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In Memory of Elliot Sperling: A 2014 Interview with the American Tibet Scholar

Tang Danhong, translated by Anne Henochowicz, January 26, 2018


Elliot Sperling died in his sleep at the end of January, 2017 (the Wikipedia entry puts the date of his death on January 29, 2017). In our unabating sorrow of losing a dear friend, China Change presents a full translation of Ms. Tang Danhong’s interview with Elliot. Ms. Tang (唐丹鸿) is herself a prolific writer about Tibet, and now lives with her family in Israel. The interview was conducted in Chinese on July 27, 2014, in New York City. Ms. Tang published it for the first time in February, 2017.  — The Editors


Elliot Sperling

Elliot Sperling at Trace Foundation in New York in March, 2016.




“When I got to Greece, someone said to me, ‘You know, the road doesn’t end in Greece. You could go on, to Turkey, Asia, India…’ I said to myself, ‘Huh, why didn’t I think of that?’”



Tang Danhong: Dgenlags [teacher], let’s start where you began. How did you choose to study Tibet and China?

Sperling: My interest in Tibet wasn’t academic in the beginning. America had the Beat Generation in the 1950s and the hippies in the 1960s. I was 17 in late 60s, growing up in New York, and I lived in the midst of these movements. New York is an international city, and these changes were going on all around me. It was counter-culture: we made a new kind of music, and our thinking, even what we wore, were all part of our rebellion. And a lot of people smoked marijuana and took LSD. We thought we could reach an altered state of consciousness, just like a religion. Young me was so innocent. I yearned for a huge transformation in our consciousness. I read a lot of the Beats: Ginsberg, Kerouac. Psychology, for instance Carl Jung, also had a huge influence on me, and because of Jung I started to learn about the East. I took interest in Eastern culture, Eastern philosophy and so on. The East became more and more interesting to me. For me, it was a new world.

When I got to college I didn’t know what to study. Despite my interest in the East, I hadn’t yet thought of it as a specialization. At the end of my freshman year, a friend and I hitchhiked from New York to California just like Kerouac. We were on the road for many weeks. I thought it was so “beat,” ha ha. I did the same thing after sophomore year, this time in Europe. I flew to London, then hitchhiked from there to Greece. I’d think about what to major in from time to time. The good thing about travel for me was that my thinking was more open in new environments, so I could really mull over just what I wanted to do.

When I got to Greece, someone said to me, “You know, the road doesn’t end in Greece. You could go on, to Turkey, Asia, India…” I said to myself, “Huh, why didn’t I think of that?”

Elliot_01_Summer 1973, with Kunzang Paljor

Sperling’s first visit to Dharamsala in early 1970s. Photo: Woeser.

I went back to the US that time, but I decided I would take that trip. Of course my parents weren’t thrilled. I went to class during the day and drove a taxi in the evenings. After one semester I’d made enough money, so I flew to Europe and quickly got to Greece. In Greece I found out there was no need to hitchhike in Asia. Transportation was cheap there, and besides, hitchhiking was a little dangerous. So I hitchhiked from Greece to Istanbul, then took trains and buses to Tehran. I took another bus from Tehran to Mashhad, and from there entered into Afghanistan. I took all kinds of transportation in Afghanistan, even horse-drawn carriage. I went to Herat, to Kandahar, and then to Kabul. From Kabul I took a bus to Peshawar, Pakistan.

People are scared of Afghanistan and Peshawar now, but at that time the people in Iran and Afghanistan were really polite. I don’t know if they were polite to women, but if you were a man they were extremely hospitable to you. I only stayed in Pakistan for a day. I went from Peshawar to the border at Lahore, then crossed into India.

