Teng Biao, who has cropped black hair and rectangular, wire-framed glasses, was preparing to drive to Logan International Airport on March 10, 2015, when he received a phone call from a “powerful person” at Harvard.
Teng was then a visiting fellow at Harvard Law School. A Chinese dissident and human rights lawyer, he has criticized the Chinese Communist Party for human rights violations since the early 2000s.
“Because of my work, I was disbarred and put on a ban from teaching, and eventually fired from [China University of Political Science and Law] University,” Teng says. “I was put under house arrest from time to time, and disappeared a few times — kidnapped by Chinese secret police, and detained and tortured.”
In February 2011, Teng and several other human rights advocates met in Beijing to discuss the arrest of another dissident, Chen Guangcheng. Teng “disappeared” three days later; the Chinese government released him in April after U.S. officials voiced concerns about Teng’s detention.
In 2013, Teng secured a position at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. But as China began arresting members of the New Citizens’ Movement — an activist network which Teng helped create — Teng realized he was in physical danger and would be detained again if he returned to the mainland.
That year, Human Rights Watch recommended Teng to the Scholars at Risk program, which provided him funding and an offer to be a visiting scholar at the Harvard Law School. He accepted, arriving in September.
“I am grateful that Harvard [could] host me for a year,” Teng says. “It’s not easy, because I’m a dissident very, very critical of the Chinese Communist Party.”
Early in 2015, Teng and Chen Guangcheng, who had by then been released from Chinese custody, had planned to cross paths again. Working with Harvard graduates, Teng had scheduled an event to be hosted at Harvard in late March or early April, during which he and Chen would speak about their experiences as dissidents.
But on Feb. 11, the powerful person at Harvard gave Teng the first call.
“He told me to cancel the talk,” Teng says. “He told me the time we were supposed to give our talk, that day was when the Harvard president would fly back from Beijing. And a few weeks before that, the Harvard president was meeting Xi Jinping.” The administrator told him hosting an event with two Chinese dissidents only days after a historic meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and then University President Drew G. Faust would “embarrass” Harvard, Teng recalls.
“It was not about the title or the topics — but because of ourselves,” Teng says. “We ourselves are sensitive.”
Teng and the other organizers persisted, hoping they could find another Harvard venue. “We tried to avoid him, but eventually we realized we were not able to,” he says.
The second phone call, on March 10, was a formal and final warning. The powerful person called Teng to his office and told him the event would embarrass the University and potentially threaten the continuation of collaborative programs and joint research with China. The administrator asked Teng to “postpone” the event, and Teng finally agreed.
“Postpone is a polite word,” Teng recalls. “They never invited us to give a talk after that.”
Chen Guangcheng puts it more bluntly. “What he meant was that it was going to be postponed indefinitely,” he explains, through an interpreter. “It was just another way to cancel it completely.”
That powerful person also made Teng promise to keep the cancellation a secret, and at the time Teng told almost nobody. Chen was particularly struck by this self-censorship. “It seemed really strange to me at the time, because this is not what Teng Biao is like when he’s back in China,” Chen says. “He’s very outspoken.”
Though Teng has since then told journalists about the incident, he has refused to reveal the powerful person’s identity and again declined to identify him to me, citing fears of potential employment retaliation.
However, sources familiar with the incident speaking under the condition of anonymity confirmed that that person was Professor William P. Alford, Harvard Law School’s Vice Dean for International Legal Studies. Throughout his career, Alford has met with current and past presidents of China and Taiwan and spoken at the Central Party School of the Chinese Communist Party.
“Having for years served on the Scholars at Risk Committee and for decades hosted a broad range of scholars and law related activists from China at HLS, I tried to make Dr. Teng’s time here academically fruitful,” Alford wrote in an emailed statement. “I invited him to speak in my class around the time in question, introduced him to colleagues and met with him frequently about his research, his plans, and his family. I did ask that he schedule the event in question after our University President had left Beijing.”
In those first few months of 2015, Harvard’s international presence and collaboration efforts came into conflict with its stated commitment to academic freedom. In this seemingly isolated clash, the former won — but that doesn’t seem to generally be the case.
