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China’s sanctions on scholars lead to growing academic backlash in U.S.

Critic: Academic engagement with China ‘seems morally and ethically reprehensible’

A petition is being circulated in support of scholars who were sanctioned by the Chinese government for their research into areas that Beijing deems off limits, such as its human rights record.

The Solidarity Statement includes signatures from professors and students at top universities such as Cornell University, Harvard University, Yale University, Columbia University, Stanford University, University of Chicago, University of Oxford, and the London School of Economics.

The petition had garnered over 1,300 signatures as of April 14.

It reads, in part:

In March 2021, the Chinese government announced the imposition of “sanctions,” including travel bans, a prohibition on Chinese citizens and entities from “having dealings” with them, and asset freezes, on a number of scholars and their families in the European Union and the United Kingdom… These measures, for which the government provided no legal basis, were imposed in retaliation for the targets’ work on and with China, including research on international crimes and human rights violations in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. In one statement, the sanctions are even extended to “companies and institutions associated with” the targets.

The petition is gathering signatures during a time of heightened scrutiny and debate over the role China plays in western institutions around the world, particularly in academia.

No Peking at Cornell

At Cornell, a proposed dual degree program with Peking University was met with significant criticism, and eventually voted down by both the Faculty Senate and Student Assembly.

Richard Bensel, a professor in the Department of Government at Cornell, voiced strong opposition to the dual degree program in a Faculty Senate meeting.

“Engagements with China right now, in a period when political repression, the deterioration of academic freedom, the violation of human rights, are daily increasing, doesn’t seem like a good idea. It seems morally and ethically reprehensible,” Bensel said at the meeting.

In an email to The College Fix, Bensel compared the proposed Peking University degree program with an existing arrangement between Cornell and Saudi Arabia:

One of the many questions that we must address in creating a process for the review of dual degree programs is how it will treat “certificates” awarded by Cornell University after students in other countries take courses taught by our faculty. The one example we know most about right now involves the Hotel School and the Marriott Corporation in which Cornell faculty have been teaching students in Saudi Arabia and, upon completion of that coursework, has awarded them Cornell “certificates.” The Vice Provost considers this program to be a “commercial arrangement where a unit may be hired by a company.” In effect, that implies that these “certificates” and the associated course instruction are for sale. We should have an open discussion in which the breadth and number of these arrangements is made known and the ethical and moral implications of involvement in countries like Saudi Arabia are fully considered.

The College Fix spoke with Roland Molinda, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and The Cornell Review’s analyst for military affairs.

“We have to remember that the CCP has very strict control over all facets of Chinese society. And when Cornell engages, even in good faith, with scholars in China, we are indirectly engaging with the communist party,” Molinda said.

Dakota Johnson, a student at Cornell’s School of Hotel and Administration and a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps himself, provided a statement to The College Fix:

As an undergrad at the School of Hotel Administration, it’s embarrassing to hear that my school would even consider affiliating themselves with a country that is committing genocide against the Muslim Uyghirs, persecuting Christians, forcing black people out of their homes and not allowing them to enter other businesses due to coronavirus discrimination, and other human rights violations that may not be public knowledge yet. This would be a discredit to our motto ‘Life is Service’ because this is not progress to give our fellow man more.

Sadman Chowdhury, a sophomore at Cornell, also signed the solidarity statement in support of scholars sanctioned by China.

“I’m not very comfortable with Cornell being involved with Peking University given China’s current treatment of the Uighurs and I think we should pick better, more humane partners,” he wrote in an email to The Fix.

MORE: Concerns raised as Cornell considers dual-degree program with China’s Peking University

IMAGE: Augusto Cabral/Shutterstock

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About the Author
Joe Silverstein -- Cornell University