In north India I first got to New Delhi. To answer my travel questions, like where to find a cheap hotel, I had to find my fellow hippie drifters. Back then there were a lot of hotels that were more like dorms, with lots of beds in one room. In Delhi I found a bargain room for less than 50 cents a night. One of the guys in the room was getting ready to head back to the US and passed on to me some of his travel strategies. He said there’s a place in Delhi I would definitely like, called the Tibet House.[i] I went there, where I met Tibetans for the first time. I had no idea of the connection my fate and my future would have with their country.

After that I left Delhi and went to Varanasi, then on to Kathmandu [Nepal]. There were a lot of Bodpa [Tibetans] there, and my fascination with them started. I already had some interest in Eastern thought. I had read some books about that, and also about Buddhism, and I had been to a Japanese Zen center. I was most attracted to Tibetan Buddhism and went to a Buddhist temple in Kathmandu. In the course of my time there, I leaned farther and farther away from religious faith. My interest in Tibetan religion weakened, while my interest in their country, history and society was kindled. I paid more and more attention to the fate of the Tibetans, instead of their religious images.

After I left Kathmandu I went to Darjeeling, to Gangtok and onward. After two or three months of travel, I arrived at Dharamsala. In the 1970s, Dharamsala was an ideal place for a traveler in India. There weren’t many tourists, and few foreigners. There were hardly any Indians in McLeod Ganj. There were basically only Bodpa. Dharamsala was quiet and lush. There were only a few hotels. Foreigners stayed at Hotel Kailash. It’s still there today, but now McLeod Ganj is full of hotels with all the amenities. It’s not like in the old days. Before there were only five buses into Dharamsala every day, and you never saw a private car. Maybe at most the office of the Dalai Lama had a car. If I hadn’t been there in the 1970s and only visited Dharamsala today, I could never have imagined how idyllic and peaceful it used to be. So as soon as I got to Dharamsala, wow! This place is great! The Bodpa are wonderful! It’s then, I realized, that my curiosity about the history and people of Tibet really blossomed.



Photos taken by Elliot Sperling on his first visits to Dharamsala. View more at


Back then, I knew a little about India’s long history, and about China’s long history. But Tibet was a big question without an answer: Where did they come from? What was their history? I knew nothing. I started reading and talking to people…

After that I came back to the US and decided to specialize in Tibet studies. Queens College didn’t have Tibet studies, but they did have East Asian studies. At the time East Asian studies really meant China studies. They didn’t even offer anything on Japan. My first Chinese teacher is still alive and well. He’s at least 90 now, living in New York. I just visited him about a month ago. I started in China studies. I took two years of Mandarin and one year of classical Chinese. I also took the electives Eastern thought, Chinese philosophy, East Asian economics, history, and so on.

Back then you couldn’t go to the mainland. China was in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. Nixon had visited, but US-China relations hadn’t been normalized yet. Maybe the US had an office in China, but not an embassy. After I graduated, I decided to go to Taiwan to improve my Chinese. Before I got to Taiwan, I visited India and Dharamsala. I stayed in Taiwan for about a year-and-a-half, then went to India and studied Tibetan there. It was at McLeod Ganj that I got to know Jamyang Norbu.[ii]

I also wanted to earn my Masters and my Ph.D. I already knew that religion interested me, but not in an academic way. I wouldn’t be a Buddhist, and I wouldn’t be a scholar of Buddhism. The first time I went to India, I realized I wouldn’t become a Buddhist. I know that some people think they believe in Buddha or something, but I wouldn’t dare say that myself. Belief involves a religious experience, an experience in your heart, but I understand religion with my mind. The two aren’t the same. Instead, I’m really interested in Tibetan history, society and culture. Where could you pursue advanced study of Tibet in the US at that time?  There were only two places to study Tibet history: the University of Washington, in Seattle; and Indiana University. In the end I chose Indiana.

Tang: The Dalai Lama’s oldest brother, Taktser Rinpoche, is a professor at Indiana. Were you his student? Could you talk a little about him?