Harvard has for years maintained a unique and symbiotic relationship with China, born out of a thick network of decades-old, grassroots connections. From its inception, the relationship has been inherently political, but Harvard has not refrained from criticizing the Chinese Communist Party. During his visit to Beijing last March, for instance, University President Lawrence S. Bacow read a Uighur poem in defense of academic freedom in his speech at Peking University; the same day, he had an audience with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Though the Harvard-China relationship always entailed mutual benefit, it was for decades asymmetrical — China needed Harvard more than Harvard needed China, which perhaps gave the University more leeway to be critical of the Chinese government.
But over the past decade, China’s global influence has grown dramatically. In 2010, China became the world’s second-largest economy; in 2018, it surpassed the U.S. in terms of scientific papers published. Escalating tensions have accompanied this shift in global power, threatening to compromise Harvard and China’s special relationship: Xi has cracked down on dissent both within and outside of China’s borders, and the FBI has launched numerous investigations into alleged Chinese industrial and academic “espionage,” including one into undisclosed Chinese funding sent to the University’s former Chemistry Department Chair, Charles M. Lieber. As the geopolitical and academic balance shifts in China’s favor, the Teng Biao incident may indicate that, at least in some instances, Harvard depends on China more than the other way around.
Mark C. Elliott, Harvard’s Vice Provost for International Affairs, acknowledges that Harvard’s simultaneous engagement with and criticism of the CCP may seem like a paradox to some observers. But, he says, Harvard is not political, nor is it a government — it is a university. This position allows it to provide an open forum for clashing perspectives while still earning the respect of some of the subjects of its criticisms, like Xi.
“[Harvard] does not take a political position on anything. It takes positions on matters relating to academic freedom,” Elliott says. “I sometimes jokingly tell people, ‘Our foreign policy is Veritas.’”
The cancellation of Teng’s event, however, revealed that the University isn’t immune from the CCP’s reach. It also served as a reminder that Harvard’s relationship with China doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Even if higher education at times provides an alternative space for international dialogue and informal critique, the University cannot categorically evade the conflicting interests of state and academia, of politics and truth.
Reopening the Gates
Harvard first hired a Chinese language professor in 1879 and by 1936 had graduated more than 1,000 Chinese international students. But most of the University’s present-day engagement with China traces back only a few decades. Following China’s Communist Revolution, CCP policies banning most foreign academics had nearly severed the relationship. Only after Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 reforms did Chinese universities reopen their doors to western academics, and Harvard was among the first to enter, embarking on a decades-long road of modernizing Chinese universities, training China’s top academics, and shaping Chinese policy.
In 1978, School of Public Health Professor William C. Hsiao traveled to China to visit family. Howard H. Hiatt, then Dean of the School of Public Health, was interested in establishing an institution-to-institution relationship with China, and he asked Hsiao to explore any possibilities.
While in Beijing, Hsiao visited China’s Ministry of Health, which at the time had only a few dozen employees. “Right away I was taken to the minister’s office,” Hsiao recalls, where he expressed Hiatt’s interest.
“Of course the minister knew Harvard’s name,” Hsiao says. “He said, ‘This is a wonderful idea.’” The Ministry of Health seized the opportunity, connecting Harvard with Shanghai First Medical University and initiating joint research projects and a series of faculty exchanges. This in turn sparked further collaboration, creating a dense and self-perpetuating network.
The project survives today as the Harvard China Health Partnership, the first institution-to-institution relationship between an American university and a Chinese one.
Though the HCHP is an institutional effort, it was rooted in individual relationships, a trend that continued as other Harvard professors began conducting research in mainland China. Ezra F. Vogel, who directed the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies from 1972 to 1977, was able to study in China for the first time in 1980. Arthur M. Kleinman, a Harvard physician and anthropologist, transferred his work from Taiwan to mainland China in 1978 and introduced the modern notion of clinical depression to the mainland in 1980.
“Most of our collaborations [with China] are from the bottom up,” says Professor William C. Kirby, a former director of the Fairbank Center and the current chair of the Harvard China Fund. A Harvard professor and a Tsinghua professor might share mutual research interests and begin working together; a Harvard professor’s Chinese postdoctoral students might help their advisor connect with other Chinese academics.
