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Sacked Chinese don has 'warning' for US

Publication Date : 02-03-2014


Dr Xia Yeliang, an outspoken economist whose sacking from Peking University last October caused ripples in US academic circles, has warned American institutions about venturing into the Middle Kingdom.

Speaking publicly for the first time since moving to the United States, he questioned whether the partnerships are worth the required compromise.

"I just have a warning for all the top universities in the USA. You are thinking about some benefits through cooperation with China. But who will win in the future? It's hard to tell," Dr Xia said at Washington's Cato Institute, where he is a visiting fellow.

He also alleged that some visiting scholars from China were spies.

His eight-minute, off-the-cuff speech on Friday (Singapore time) dwelt on the lack of academic freedom in China and the constraints academia faces in the country.

Responding to a question from The Straits Times later, he added: "If you have to compromise to give up some basic values like freedom of speech, what's the purpose of education? What's the purpose of international exchange? Are American institutions so lacking of money?"

His remarks came at a time when collaboration between American and Chinese schools are at a high point.

New York University (NYU) opened its campus in Shanghai late last year while Duke University is expected to open its own in nearby Kunshan this year. Hundreds of other schools are entering into smaller-scale partnerships with Chinese counterparts as they seek to tap lucrative overseas markets.

There are now 235,000 Chinese studying in US colleges, the number accounting for about one-third of all foreign students here. As a group, international students contribute some US$24 billion annually to the US economy.

But as partnerships and interactions increase, so do potential flashpoints. NYU drew flak last year for allegedly forcing out Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng under pressure from Beijing, a charge the school strongly denies.

And it is not just outreach in China that is drawing attention. NYU's Abu Dhabi campus was similarly contentious, as was Yale's partnership with the National University of Singapore.

Dr Xia's case is a high-profile example of some of the perils that US universities face when trying to uphold its values with Chinese partners.

When word spread that the economics don would likely be fired from Peking University, 130 members of the faculty of Wellesley College in Massachusetts signed an open letter saying they would reconsider a partnership between the two schools if he was fired. But the faculty voted in the end to retain the relationship, which was viewed in some quarters as a capitulation.

While the petition alleges that he was fired for being an outspoken critic of the Beijing government, Peking University maintains that the reason is his poor teaching.
His student ratings were reportedly low, with some students complaining that he too often injected politics into the economics class.

The 54-year-old brushed off the criticisms of his teaching record, saying he has had only one bad class review in 13 years of teaching.

Despite the potential pitfalls, reversing the engagement is not an option, according to academics here. Some say that apart from the financial incentive, productive academic outcomes have emerged from these partnerships.

Associate Professor Lionel Jensen suggests that schools should try to narrow their cooperation to areas such as environment, inequality or human development, where there are overlaps.

"If we can found our campuses on these kinds of themes, that kind of cooperation strikes me as reasonable and allows us to share values that the Chinese and people in the US have in common," said Prof Jensen from the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

Ultimately, a key part of the problem now is that US schools do not understand China well enough to know where the boundaries are, he added.

"I don't feel China in general is a place where there is such widespread oppression of speech. There is a far greater licence than we let ourselves admit in the US."


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