Sperling: We had several teachers at Indiana, including Taktser Rinpoche, whose full name is Thubten Jigme Norbu[iii]. Professor Norbu was an extraordinary person, a very good person. A lot of students wanted to take his classes just so they could brag, “Oh, I’m Thubten Jigme Norbu’s student.” Some of them didn’t work hard and had nothing to show for it. Thubten Jigme Norbu didn’t bother with them. He simply said that if you took a class with him and want to work hard, he will do everything he can to help you. If a student wanted to read more Tibetan sources, no matter how many, or wanted to learn Mandarin, he would put his heart and soul into you. This is why I had Taktser Rinpoche as one of my two advisors.[iv]

Elliot_4_with teacher Rinpoche

Sperling with his advisor, Taktser Rinpoche at Indiana University. Photo: Woeser.

Four-and-a-half years later I had passed my exams, but hadn’t started writing my dissertation. When I embarked on my research, I thought I ought to go back to India. I spent over a year at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala. I had a good friend, Kun’bzang Phun’tshogs, who didn’t have very good English but who did have excellent Chinese, since he had been at the Central Ethnic University (中央民族学院) in Beijing in the 1950s and 1960s. At that time it was extremely rare to find a Tibetan who could speak Chinese in Dharamsala. There must have only been three or four of them at most. And I’d all but forgotten my Tibetan. So he and I spoke to each other in Chinese. At McLeod Ganj I saw Jamyang Norbu again, and we became good friends. We’re friends to this day.

Tang: What was your research project then? What was the main focus of your work?

Sperling: My dissertation was about China-Tibet relations during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). I wanted to learn when China-Tibet relations had started, as well as the nature and substance of this relationship.

I knew that Tibet was on Manchu Qing maps, and on Mongol Yuan maps, too. But the more I read the more I realized that this relationship wasn’t at all like what the Chinese government claimed. It’s apparently very difficult to explain this to Chinese people. Chinese people today think that everything belongs to them, in large part because of the new historical viewpoint in China. But we believe that the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) was part of the Mongol empire, and the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) the Manchu Qing empire. We consider these two to be “conquest states.” If Tibet is really a part of “China,” then we should have a look at the Ming. The Ming was not a conquest state. The Ming attitude toward the Mongols is also really interesting. They didn’t consider the Mongols to be a “brother nationality” at all.

As I continued my research, I found that Ming dynasty China-Tibet relations were basically that they didn’t have relations. The Chinese think the Ming was the heir to the Yuan, a changing of the guard; but Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan, they did not consider themselves the emperors of China. They considered themselves emperors of the world. How can you simply say that the Ming were the inheritors of the Yuan?

When I was at Indiana I did some research of Chinese and Tibetan sources from the Ming era. My masters thesis was about the Fifth Karmapa [Lama] (1384-1415), who received an invitation from the Yongle Emperor to visit Nanjing. I read the biography of the fifth Gyalwa Karmapa in Tibetan, as well as Chinese texts, and nowhere did I find evidence that China controlled Tibet. I didn’t find any primary texts about Ming control of Tibet. There were none. I didn’t find any in a year at the archives in Dharamsala, either. The interesting thing is that I looked at how Republican China dealt with this, and found that no one at that time was saying that Tibet was a part of China since the Ming. At best they would say “Tibet was brought within China’s border during the Qing.” Now China says Tibet was a part of China during the Ming. It’s nonsense.

Then I came back to the US and took about two years to finish my dissertation. It was about China-Tibet relations during the Ming, titled Early Ming Policy toward Tibet: An Examination of the Proposition that the Early Ming Emperors Adopted a “Divide and Rule” Policy toward Tibet.[v] My conclusion was: they didn’t have any. During the Ming, Tibet was divided by competing regimes among the Tibetans, and continued that way until the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682). But this had nothing to do with Ming policy; this was internal to Tibet. The Ming emperor’s interactions with Tibet were religious at most, about benefactors and lamas.[vi]

I focused on history. I published “The Tibet-China Conflict: History and Polemics,”[vii] and several articles in academic journals, such as “Tibet and China: The Interpretation of History Since 1950.”[viii] I’ve also written articles [for a general readership]. Some have been translated into Chinese, including “Incivilities,” “The Body Count,” and others.


