In Beijing, President Bacow Affirms Academic Freedom

The president addresses fraught issues at a delicate time in China.

President Bacow speaking at Peking University on March 20
Photograph by Yi Wang/Harvard Center Shanghai

President Lawrence S. Bacow—on an Asian itinerary including stops in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, and Tokyo—delivered an address last night at Peking University titled “The Pursuit of Truth and the Mission of the University.” His visit comes at a time of sharp strategic and trade differences between the United States and China, and of increased control of discourse and dissent within the People’s Republic. The Chinese government is wary of landmark anniversaries in the country’s modern history that may serve as reminders of past unrest and as prompts to air disagreement with its current directions—among them: the student protests known as the May 4 incident and a subsequent movement toward political change (1919); the founding of the People’s Republic (1949); the uprising in Tibet, its suppression, and the Dalai Lama’s flight to India (1959); and the brutal suppression of pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square (1989).

Updated March 20, 2019, 1:45 p.m., to report on the meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Bacow; see below.

Bacow embraced the occasion, following an introductory paragraph of thanks, by acknowledging the first of these landmark events, which is central to the identity of Peking University (also known as Beida), China’s preeminent institution of higher education:

It is a special honor for me to visit you as you approach…the centennial of the May Fourth Movement, a proud moment in your history that demonstrated to the world a deep commitment on the part of young Chinese to the pursuit of truth—and a deep understanding of the power of truth to shape the future. Even now, President Cai Yuanpei speaks to us. “Universities are places for grand learning,” he said. “They are grand because they follow the general principle of free thought.” Under his visionary leadership, tremendous intellectual exploration and dramatic social change were unleashed.

Cai Yuanpei, a Visionary Educator, in Context

In his magisterial The Search for Modern China (1990), a standard reference, Jonathan D. Spence described the student protests that erupted on May 4, 1919, with a demonstration at Tiananmen Square and a march on foreign legations—motivated in part by terms of the Versailles conference ending World War I that were favorable to Japan and unfavorable to China. It gave rise to a broad-based, national student union; ties to merchants, businessmen, and labor organizations; an upwelling of reformist publications; and broad debate about the country’s future, pointing toward “a rejuvenated, unified China that would have the means to cope” with predatory warlords, exploitative feudal landlords, and foreign imperialism. Many of modern China’s notions about nationalism, liberalism, and communism stem from this period and the May Fourth Movement, broadly defined.

The “formative thinking” behind the movement originated in the faculty and students at Peking University, Spence continued, led especially by Cai Yuanpei, who had earned a high classical degree in 1890, as imperial rule declined, before studying in Germany and then returning to serve as the country’s first minister of education, in 1912. Appointed president of the university in 1917, “he took a brave line with the military and civilian leaders who controlled the Peking government. He defended the rights of his faculty and students to speak out, claiming that they were all seeking ‘education for a world view’ and that the function of a university president was to be ‘broad-minded and encompass tolerance of diverse points of view.’” (Four days after the May 4 incident, he resigned to protest the arrest of his students; he was reappointed later in the year and remained president until 1922. An elite liberal-arts college named for him is at the heart of the university today.)

The modern, Communist Party-led state of course endorses the goal of a strong, unified China that can control its own fate and loom large in world affairs. But it also presumes that the wisdom to chart that course lies firmly, and exclusively, within the party itself—and so has little sympathy for the broad-mindedness and tolerance of diverse perspectives that are associated with Cai Yuanpei.

It was the latter theme that Bacow chose to emphasize at the very beginning of his remarks, in a way that could not have been missed, or misunderstood, by his audience at the Peking University of 2019. His audience would also know about Cai Yuanpei’s advocacy for universities’ institutional autonomy (not the norm when he became the young republic’s education minister), and for scholarship and freedom of expression within the academy unconstrained by religious or political limits. Whatever their meaning within the context of the contemporary People’s Republic, of course, these ideas also lie at the heart of Bacow’s own beliefs about the mission of the university—the overarching theme of his address.

The World Bonds of Scholarship

Despite the geopolitical and economic differences between nations, Bacow focused on the importance, power, and potential of intellectual and scholarly ties:

Harvard and Beida share a deep and enduring commitment to higher education. We enjoy many strong connections and collaborations among our students and our faculty, who are generating knowledge that will change the world for the better—be it through art and architecture, through medicine and public health, or through engineering and environmental science. We should remember that Cai Yuanpei not only led this university, but also helped to found the Academia Sinica, the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and the China Academy of Art. His example reminds us of the power of both the arts and the sciences to elevate the human spirit and improve the human condition.

He made note of Harvard’s engagement with Chinese studies stemming from 1879; the breadth and depth of its library holdings and current scholarship (more than 300 faculty members studying China in some way or other, including “Chinese culture, history, religion, anthropology, sociology, law, education, public health, public policy, and business”); and the extent of current scholarly exchanges, with “over 1,000 students and more than 1,000 scholars [joining] us from China—the largest cohort from any nation…learning and working in every school at the University.”