In 1979, Shanghai First Medical University sent four of their top academics to Harvard. Two would train in molecular biology, one would learn health policy, and the last would study oncology — disciplines, Hsiao says, that were almost non-existent in China at the time. Each of these first four professors went on to become high-ranking university administrators, developing their respective fields in China. Only one Harvard faculty member went to Shanghai in that initial exchange.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Harvard professors were often helping China build capacity and training Chinese faculty, in disciplines ranging from public health policy, to environmental science, to psychiatry. Hsiao began teaching Chinese scholars from basics: how to design a survey, how to administer a hospital. “We trained the first generation of Chinese faculty members in health policy and management,” Hsiao says. “Then we trained the second generation.”
That capacity building extended from university departments to government policy. Not even a decade after his first meeting with leaders of China’s Ministry of Health, Hsiao found himself at lunch with the ministry’s new head, a clinician named Chen Minzhang, in 1987.
“We really hit it off,” Hsiao recalls. The new Minister of Health appreciated Hsiao’s unvarnished honesty in enumerating problems with China’s public health system. “Under an authoritarian regime, people do not want to usually tell you the bad news,” Hsiao says. “They only want to praise what you’re doing well. As a person from another country, I thought I could tell the Chinese the truth.” Universities have historically provided such alternative spaces for honest discussions within regimes hostile to criticism — what Kirby characterizes as a sort of “intellectual safety valve.”
As the lunch ended, Hsiao recalls Chen telling him, “Professor Hsiao, I do not know, ‘What is policy?’ I’m a clinician, I know how to treat patients.” Following that meeting, the School of Public Health launched its first executive education programs for officials in China’s Ministry of Health, as well as the heads of health in each of China’s 31 provinces, helping lay the groundwork for modern Chinese health policy.
The asymmetry of Harvard-China exchanges in the later decades of the 20th century tipped far in the University’s favor — the development of Chinese universities and government bodies depended on Harvard’s knowledge and expertise. Harvard, in turn, did not lack incentives to engage its Chinese counterparts.
In part because of China’s dependence on the University, Harvard and its scholars gained greater access to the largest potential pool of academic talent in the world; to data on pressing issues, from an enormous population living in an up-and-coming economic superpower; to the world’s longest continuous historical archive. Perhaps most importantly, Harvard rekindled a relationship largely cut off by the Communist Revolution, establishing a trust and rapport with China that only select American universities enjoy today.
A Leveling Playing Field
For six days in the fall of 1997, for the first time in over a decade, the Chinese head of state — then President Jiang Zemin — paid a state visit to the U.S. During his trip, Jiang met with America’s political, economic, and academic leadership: he spoke with President Bill Clinton, toured IBM and Bell Labs, and visited Harvard.
In the late 1990s, many Americans vividly remembered the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre and wanted little to do with China. Vogel, then director of the Fairbank Center, thought the political circumstances meant there should be as much communication with China as possible.
He and another professor, Ning Wang, began looking for ways to increase contact. Through Wang’s connections, they learned that Jiang was planning a trip to the U.S. When he was a younger official, Jiang had been on a delegation that passed through Harvard, and “he himself wanted to come [again],” Vogel says.
On Nov. 1, Jiang spoke before a packed Sanders Theater, with another 4,000 people lining the streets. In his speech, Jiang lauded recent Chinese reforms and emphasized that China needed to continue learning from America, especially praising Harvard’s historic relationship with China: “The Chinese educational, scientific and cultural communities have all along maintained academic exchanges with this university,” he said.
Jiang’s speech emphasized the importance of academic and international collaboration to China’s development. But the massive protests surrounding the theater, decrying the “Three Terrible T’s” of Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen, showed the political controversy inevitably associated with the People’s Republic of China, a nation the west had condemned for decades.
Harvard, however, had no intention of providing Jiang with a soapbox: The University forced China’s president to answer 15 minutes of unrehearsed questions. “That way it would not be just a session where we’re allowing the Chinese to express their views,” Vogel recalls.
Jiang ended his speech by extending an invitation to President Neil L. Rudenstine to visit China, and the two men met in Beijing the following March. In his own speech at Peking University, Rudenstine said, “Universities can work to create ‘neutral spaces’ for serious discussion, based on a shared commitment to free inquiry, to rigorous research and analysis, and to open dialogue” — at a time when the international community was condemning China, Rudenstine proposed Harvard as a safety valve that could allow for dialogue to continue.
The following year, Rudenstine organized a meeting between leaders of top Chinese and American universities, where attendees discussed basic principles for further international collaboration among institutions of higher education.