Elliot Lhasa, 1985

Elliot Sperling in Lhasa in 1985. Photo: Woeser.


Tang: As the Chinese government describes it, China has had sovereignty over Tibet since the Yuan dynasty. Chinese people today also see the Manchu Qing dynasty as a Chinese regime, and insist on China’s rule over Tibet by dint of Qing political control there. From a scholarly perspective, how do you view this question? How do Western scholars see it generally?

Sperling: In the common view of Western historians, there was a Great Mongol Empire and a Great Manchu Qing Empire. The Mongols considered both Tibet and China as part of the Great Mongol Empire. China says that Tibet became part of China during the Yuan dynasty, but if you ask Chinese scholars “when during the Yuan dynasty?” each will give you a different answer, because there is no one document, including any imperial edict, that proves that “Tibet belongs to China.” There is none. Tibetan sources are full of evidence that Tibet belonged to the Mongols, but not one document shows they belonged to China. What they showed allegiance to was the Mongol empire. Since the Mongols already controlled Tibet, why would they put Tibet inside the border of “China”? There’s no good explanation for it. So I wrote an article about when Tibet started “belonging” to China.[ix] According to my research, my view is this: the historical record proves that it is incorrect to say that “Tibet came within China’s borders during the Yuan dynasty. It is illogical to say so, and the reasons for my argument are clear.

The Manchu Qing was also a conquest dynasty. The Great Manchu Qing Empire was not at all the same thing as China. China was merely a part of the Great Manchu Qing Empire. The Manchu Qing, through to its final days, used the terminology of imperialism and colonialism in its Tibet policy. For example, at the turn of the 20th century the Manchu Qing official Zhao Erfeng (趙爾豐) proposed that they ought to deal with Tibet the way that Britain dealt with Australia, France with Vietnam, and the US with the Philippines. This language in and of itself proves that it was 100 percent colonialism. These materials from Zhao Erfeng are all in Chinese. You can see from books published in the mainland. Chinese scholars can see immediately that this is an imperialist, colonialist way of thought. Today people think of “empire” as a bad thing, but in Zhao Erfeng’s time “empire” wasn’t a pejorative. All it meant was “we conquered you, you lost to us, and now you must submit to us.” Back then “empire” signified greatness. So there was no need for acrobatics, like “we are a great Chinese nation” or “we’re one big family.”

At the turn of the 20th century, the British and French sailed on the Pacific to China. The Manchu Qing officials they met along the coast had already become Sinicized, and everywhere they saw “Great Qing” written in Chinese, so foreigners didn’t understand the difference between the “Manchu Qing” and “China.” But in Inner Asia,  the Great Manchu Qing Empire was what it was. The Russians for example knew the difference between the Great Manchu Qing Empire and China. Since the Manchu Qing managed relations with Russia as well as with Mongolia and Tibet under the same ministry, the Ministry of Minority Affairs (理藩院), you can tell that it was an imperial mechanism. But the British and the French didn’t get it. They refer to the “Chinese Empire” in their official correspondence and treaties and so on, and the Manchu Qing emperor approved of this formulation.

But the Manchu Qing Empire was not China. This is indisputable among Western academics. Many scholars outside of China, including some Sinologists, call their studies the “New Qing Studies” (新清史). Fundamental to “New Qing Studies” is the recognition that the “Qing dynasty” was an “empire,” the Manchu Qing Empire. But the scholarly community in China is unwilling to accept this point. This is a denial of history; it is a false history.





Tang: Have you discussed the issue of Tibet and the Manchu Qing with Tibet scholars in China? What do you think are the differences between the Chinese and Western approaches to historiography?

