Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s Visit: A Turning Point in Harvard-China Relations


Hundreds of Harvard affiliates crowded Sanders Theatre on the morning of Nov. 1, 1997, for the historic visit of Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

It was the first time Harvard welcomed a president from China, and seats in Sanders Theatre for Jiang’s speech were in such high demand that a lottery was run in order to distribute the tickets.

Since China had previously been “resistant to such high-level interactions,” Kathrine A. Meyers ’98, then editor-in-chief of the Harvard Asia Pacific Review, said in 1997 that the visit needed “to be seized as an opportunity to advance relations, rather than to stifle them.”

The lottery to hear Jiang speak closed with more than 1,000 ticket requests.


As a Ph.D. student at Harvard at the time, Victor C. Shih, now a professor of political economy and an expert on China at the University of California, San Diego, recalled in an interview how he excitedly watched Jiang’s motorcade arrive in Cambridge for the 1997 visit.

While many Harvard affiliates, like Shih, looked forward to Jiang’s presence on campus, others objected — including student members of the Taiwanese Cultural Society. Countering outcry from human rights advocates, Jiang asserted in interviews before the event with TIME Magazine and the Washington Post that his country now touted more human rights than ever before.


Philip J. Cunningham, a 1998 Nieman Fellow at Harvard whose previous decade of reporting in Asia included covering the protests and crackdown of Tiananmen Square, said in an interview that while reporting in China he “saw things that were extremely terrible and unfair and cruel” — things that “the government did.”

“I was angry about it,” Cunningham added. “As an ordinary human being, I was outraged at some of the things that China was doing to its own people.”

Addressing his American audience through a translator, Jiang highlighted China’s scientific, cultural, and economic progress and argued for a more robust alliance with the United States. But his remarks were not immune from protest.

Immediately following his speech, a man shouted “human rights” from the upper balcony. Four others joined him, and the five turned their backs to Jiang, showing “Free Tibet” in black letters. Cunningham stood up and repeatedly shouted, “What about Wei Jingsheng?” referring to China’s longest-serving political prisoner at the time — whom Cunningham interviewed.

Shih, however, said he did not remember a lot of protests surrounding Jiang’s visit.

“Today, if the same thing were to come, you can imagine a lot of people lining the streets, welcoming him, et cetera — as well as a lot of protesters,” he said. “At that time, I don’t remember seeing either.”

Cunningham said he was “probably an outlier” at Harvard when it came to his passion for human rights issues in China.

According to Shih, Jiang’s visit in 1997 did not hold the same significance that a trip by current Chinese President Xi Jinping would hold today. China was a rising middle-income country at the time, Shih said, not the global superpower that it has become today.

“For those of us who studied China, it was a cool event,” Shih said. “But I think the rest of campus just did not pay that much attention to it.”

“It would be kind of similar today like if the president of Mexico were to visit,” he added. “There would be certainly a lot of students who would be interested, but most of Harvard may just go on with its life.”

But the full significance of Jiang’s visit would not become clear until decades later.


During his speech in Sanders Theatre, Jiang invited Harvard President Neil L. Rudenstine to visit China.

Just a few months later, in March 1998, Rudenstine took Jiang up on his offer, becoming the first sitting Harvard president to visit mainland China. Over the years since, it has become commonplace for Harvard presidents to visit China and meet with the country’s top leaders.

Lawrence H. Summers, Rudenstine’s successor, visited China and met with Jiang during his first year in office. Drew G. Faust also visited Beijing in 2015 and met Xi, who had become China’s president by the time.

Outgoing Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow continued the presidential tradition of visiting China and meeting with Xi during just his second international trip as president.

It is unclear, however, if incoming University President Claudine Gay intends to follow the example of her predecessor by visiting China early in her tenure, as U.S.-China relations have further deteriorated since Bacow’s visit to Beijing.

Just months after Bacow returned from meeting with Xi, the Department of Justice arrested and charged former Harvard professor Charles M. Lieber under its controversial China Initiative.

The China Initiative faced intense criticism for allegedly targeting individuals of Chinese descent and not fulfilling its initial objectives as an anti-espionage crackdown.

In prescient remarks during his keynote speech at Peking University in 2019, Bacow called on academics to continue international scholarly collaboration despite the political differences that their countries may have.

“I believe that sustaining the bonds that join scholars across borders is of the utmost importance for all of us gathered here today — and for anyone who cares about the unique role that higher education plays in the lives of countless people,” Bacow said in his speech.

However, it will now be Gay who will have the opportunity to signal whether the scholarly bonds between the U.S. and China will succeed in withstanding the increasingly fraught political tensions between the two nations.

—Staff writer Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ryandoannguyen.

—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mherszenhorn.