“The leaders of Chinese universities, the people with whom we interact by and large, much more broadly share our values than not,” says Kirby, who helped organize the meeting. “There is a long history of association between Chinese universities and American universities before 1949, before the Communist Revolution. Part of this [meeting] was to re-establish those kinds of things.”
Today, scholars from across Harvard’s schools and disciplines want to study in China or work with Chinese universities. According to Kleinman, who directed the Harvard University Asia Center for eight years, over the past 50 years, collaboration expanded from the traditional China Studies focus on the humanities to include fields such as anthropology, sociology, health policy, and economics.
“And then in the last 30 years, it’s opened up much broader, and the sciences, applied sciences, the professional schools all have developed very substantial interactions with China,” he says. “We’re talking about hundreds of scholars across Harvard University that have had active research with Chinese institutions.”
As Chinese universities were re-entering the international community, the Chinese state was doing the same. Deng’s market reforms began to modernize China’s economy, and China entered the World Trade Organization in 2001. From 1976 to 2019, the Chinese economy did not contract.
A significant factor in China’s rise has been investing in universities, allowing the PRC to craft better policies, innovate new technologies, and elevate its international status. “They have self-consciously tried to make China part of the global system of higher education,” Kirby says.
The PRC has invested trillions of dollars over the past 20 years to modernize its higher education system. Once at a deficit — in terms of finances, faculty, and quality of scholarship across most disciplines — China and its universities have ascended global rankings to rival established universities in Europe and North America.
“In the past it used to be that they had nobody, and we brought the ideas, the methods, and produced the findings. But now they have plenty of good people doing good research,” Kleinman says. Research is no longer “neocolonial,” he says, but truly collaborative: “What we learn in China is as important for here, in the U.S., as it is in China.”
The balance of power that for decades undergirded the Harvard-China relationship may have begun to shift in recent years. As China’s economy and higher education system have developed, Harvard has continued building collaborative relationships, but perhaps out of necessity — many of the world’s top academics, labs, and studies, not to mention funding, are now in China. And where China was once almost devoid of foreign scholars, interest in China is now ubiquitous: Harvard competes with top universities from across the world for access to Chinese talent and resources.
Even the influence of the Harvard China Health Partnership has declined, says Professor Winnie Yip, the partnership’s current director. But it has not vanished, she explains, due to a widespread network of research collaborations and close relationships with high levels of government.
The HCHP continues to prove itself uniquely useful to Chinese policy-makers, in particular through its “social experiment” model — implementing and testing large-scale policies with local governments, something other universities do not or cannot attempt. “China watches very carefully, who does surveys or may find secrets about China, but they trust us, that we will not try to undermine China,” Hsiao says. “That’s where trust is such an important thing, and it takes decades to build up that relationship.”
To strengthen these relationships, the University created the Harvard China Fund in 2006, initially providing $15 million and committing another $50 million over the next decade to advance the interests of students and faculty, as well as “Harvard’s presence,” in China. In 2011, the Harvard China Fund opened a center in Shanghai to help faculty host events.
“China is home to many of the best and fastest growing research universities in the world today,” Kirby says. “If we are to remain a great research university, you have to find means of collaborating with others.”
The number of Chinese students and scholars at Harvard has increased each year since 2012. Harvard and Chinese scholars regularly co-author groundbreaking research. The Business School, Kennedy School, School of Public Health, and Medical School all provide executive training programs for Chinese philanthropists, business leaders, officials, doctors, and more. Every Harvard president since Rudenstine has visited China, met with the Chinese president, and given a public speech at a major Chinese university.
Of course, China and its universities continue to have a vested interest in working with Harvard and its scholars, often considered global standard-bearers of academic excellence. “[China is] investing a huge amount in higher education,” Professor Elizabeth J. Perry, a former director of the Fairbank Center and current director of the Yenching Institute, says. “I think they appreciate competition in the 21st century is going to hinge in large part on innovation. And innovation is going to hinge on having world class universities, and Harvard is generally regarded as a world class university. And so China wants to know what’s going on here.”
Mutual benefit and decades-old trust, however, won’t guarantee the future of the Harvard-China relationship. If China’s economic and academic ascent has led to more fruitful and equal academic cooperations, this rise has also been perceived by some American policymakers and leaders as a threat to American hegemony.