Sperling: Because of current ideology, Chinese scholars not only cannot say that “the Manchu Qing is not the same as China,” but also must say that “China has been a multi-ethnic, unified country since ancient times,” that “they are all the Chinese nation,” etc. About four years ago, China went back to a theory from the 1980s, that is Tan Qixiang’s (譚其驤) theory. Tan compiled the Historical Atlas of China, and is perhaps viewed by officials as the greatest authority on Chinese historical geography. He wrote a paper on China’s historical territory arguing that China’s historical map ought to be based on that of the Qing dynasty at the height of its reign.[x] What this means is taking the map of the eighteenth-century Manchu Qing’s greatest territory to be “China since ancient times.”

Now if that’s so, shouldn’t Britain also be able to claim India, Australia and so on as its own? Western scholars generally acknowledge that historical territory changed, that it was once this way and is now that way. But not China. They count the Qing dynasty’s largest territory as theirs since time immemorial. As for when Tibet became part of Chinese territory, Tan Qixiang said, “Tibet has been China’s ever since there was human activity on the Tibetan Plateau.” He also had an explanation for the facts that Tibet didn’t belong to Yuan China and that instead they pledged allegiance to the Mongol Empire. The gist of his argument was: we shouldn’t speak of dynasties, for example that the Tang dynasty didn’t control Tibet. Instead, we should say that Tibet and the Tang are both China’s! We should say that the Northern and Southern dynasties, the Tang and Tibet, the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms, the Jin, the Liao… all belong to China! So he already warped the conventional conception of history. What a joke! Not one scholar outside of China would agree with this. I have never encountered this stance in the English-speaking world. But China pushes this stance, this bravado, this narcissism. I refuted this theory.

Furthermore, Western scholars don’t think ethnic identity is fixed. It can also change. For instance, what is the nationality of the French? The same goes for Americans. Since national identity is a product of history, it is also a product of human beings. We’re in Central Park right now. I see the people around us—people with different skin colors, of different races—as American. This is the American identity created by history and by people. But if you were to say that Asian people who arrived in America 200 years ago were also American, no one would agree. But China created the new identity of the one “Chinese nation” out of current political exigency, then stuck the historical background onto the Chinese nation. That’s a distortion of history. In Chinese academic circles, if you doubt the official position on the national identity of the Tibetans, you have separated yourself from the concept of the “Chinese nation,” and that’s a serious problem. When I was in China in 2001 a rather prominent Chinese scholar said, “Foreigners can say that, but not us. We don’t accept it.” Chinese academics are relatively progressive and open in other fields, like comparative literature and philosophy. They can have all kinds of theoretical debates. But not so in Tibet studies. You cannot argue about Tibet’s historical status. Because it is extremely sensitive, you aren’t allowed to have a theoretical debate. I have yet to meet a Chinese scholar who publicly denies the identity of the “Chinese nation.”

Elliot_05_With Ngaphod 1991_阿沛

Sperling and Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme shaking hands in Beijing, 1991. Photo: Woeser.

There have been great achievements in Tibet studies in China, and some really good scholars. But if you’re talking about the Tibet issue, they’ll go on about “restoring the great Chinese family” and such. If you’re talking about national identity, or historical identity, the Chinese have all kinds of untruths. It’s the same as it was in the 1950s. Yet this 50s scholarship still hasn’t decided on a pretext for [its version of] Tibetan history. There were also people in the 50s who said that Tibet became Chinese territory during the Tang dynasty, that Tibet has been a part of China ever since Princess Wencheng (文成公主) was married off to Songtsen Gampo. Of course Chinese scholars in the 1950s didn’t have much knowledge, and they didn’t really understand the Tibetan language. The argument that “Tibet became Chinese territory under the Yuan dynasty” came later. When I was in China last year there were still scholars saying that Tibet became a part of China under the Qing.

