Yang Xinyi, Minister Counsellor for Education of the Chinese Embassy to the United States, visited Dickinson College last week to meet with College President Margee Ensign and discuss methods to deepen the educational relationship between the People’s Republic of China and the college. Students have raised concerns about the college expanding its relationship with and footprint in China, given the recent controversies regarding treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang Province) and recent police crackdowns in Hong Kong.
Ensign explained in an email that “the visit was intended to deepen [our] educational relationship with China, both by increasing familiarity with Dickinson among leading Chinese educational officials and exchanging information about program possibilities.” She noted that the meeting itself was attended by Yang, and two secretaries from the embassy, Yang Cancun and Ying Li.
Provost Neil Weissman noted that the college has “had a long and deep collaboration with Chinese institutions, we have Chinese students on this campus and we have students studying in China,” and that the college believes theses cultural connections “are all good things.”
Ensign explained that the visit “heightened knowledge of Dickinson [College]” to “leading Chinese educational officials”, with emphasis being placed on the “strong global profile” of the college. The visit also led to the “identification of possibilities for future programming” between the college and China. “Our interest is in increasing educational exchange with China,” Ensign said, “including more study abroad opportunities for both students from China here and Dickinson students there, plus potential collaboration on cultural programming.”
However, students have mixed feelings about the college developing a closer relationship with China given the current controversy regarding the political protests in Hong Kong. According to BBC News, the protests began in July 2019 regarding a proposed bill which would allow extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China. Hong Kong maintains a special autonomous status within China due to their history as a British colony. Although the bill was withdrawn in September of the same year, the protests into demands for democratic rule in Hong Kong and inquiries into police misconduct, with increasing violence on both sides.
“In regard of democracy I think it’s a good thing but like right now in this situation like Hong Kong is somehow being influenced on Beijing government,” said Phuc Pham ’23, who disagreed with the college’s deepening its connections with China because “it’s kind of sensitive. There are some international students from China so I don’t think they would create a good agreement, like maybe if some student want to support Hong Kong people but some students from China they might not want this to happen.”
“I think it’s not, it’s not necessarily a bad thing because it’s for educational purposes. It doesn’t really interfere with what is going on in Hong Kong,” said Amelia Dao ’23.
Professor of Political Science David Strand explained that part of the 1997 handover, when sovereignty over Hong Kong was transferred from the United Kingdom to China, entailed Hong Kong retaining its independent legal system, and respect for political rights which had been protected during the British period, to preserve the then existing way of life “and that was to continue for a long time.” Strand noted that one of the rights people in Hong Kong enjoy is freedom of speech, even “including their views on China and Hong Kong.” Strand described Hong Kong society as possessing “a critical press, there is rule of law. Young people have grown up with considerable freedom.”
However, Strand noted that he is “not surprised that the Hong Kong government has tried to toe the line with Beijing, because the top leaders in Hong Kong […] are basically approved by Beijing as reliable.” Strand noted that while Hong Kong does have active opposition parties, “the political system is weighted so that people at the top […] are approved by Beijing,” and that Hong Kong’s political independence is “withering away right now. Life is not normal in Hong Kong,” noting that the government does possess and is actively using its power to disallow these protests. Strand noted that while “people in Hong Kong have been much more sympathetic to human rights activists and democracy activists,” that this feeling is not universal in Hong Kong. “The younger you are in Hong Kong, the more likely you are to have democratic ideas, and also be supportive of human rights.”
“The values that we formally promote, free exchange of views, and creativity, and thinking in ways that are not always conventional, that’s true in Hong Kong higher education,” Strand noted. However, he also pointed out that “we’re an educational institution, so we try to balance our main purpose, which is education, with freedoms, and that sometimes leads to tensions.” Strand noted that, while mainland China has become somewhat freer in recent years, “the government continues to be run basically by the communist party, and it is very suspicious of any dissent.”
“The Human Rights record of the People’s Republic of China has gotten worse in recent years, and that influences what’s going on in Hong Kong,” Strand added. However, “I think a Dickinson student who went to Hong Kong and spoke to university students there would find a tremendous amount of in common in terms of attitudes towards rights, freedom of speech, and democracy.”
Ensign stated that “as an institution created by a signer of the Declaration of Independence, we support the spread of human rights across the globe.” However, “our central mission is education,” she said.
The college is “supportive of human rights across the globe, but we also are supportive of educational exchange,” according to Weissman, “we conduct academic exchanges with lots of international institutions and universities around the world and we consider those exchanges separate of our views on human rights.”
“Seeking good educational relations with China, or any other nation, does not mean endorsing behavior inconsistent with American values,” said Ensign, “we believe broadening educational exchange is itself a powerful vehicle for advancing human rights.”