Xiao Lu, a Chinese climate scientist, joined Professor Daniel Jacob’s Atmospheric Chemistry Modeling Group as a postdoctoral fellow this past October after waiting a month for his visa application to undergo “administrative processing.” He received a one-year visa that, once expired, does not permit re-entry to the U.S., effectively barring him from visiting home.
Lu’s predicament, like that of the thousands of visiting Chinese scholars in the U.S. who use the same visa, is in part the byproduct of the Trump administration’s aggressive stance toward China, stoked by the PRC’s increasing relative power. Since 2018, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray has warned repeatedly about the Chinese state using intellectual espionage to “steal its way up the economic ladder,” which he deems “the broadest, most challenging, most significant threat we face as a country.” Wray is especially hostile toward Chinese scholars: “We know they use some Chinese students in the U.S. as nontraditional collectors of our intellectual property,” he accused at a conference in February.
“Some of my friends were even rejected or suspended for half a year. That’s really a problem,” Lu says — they have to start research late, or even find an alternative program. “My plan is that if I can go back before the expiration of this visa, [I will] visit my family, but if I cannot go back before the expiration, I have to stay here.”
The FBI currently has about 1,000 investigations into Chinese technology theft in the U.S. The investigations have especially focused on scholars associated with the Thousand Talents Program, a recruitment system China has used since 2008 to attract talented Chinese and foreign academics overseas, and which the Bureau alleges is a mechanism for siphoning American innovation.
The federal government’s hostility toward Chinese academics reflects increasing American anxiety over China’s growing technological and economic prowess. Professor Graham T. Allison, a leading national security analyst with a focus on China, sees the FBI investigations as signs of “a classical Thucydides rivalry, in which a meteoric rising China is threatening to displace the U.S. as a world power.” Such rivalries, he adds, have historically led to war.
In recent years, the Chinese government has poured money into research universities, with its spending on research and development increasing by 17 percent on average each year since 2000, compared to a roughly four percent average increase in the U.S. over the same period. The Thousand Talents Program offers a large salary, healthcare, and research funding in a nation whose government has consistently signaled a commitment to scientific research. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has repeatedly proposed cutting research funding by billions of dollars.
In 2008, when Thousand Talents began, China submitted roughly half as many patent applications as the U.S.; a decade later, China submitted three times as many. International talent, an engine of American innovation in cutting-edge science, is leaving: Total foreign enrollment in U.S. universities has dropped since 2016, and increasing numbers of visiting Chinese scholars return home. China leads the way on 5G cell phone service and artificial intelligence. Though there have been high-profile incidents of Chinese nationals taking privileged information from the U.S., China’s commitment to scientific research signals that it isn’t merely “stealing its way up the economic ladder,” as Wray suggests.
Given the perception of China threatening American technological leadership, the next question is, “How do we respond as a nation?”, says Professor Christopher W. Stubbs, Harvard FAS Dean of Science. “One response would be to say, ‘Okay, we have a new competitor, let’s outcompete them by being smarter, being more agile, and investing more resources.’ That’s one path forward. Another path forward is to try to erect barriers.”
Irrespective of geopolitical tensions, the FBI’s particular assault on academia has drawn its own criticism. “I don’t even understand the term ‘academic espionage,’” Elliott says. “Espionage involves stealing secrets, something you’re trying to keep private or away from someone. But unlike in a company, where you have inventions and things that you patent and you want to protect and you don’t want anybody else to see, for academics the goal is to publish what you have learned. It’s to share.”
Stubbs also says the term “espionage” is misleading. The concern is not about spying, he says, but about Chinese academics not following the unwritten norms of U.S. academia: “individuals taking some element of the scientific process and snagging a piece of it, and running off to some other corner and doing something with it before that reaches the public domain,” Stubbs explains. This violation of academic norms may be a particular threat from China, he says, due to the relationship between government, military, universities, and corporations.
In November, Harvard formed two oversight committees in response to federal investigations into “academic espionage.” One committee scrutinizes sensitive research projects, and the other makes sure FAS policies align with federal guidelines. Stubbs has admitted, however, that Harvard is “limited” in its oversight capabilities.
“[The] process of disclosure and approval is something that we expect all faculty and all members of our academic community to go through,” Stubbs says. “I think one of the things that we’re struggling with is instances of non-disclosure” — because such instances are inherently clandestine, they are difficult to identify.