In 2011 I went to China to participate in a closed door meeting about “the Tibet issue and the image of the Dalai Lama.” You may have seen my lecture “Talking about the Tibet issue with Beijing.” When I was done there was a lot of excitement. They said, “We agree with some of Sperling’s points, but not this, not that… I thought about what they said. Yeah, maybe they agreed when I said, “Hi! I’m Elliot Sperling,” and “Thank you for inviting me to participate in this conference.” They may have agreed with me on those points. Otherwise, I don’t think we agreed on anything else. They asked me questions for two hours, but they weren’t real, challenging questions. In fact, you could say it was a struggle session. For instance, someone said, “I don’t accept your comparison of the Dalai Lama with Gandhi.” It was all questions like that.

China does, of course, have some really brilliant scholars. The Tibetan and Chinese sources I’ve mastered, they’ve read them, too. Obviously the books I’ve written about Zhao Erfeng and Tibetan historical geography can’t be openly published in China, but I know they’ve been translated for internal use by officials. They’ve definitely read them. But I’ve never seen anyone address or refute my position in academic journals.

I’ve also talked about Said’s Orientalism. In principle, Said’s theory of Orientalism is useful for China, since mainland scholars like to use “Orientalism” to counter Western criticism, to cast Western criticism of China as Orientalist. Said’s book Orientalism is published in China. Mainland Chinese academics also use Donald Lopez’s Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West to chastise Western scholars for their “Shangri-La-ist” view of the Tibet problem. But Prisoners of Shangri-La can’t be published publicly in China. It’s also only circulated internally. Why? Because in his book, Lopez also criticizes China for what he sees as ruthless domination of Tibet.

Autocracies don’t tolerate dissenting opinions. They use the police and the courts to control dissent. Scholars within China’s [party-state] system can’t just speak on the Tibet issue whenever they like. It’s too sensitive. Different voices—Ilham Tohti, Tsering Woeser, Wang Lixiong and other dissident scholars and writers—could topple the great tower of rewritten history and historical theory that China has built.

Tang: You studied Chinese in Taiwan. Have you had any connections with Taiwanese scholars of Tibet? How do they see the issue of Tibet’s status?

Elliot_06_Elliot and students meeting with Dalai Lama

Sperling and Indiana faculty and students greet the Dalai Lama.

Sperling: I haven’t been to Taiwan in over 20 years. My impression is that there are some Tibet scholars there whose Tibetan is fairly good, but they’re mostly focused on religious studies. The people studying Tibetan history and the Tibet issue mainly use Chinese sources. I was in Taiwan in the 1980s, when the country was still under the authoritarian rule of the Kuomintang. The KMT’s view of the Tibet problem is the same as the CCP’s. The KMT has different policies and handles Tibet differently, but in terms of Tibet’s historical status, they are in agreement with the CCP. Taiwanese history books generally say, “Tibet became Chinese territory during the Qing dynasty.” This is the official KMT line. They still want Tibet to be “a part of China.” The KMT still has a Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission.[xi] They still haven’t gotten rid of it, because they need it as evidence of “one China.” If they dissolved the commission and then Tibet wanted independence, it would no longer be Taiwan’s concern. I think the mainland doesn’t want the commission to be dissolved either, lest Taiwan take one step closer toward independence. The mainland used to call Chiang Kai-shek “Chiang the Bandit,” but now they praise him. The mainland government would rather the KMT keep its policy of “unification.”

Tang: Could you talk about any work you’ve done with the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala? Did the government restrict your research, or offer you support.

