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Wellesley faculty defend a threatened Chinese scholar

Xia Yeliang knows that he may end up behind bars. He knows that his career in academia — he is a distinguished professor of economics at Peking University — may be about to end. He knows that he may become a social pariah, as friends and colleagues face mounting pressure to avoid him. He knows the anguish his wife may suffer for her loyalty to him.

Like his friend Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace laureate who has spent much of the past 25 years in Chinese prisons, Xia had few illusions about what he was getting into when he signed Charter 08, a valiant manifesto calling for human rights and an end to one-party rule in China. Since then Xia has grown increasingly outspoken in his defense of liberty and his condemnation of Communist Party censorship and persecution. So when he learned that the economics faculty at his university intends to vote this month on whether to expel him, he understood which way the wind was blowing.


“I prepared myself for the worst long ago,” Xia told me when I reached him by Skype on Tuesday at his home in Beijing. “If I want to see constitutional democracy come to China, I must accept this. If it happens, I will bravely face it. I will not surrender; I will not back down.” In recent years he has been harassed, threatened, and followed by the police. Several times he has been detained for several days and interrogated. A faculty vote to oust a colleague is virtually unknown in China — the last case Xia knows of happened 30 years ago. Which means, he says, that “this is not coming from Peking University. It is coming from the central leadership.”

With political repression in China growing more severe, Xia doesn’t expect his faculty colleagues to risk their necks for him. Some have approached him privately to commiserate, but few dare say anything openly for fear of endangering their own careers. Profiles in courage are rare in academia anywhere, let alone under a government that recently issued a directive banning discussion of seven “dangerous” Western topics, such as civil rights, judicial independence, and mistakes of communism.


Yet faculty members have come to Xia’s defense. In Wellesley.

At Wellesley College, more than 130 professors — almost 40 percent of the entire faculty — have signed an open letter vigorously defending Xia’s right to express his political views without fear of retaliation. They weren’t just spouting off. In June, Wellesley and Peking University launched a prestigious academic partnership that will include faculty and student exchanges, joint research, and virtual collaborations. But if Xia is fired because he champions democratic liberties and criticizes the Chinese Communist Party, the Wellesley professors warn, they “would find it very difficult to engage in scholarly exchanges with Peking University.” Confronted with such an inexcusable breach of academic freedom, they will ask Wellesley’s administration to shut down the new program.

If it comes to that, Wellesley’s president says she’ll do it. “We will follow our faculty’s lead,” H. Kim Bottomly told Inside Higher Ed. If Wellesley’s professors rebel at partnering with a university that engineers the punishment of a pro-democracy dissident, the partnership will end.

This isn’t the first time that the faculty at a major US institution of higher education has objected to being morally stained by collaboration with an unfree, antidemocratic regime. As Yale political scientist Jim Sleeper points out, Western universities hungry for the status and dollars that such joint ventures and partnerships generate are pursuing the chimera of “liberal education in authoritarian places.” Professors should object. What kind of message is sent when schools dedicated to free minds and unfettered thought ally themselves with some of the world’s most repressive regimes? “Pretending that freedom of inquiry can be separated from freedom of expression,” Sleeper writes, “is naïve at best, cynical at worst.”


Wellesley’s faculty show one way to grapple with the moral dilemma: Treat every endangered dissident at a partnering institution as a colleague, and vocally demand the same freedom for him that they would demand for themselves. Wellesley’s collaboration with Peking University makes the fate of Xia Yeliang directly relevant to every Wellesley professor. Xia’s Chinese colleagues may be too intimidated to raise the roof in his defense. His American “colleagues” don’t have that excuse.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.