This past winter, Harvard became directly and publicly embroiled in the FBI’s investigations into Chinese “academic espionage.” Zaosong Zheng, an HMS-affiliated researcher from China, was arrested in December at Logan for trying to smuggle 21 vials of sensitive biological material out of the country. Just over a month later, federal prosecutors charged Chemistry Department Chair Charles M. Lieber of not disclosing contracts with and funding received from the Chinese government. An FBI agent characterized the Lieber and Zheng incidents as “manifestations of the China threat.”
Lieber, in 2011, formed a joint nanotechnology lab with the Wuhan University of Technology without authority on behalf of Harvard. A court affidavit also alleges that Lieber did not report payments he was receiving through the Thousand Talents Program.
Under an agreement with WUT, under which he received a salary, Lieber was directed “to guide the advancement of disciplines or scientific research institutes to become first class disciplines or scientific research institutes in China or the world, especially in frontier areas” — a capacity-building function the FBI has characterized as quasi-treasonous.
Though Lieber’s arrest made national headlines, Stubbs says the incident has not triggered any changes in the work Harvard has done over the past two years to strengthen internal review processes.
And though the Thousand Talents Program has been much maligned in the wake of Lieber’s arrest, it is not unusual for nations to recruit foreign talent. Many other countries, such as Britain, Germany, and France, have invested tens of millions of dollars in national funds to recruit foreign researchers. Indeed, Chinese talent is a key benefit of the Harvard-China relationship.
“China’s economic rise has fundamentally transformed the way that our classrooms look,” Elliott says. Having access to Chinese scholars and students, drawn from the world’s largest population, has tremendous potential upsides. “When you’re able to include 1.4 billion [people] in your talent pool, you’re going to get a lot more good talent in the mix,” he adds.
Even absent “Thucydides rivalry”-induced war, FBI investigations have already had a grave effect on those members of China’s talent pool at the University.
“I worry that there is — as there was in the 1950s — a racialist attitude on the part of the American government when it looks at scientists and graduate students of Chinese and East Asian background,” Kirby says.
One visiting Chinese professor at Harvard, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of her comments, says fear permeates conversations among Chinese scholars in the U.S. “We discuss internally, we have those WeChat groups, people think these tensions between the U.S. and China could impact the normal collaboration between China and the U.S,” she says. “It causes fear and nerves.”
The many layers of anxiety — indeterminate periods of administrative processing, delayed starts to research, inability to visit home, racialized treatment — may dissuade Chinese scholars from studying in the U.S., or at least make them hesitate. The trend of decreasing numbers of Chinese students at American universities has not yet been reflected at Harvard, perhaps as a result of the long history of visiting scholars and bottom-up collaborations.
“That would really be tragic, if there was any degradation in our ability to work with Chinese students,” says Jacob, who runs a joint lab for air quality with Nanjing University for Information Science & Technology. Working with China on climate change and air quality is especially important because of the large amounts of pollution in China and the huge amount of resources China invests in tackling these problems, Jacob says.
The Chinese graduate students and postdocs I spoke with gushed about doing research at Harvard, pointing to excellent faculty, abundant resources, and enriching seminars. “Peking University also has weekly seminars, but the level will be quite lower than the standard at Harvard,” Lu says. “That’s the difference between the world famous and nationally famous university.”
Yet when asked specifically about Harvard’s importance and their future plans, the praise was less effusive — in their final estimations, Harvard may not be that special. “I want to go back to China because funding and jobs are similar with those in the U.S.,” Ke Li, another postdoc in Jacob’s group, says.
“[A] postdoc in the U.S. is not that necessary,” Lu says. Friends and colleagues struggling to apply for a visa, he adds, can go to Europe or just stay in China. He himself came to the U.S. specifically to work with Jacob, not because Harvard is generally better than Chinese universities. “For research itself, [working at Harvard or in China] doesn’t have too much difference,” Lu says. “It just depends on the advisor. I don’t think it depends on Harvard or Peking University.” As Chinese universities rise, their American counterparts’ relative prestige — even Harvard’s — falls.
A Breach in the Wall
Teng Biao has grown accustomed to the reach of China’s “long arm,” as he calls it — the Chinese government’s attempts to influence and censor scholars and activists not only within its borders, but abroad. In 2016, he alleged that the American Bar Association refused to publish his book on human rights in China due to pressure from the CCP. His wife was fired from her position at a Chinese-owned company in the U.S., where she had worked for 17 years, likely due to Teng’s activism.