Sperling: I also disagree on some points with the government-in-exile. They say that the Manchu Qing didn’t control Tibet, the Mongolians didn’t control Tibet, that these were simply “priest-patron” relationships. This priest-patron relationship I’ll admit, but what exactly is it? These days a lot of Tibetans says that the emperor found Buddhism was a wonderful way to cultivate the mind and the spirit, as if the emperor were just a normal person studying Buddhism. Actually, it wasn’t like that at all. The emperor understood how to use Buddhism for control, for warfare, how to use the “gods” to defeat the enemy. It’s from this angle that I studied how the emperor observed Buddhism. During the Mongol Yuan, Kublai Khan had the same interest in Buddhism, a conqueror’s interest. Of course he thought he could use Buddhism as a means of subjugation. Besides, Buddhism had already spread to the nations under his occupation. I began to research the Western Xia (1038 – 1227) because the Mongols had learned from experience. Before the Tanguts were destroyed, lamas from Tibet came to the Western Xia capital. Tibetan documents record their activities, and I’ve read these sources. The emperor asked the lamas to perform a Mahākāla (Daheitian) kalpa (ritual), to use Mahākāla to resist the Mongol invaders. And it worked: after the kalpa the Tanguts defeated the Mongols in their first battle. This is recorded in both Tibetan and Chinese documents, and the Tibetan ones are more detailed. I’ve written about this in articles on the origins of Sino-Tibetan relations.

Elliot_06_with 嘉央诺布 and others

Sperling with Jamyang Norbu (right), Li Kexian, and a colleague in Dharamsala. Photo: Woeser.

I’ve also contributed to the website Rangzen Alliance, like my article “Incivility.” These aren’t academic papers; they’re “good citizen” articles. A good citizen should have a critical eye towards society. I’ve criticized both the government-in-exile and the CCP, but the consequences haven’t been the same. If I go to Dharamsala and criticize the government-in-exile, no one will be hurt or killed. There’s no comparing the Tibetan government and the Chinese government. They’re completely different. But there are aspects of the Tibetan government-in-exile that need to be criticized. There are also Tibetans who say, “Why is he always criticizing the government-in-exile? Why doesn’t he call out the Chinese government?” Actually, I criticize them both, but the way I criticize each one is different. Also, the government-in-exile can’t restrict me in any way. It’s a government-in-exile. It has no sovereignty in India, so it can’t limit me. As soon as I get to Dharamsala I can use the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, as well as the Amnye Machen Institute, an advanced research institute. It’s private, non-governmental. The government has never given me any trouble in Dharamsala; I’ve also lectured there and in the Delhi Tibetan exile community. The government-in-exile never restricted me. As long as someone had invited me to speak, I could do it. Two or three years ago, I went to lecture at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, it was fun: when the library director introduced me, he said, “Last time he slammed us, he really slammed us! Hahaha.”

I’ve also criticized the Dalai Lama. There are some Tibetans who aren’t happy about this. I think if I were a Tibetan exile, this would pose a bit of a problem, but in the eyes of Tibetan exiles I’m a foreign scholar. There really are some Tibetans who don’t like me. But they don’t hinder me — it’s not like the Chinese government not letting me into the country. They’ve never kept me from visiting Dharamsala. They know I won’t live there permanently. After a few weeks or a month or two I’ll come back to America. I can’t say I’m a “veteran” foreigner in Dharamsala, but there are very few foreigners who have maintained ties with the government-in-exile from the 1970s to today. I guess I’m one of them. Anyway, they are happy when I criticize the Chinese government, but they aren’t when I criticize the government-in-exile. That’s about how it goes, heh heh. I call things as I see them, but a lot of people don’t like that. They think: well, you could be a little more diplomatic, a little more polite; you could change your wording here, correct that there. But keep doing this, you won’t even know what you believe anymore.


Elliot and Woeser, july 2012

Sperling with Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser in Beijing in July, 2012. Photo: Woeser.


Tang: What’s your take on the “middle way” policy?

