of academic administration."

"It is so inappropriate for a U.S. university to restrict Teng Biao's academic activities out of deference to the CCP, and even more outrageous given that Teng was himself a political prisoner who suffered under the hands of this Chinese regime," he said. "This is the sort of situation that perfectly captures the degradation of fundamental principles in the academy. The priority of a murderous regime comes above the need to support human rights."

CORRECTION 5/5/20, 2:49 p.m.: This article was updated to reflect that Teng Biao's canceled Harvard event focused on Chinese human rights issues and not protests in Hong Kong.

Published under: China , Harvard , Hong Kong