“Even in the United States, I was not able to avoid the harassment and punishment from the Chinese government,” he says.
Before Xi’s rise to power, scholarly criticism was an important source of advice for Chinese officials. “Chinese political leaders in modern times have often shown themselves to be intolerant of dissent, and yet the wiser ones have often tried to find means of reading and understanding critique,” Kirby says.
But since Xi became China’s president in 2013, the CCP has shored up party rule, tightening restrictions on academic freedom. Cameras record classes at top universities, professors who publish works critical of the Party have been fired, and critical books are taken off shelves.
“I think it’s absolutely true that there is much greater freedom of expression within the walls of the university than outside those walls,” Kirby says. “And one of the unfortunate things over the last several years under President Xi Jinping, is that those walls have been actually getting tighter and higher.”
In times of geopolitical conflict, such as the current U.S.-China tensions, the academy walls can create crucial spaces to carry out international discussions and level criticism that would otherwise be silenced. People not in the government, but who still interact with their governments, Allison says, “can often explore areas of shared interest better than they could if they were in government, or even explore thoughts that would be radical or even contrary to either the Chinese or American government.”
The instructive analogy, Allison continues, is the Cold War, when science diplomacy between the U.S. and Soviet Union played a key role in launching an internal transformation in the USSR under Mikhael Gorbachev. A similar relationship, or at least fragments of it, may be unfolding today — in the work of the Harvard China Health Partnership, joint climate change labs, Harvard social scientists who study China, and others.
“Our faculty continue to go, and I go, to China to work, to research, also to give public lectures, sometimes on issues that perhaps our Chinese colleagues are not able to talk about so directly themselves,” Kirby says. “And we’re invited to do so perhaps in part because they’re not able to talk about some such issues themselves. It may well be that international university connections such as those with Harvard are a kind of an intellectual safety valve for a system that actually needs some open windows for ideas, but at the moment feels too fearful to allow those windows to be fully open at home.”
But as China’s global power has increased, its government has become better able to extend its “long arm” into campuses overseas — even Harvard’s, it seems, perhaps threatening the University’s academic walls and intellectual safety valves.
“When China became more powerful, it used its economic and political power to try and influence other countries,” Teng says. “The number one priority of the Chinese Communist Party is the one party rule. They want to ensure an international atmosphere which will be in favor of China’s politics.”
In November, 2019, Teng was to speak at Columbia University on a panel titled “Panopticism with Chinese Characteristics.” The event was cancelled, purportedly for bureaucratic reasons, though the panellists believe Chinese Communist Party pressure was responsible. After the University of California, San Diego hosted the Dalai Lama — who has been called a “traitor” by China over his stance on Tibet — at its 2017 commencement, the PRC suspended funding for Chinese scholars seeking to study at UCSD and terminated several collaborative agreements. Chinese officials regularly deliver complaints to universities hosting events on sensitive issues and even offer scholars money to modify research critical of China.
China’s economic and academic rise has made the PRC depend less and less on foreign wealth and expertise, enabling direct interference in foreign universities. Chinese government funding, Chinese students and their tuitions, contracts with Chinese companies, entry into China, collaborating with Chinese scholars, joint programs with Chinese labs and universities — every benefit accompanying China’s rise is also a lever for its long arm, a resource to extend or withdraw. The balance of the asymmetrical relationship has shifted.
“Western institutions, think tanks, universities, they don’t want to anger the Chinese government because they want to keep a good relationship with their Chinese counterparts,” Teng says.
The particular effect of Xi’s tightening of academic walls and extension of the CCP’s long arm on Harvard’s campus extend beyond the cancellation of Teng’s event. Scholars at the Fairbank Center, for instance, have found it more difficult to research Chinese contemporary society and history, two particularly sensitive topics: archives in China are harder to access, Chinese interlocutors are more reticent, and visiting scholars and delegations have been restricted from leaving China.
And, given Harvard’s status in the international academic hierarchy, Chinese authorities may be particularly interested in the University. “We’ve had Chinese citizens at Harvard, who are clearly doing the bidding of the Chinese state, coming and sitting in on talks and taking notes and reporting back,” Perry says. She similarly suspects Chinese citizens of reporting on visiting Chinese scholars’ activities.
