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With school campuses closed, lockdowns in effect, and life on pause, few things are certain as we act to control the spread of COVID-19. What we do know, however, is that the post-coronavirus world will look dramatically different than what existed before.
For one, United States-China relations will change. Beijing has already faced widespread blame for its initial coverup of the virus. The National Institute of Health’s Dr. Anthony Fauci recently told PBS that the lack of transparency on the part of Chinese officials hampered the international response. Former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb has gone further, stating, “Had they been more truthful … they might have actually been able to contain this entirely.” The Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarianism enabled the virus’s spread and delayed the international response by silencing doctors who sounded the alarm. Now the party runs a global disinformation campaign to deny the virus’s origins in China.
In light of this crisis, it’s time to rethink Columbia’s accommodating approach toward the CCP’s attempts to influence the American academic environment and our University’s occasional self-censorship to protect its Beijing global center. In its pursuit of global leadership, Columbia has prioritized influence and access over principle, legitimizing an authoritarian regime that continues to censor important academic research, including on the coronavirus itself.
The CCP’s authoritarianism, in the eyes of many Columbia students (though certainly not those who have lived under it) seemed an abstract concern in a far-flung part of the world before the coronavirus. But the CCP’s grip was distant, and it couldn’t touch us. Count this among the many illusions shattered by the pandemic. This crisis shows us how the CCP’s actions pose an extraordinary obstacle to progress on solving today’s international challenges.
These global challenges are precisely why Columbia has established global centers in nine cities around the world, including Beijing. Columbia facilitates collaboration between its researchers and their international research hub counterparts on the most pressing issues facing our globalized world—climate change, food security, and global health, among others.
As far as Columbia’s Beijing global center is concerned, outside forces (read: the CCP’s political pressure) have shaped our school as it has contributed to global solutions. In 2018, The New Republic reported that Columbia administrators canceled talks on sensitive political topics there. Try searching some politically sensitive terms on the global center’s website—Uyghur, Tiananmen Square Protests, Liu Xiaobo—and you won’t come up with much.
Equally worrying incidents hit closer to home, too. Liu, the Nobel Prize-winning dissident who accepted his award in absentia and died a political prisoner, was a visiting scholar at Columbia in 1989 before returning to Beijing for the protests at Tiananmen Square. When Columbia received a donation of his bust in 2018, it rejected the artwork—supposedly because the C.V. Starr East Asian Library does not take sculptures of political figures, reports China Change. But months before the bust’s donation, Columbia accepted a similar bust of Václav Havel, the legendary Czech pro-democracy leader who, like Liu, resided briefly at the University. University President Lee Bollinger unveiled it at a high profile event with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Look further than the bronze, though. Bollinger, a respected free speech scholar, has for several years spoken out against authoritarianism. After the grisly assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, he condemned the Saudi government, calling the murder an “assault on truth.”
But in 2017, during an interview with the People’s Daily, a state-owned newspaper, Bollinger was asked about China’s experience. He offered a mild defense of free inquiry and described the need for a “global conversation with different approaches to freedom of speech and free press.” (Emphasis mine.) When asked about Xi Jinping’s rule, he had this to say: “As an outsider I don’t want to comment on your politics. … It’s incredibly exciting to think of a world in which the benefits a mutually respectful relationship can bring.”
Yes, the benefits. Columbia benefits from a Confucius Institute, which like each of the other Confucius Institutes at campuses across the country, is funded in part by Beijing and beset with questions about the degree to which the Chinese government influences its programming. As of last year, Bollinger had few answers to these concerns. Columbia also hosts a chapter of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, a student organization with documented links to the Chinese consulate. Columbia’s chapter has attempted to intervene when events on campus shine a light on human rights abuses in China, and administrators briefly disbanded it under mysterious circumstances in 2015. Meanwhile, some fear that Chinese students on campus face the possibility of surveillance by Chinese government-linked entities and retaliation against their families.
Columbia administrators point to the invitation of chief CCP antagonists Tsai Ing-wen and Joshua Wong to campus in recent months as proof that the University does not fear blowback from Beijing. This deserves much credit. But the problem is that our University leadership has at other crucial junctures failed to speak out about the growing threat of the CCP’s influence in higher education, preferring accommodation to protect its international partnerships—in the process compromising itself as a credible force for uninhibited inquiry.
Columbia, with its global aspirations, takes a pragmatic approach to dealing with authoritarian governments and expanding international research opportunities. But at what cost?
Jimmy Quinn is a senior in the School of General Studies studying political science. He is the president of Columbia Republicans, a board member at Columbia’s chapter of the Alexander Hamilton Society, and a former opinion contributor for Spectator. He tweets at @realjimmyquinn.
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