Bacow presented two striking examples of scholarly openness and exchanges across borders—both threatened by China’s control of expression and by U.S. policies restricting migration.

First he drew on his earlier academic life to illustrate the power of opening closed societies, as China did after the calamity of the Cultural Revolution:

I recall being a young faculty member at MIT in the late 1970s and witnessing a historic visit from a delegation of visiting scholars from China. Long separation had not weakened the bonds of affection among students and their teachers or faculty and their colleagues, some of whom had not seen each other for decades. They greeted one another as if they had been apart for only a short while and soon found themselves engaged again in areas of common interest. It was powerful evidence to me that universities can be sources of strength through tough economic, political, and social times.

Turning to international relations and a world-threatening issue, like climate change today, he observed that a professor from Peking University had contributed meaningfully to global peace:

I am also reminded of the first Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs. In 1957, as Cold War tensions mounted, 22 of the world’s eminent scientists gathered in Nova Scotia to discuss the development of thermonuclear weapons and the threat their use posed to civilization. Their collective work helped to pave the way for the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 and the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, among other consequential agreements. There were 22 attendees—seven from the United States, three from the Soviet Union, three from Japan, two from the United Kingdom, two from Canada, and one each from Australia, Austria, China, France, and Poland. Professor Zhou Peiyuan, a physicist and the sole Chinese member of the group, later became president of this great institution and, in 1978, led a delegation that arranged for scholarly exchange between China and the United States. We owe thanks to people like Professor Zhou Peiyuan for their farsighted and courageous leadership and for putting peace and mutual understanding above all other considerations.

Today, he said, “our governments are engaged in important and at times difficult discussions over a range of issues—and those discussions have implications that reverberate around the world. 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.”

Turning to the role and values of higher education, Bacow then drew upon his Harvard installation address, last October, emphasizing that universities are venues for pursuing the hard work of finding the truth, by airing the most diverse opinions and insisting on excellence and opportunity. Lest anyone doubt that those principles have practical meaning, he said:

I have been president of Harvard for less than a year. In that short span of time, no less than half a dozen controversial issues have arisen on our campus, generating impassioned discussions—and even some spirited arguments and public protests—among students, faculty, and staff, as well as alumni and friends of the University. Such arguments can cause discomfort. But they are signs of a healthy community and of active and engaged citizenship. In fact, it would be unusual and, frankly, unsettling if a semester went by without any episode of disagreement. When conflict does arise, it forces us to ask: What kind of community do we want to be? And that question sustains and strengthens us—and enriches our search for truth.

In many circumstances, my role as president is not to define the “correct” position of the University but to keep the channels of discussion open. From a distance, Harvard can appear to be a place that speaks in one voice. It is, in fact, a place of many voices. And one of the most important—and most difficult—of our tasks is to ensure that all members of the community feel empowered to speak their minds.

Given current conditions in China, particularly during this year of politically charged anniversaries, many members of the Peking University community may recognize the principles Bacow elaborated more than they can now enjoy their own scope for local action, even on their country’s campuses.

He closed with a call both for continued scholarly ties between Harvard and Beida (and by implication their countries), and a resonant invocation of the spirit of intellectual exploration in a verse by the late Abdurehim Ötkür:

Along life’s road I have always sought truth,
In the search for verity, thought was always my guide.
My heart yearned without end for a chance of expression,
And longed to find words of meaning and grace.
Come, my friends, let our dialogue joyfully begin.

Ötkür, a renowned Uyghur poet, novelist, and translator, graduated from Xinjiang University. Again, Bacow’s audience likely took in both the content of the verse, and its context: the United States and other nations have been increasingly critical of China’s wide detentions of the Muslim Uyghurs in the far western Xinjiang region.

It is unknown whether Bacow met, or is scheduled to meet, with government officials during his time in China.

[Updated March 20, 2019, 1:45 P.M. Xinhua has reported, and the University has confirmed, that President Xi Jinping (and apparently other officials responsible for education and foreign affairs) met with President Bacow at the Great Hall of the People, to talk about the importance of sustaining and strengthening educational exchanges between China and the United States, particularly given the present challenging state of relations between the two governments.]

It seems an era ago—a more open, and perhaps hopeful, time in Xi Jinping’s leadership of the country—when he and Drew Faust conferred during her visit in 2015. In the more difficult conditions prevailing now, President Bacow chose to focus on the foundational conditions for research and scholarship within universities as the basis for continued ties and progress. He alluded carefully but unmistakably toward a period of intellectual opening and freedom a century ago that shaped modern China, and to the severe challenges that such work can face within that country, and around the world, today.  

Read the text of President Bacow’s address here.

Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg
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