Yet Harvard’s academic walls endure: China Studies at Harvard were born in a struggle over academic freedom, when John K. Fairbank persisted despite Senator Senator Joe McCarthy accusing him of “losing China” to communism. Today, the University provides a platform for scholarship and perspectives the CCP condemns, from exiled dissidents to courses on Tiananmen. Simultaneously, Harvard maintains deep interpersonal and institutional relationships to Chinese academics, companies, universities, and the highest level of government.
“I think it’s status. Harvard has a special, extremely special status in China,” Kleinman says, suggesting a possible theory for how the University maintains its balancing act. “I think that’s the long history of China’s involvement with Harvard,” he adds — a historic relationship distinct from that of the U.S. and Chinese governments.
“When you go to China, you would think there’s only one great university in the world,” Kleinman adds — an inflated status that, in his experience, Harvard doesn’t enjoy in other Asian countries.
Regardless of just how unique Harvard’s “status” is in China — other schools, such as Yale and the University of Pennsylvania, enjoy similar connections — Chinese leadership and universities certainly have a vested interest in maintaining the Harvard-China relationship.
“There’s enormous curiosity among the Chinese leadership on this,” Kirby says — they want to learn how Harvard works. He adds, “There’s an enormous amount of respect for Harvard, in part because of the outstanding Chinese students who have come here over the course of the past 100 or more years.”
And there is also a deep commitment, on Harvard’s side, to providing a platform for clashing perspectives — what Elliott dubs as a “foreign policy” built around dialogue and “Veritas.”
“The largest benefit of having the University president go to China, and in every case speak at a major Chinese University in a public setting in a speech that is made public, and then to have similar private conversations, is to continue to give our views, in the most public of settings, on the core values of the University,” Kirby says.
History, status, academic excellence, “Veritas” — these are reasons Harvard and China are uniquely useful to one another. It may also be that the mechanism of the Harvard-China relationship, bottom up connections between mutually interested faculty, insulates the University from the more devastating effects of China’s long arm.
“I never received any pushback of any sort from the University on programming that might be considered sensitive in China,” says Daniel Murphy, the Fairbank Center’s Executive Director. “Not only that, but even in some alternate universe where they wanted to push back, they don’t even have a good way to do it.” Programming occurs at such a grassroots level — through colleagues and personal networks — that it would be almost impossible for the University to intervene, he explains.
Yet on March 10, 2015, only a few hours before his flight’s departure, Teng Biao had to pause his travel preparations and make his way to Alford’s office. He entered Harvard’s physical walls, only to be brought further into the reach of China’s long arm. What caused the University’s foreign policy stance, at least momentarily, to bend?
Absent further comment from Alford, it’s difficult to know. Perhaps Alford or another Harvard administrator had direct contact with, or was contacted by, PRC leadership; perhaps a Harvard administrator decided on their own to preemptively censor the event. A meeting between the presidents of Harvard and the PRC may have provided unique potential for conflict; Teng Biao and Chen Guangcheng may be uniquely controversial figures. It is likely that Alford and Teng’s relationship meant the shield of decentralization Murphy described did not apply.
What is clear is that even if Teng Biao was the victim of a one-time exception at Harvard, the cancellation is not exceptional but rather a flashpoint in the evolving relationship between Chinese and American universities, between the Chinese and American governments. There may be a history of Harvard-China collaboration, as well as a history of universities acting as safety valves during tense geopolitical moments — but the nexus of racialist U.S. rhetoric, rising authoritarianism under President Xi, and shifting global power dynamics between the world’s two superpowers has no historical precedent. Harvard’s prestige may have once served as a backstop for the long arm, but the defense now seems partial at best. And if one such incident occurred at the University, it opens the possibility for more.
“The censorship, the self-censorship, is everywhere,” Teng says.
Correction: April 24, 2020
A previous version of this article misstated the university from which Teng Biao was dismissed. It was China University of Political Science and Law, not Beijing University.
Correction: April 27, 2020
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that William C. Kirby is the former director of the Fairbank Center and the Harvard China Fund. In fact, he is the former director of the Fairbank Center and the current chair of the Harvard China Fund.
— Magazine writer Matteo N. Wong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @matteo_wong.