Sperling: The Dalai Lama is a great man, but in the end he is only human, who can make mistakes in his judgement like anyone else. In terms of the “middle way,” I really think he’s wrong. It’s just that a lot of people aren’t willing to come out and say so. I think because of the “middle way” policy, a lot of Tibetans in exile have given up hope. They won’t admit this hopelessness to anyone, so they have given up resisting and sought personal happiness. They think of ways to get an American green card, they think of ways to immigrate to Western countries. A lot of exiles are like this now. They say, “China is now the fantasy-China of the leaders in exile, the Tibet of the future is the fantasy-Tibet of the leaders in exile.” That is, a free Tibet cannot exist under communist rule that respects no human rights. They all know this, and I think that the exile leaders, in their heart of hearts, know this, too. The fight for a free Tibet is a just one, but now the exile leaders are making it pathetic.

Tang: Since 2008, a lot of overseas Chinese people have supported the “middle way.” What do you think about this?

Sperling: I think the factor that makes many Chinese support the “middle way” is the same one that makes the Bodpa support the “middle way.” It’s because the “middle way” is the Dalai Lama’s idea. In China a lot of people know who the Dalai Lama is. Although politically China condemns him, many people still view him as a “living Buddha.” I don’t like this title of “living Buddha”— there are a lot of Chinese people of blind faith. They say the Dalai Lama stands for the “middle way,” so they stand for the “middle way.” But they haven’t considered how illogical the “middle way” is. If they really thought about it, they ought to  realize that the “middle way” can’t happen in China. It just can’t. The Chinese authorities really want the Dalai Lama to keep faith in the fanciful, hopeless, impossible “middle way.” They’re happy to see the Dalai Lama go on and on about the “middle way” with the international community, with people on all sides, because to them this is the ideal way for the Dalai Lama to waste time. They’re just waiting for him to die. Even though there are a few naive Chinese people who support the “middle way,” they aren’t the vast majority of Chinese. The vast majority of Chinese don’t think about the Tibet issue at all. There are some overseas Chinese who support the “middle way” not with regard to the Tibetans inside China, but to the Dalai Lama. They’re just like some of the Tibetans outside of China and some foreigners. What they support is not Tibet, but the Dalai Lama, they echo the Dalai Lama. They’re willing to see him as a god. And there are some people who support the Dalai Lama for their own kind of vanity. They use the Dalai Lama’s name to make themselves look good. These people aren’t just among overseas Chinese. There are Westerners like this, and leaders of the government-in-exile, too. They want to use the Dalai Lama’s name, so of course they “support” him. So it’s a sad situation.

The Dalai Lama and some Tibetans in exile say, “We have a lot of friends in China. The Chinese understand our position more and more.” I think this is completely wrong. Some people ask me, “What do the Chinese think about the Tibet issue?”I tell them that the average Chinese person doesn’t even think about the Tibet issue. It doesn’t cross their minds. But if something happens in Tibet, they just listen to what the government tells them. They say, “Didn’t we liberate Tibet? Then why are they betraying us? Why aren’t they grateful?” There are also plenty of people who will add, “The Tibetans are backward and savage. They haven’t developed.” The average Chinese person will only get angry at the government if the government’s interests conflict with their own. They have no civic awareness. If it doesn’t concern them, they don’t think about it, or else they’re afraid to get involved. They won’t think, “Why are there all these clashes between ethnic minorities and the government? Maybe these minorities have a point? In 2008, a lot of Bodpa had this experience in China: some Tibetans in Beijing faced all kinds of insults. Beijing cabbies would refuse to pick them up as soon as they saw they were Tibetan, and would even curse at them. There were hotels that wouldn’t let them in and told them “you aren’t worthy of the kindness the Party and the country has shown you.” Ordinary Chinese know in their hearts that it’s an authoritarian regime, but they refuse to listen, they refuse to think. It’s the same situation in Xinjiang. It’s the same for the Uighurs.

Tang: Whenever the Israeli-Palestinian conflict flares up, there’s a big reaction from the international community, and sharp criticism of Israel. But it seems like there isn’t strong condemnation of China’s Tibet and Xinjiang policies. Do you think that’s so?

Sperling: Yes, it’s not that strong. I think at least it’s for this reason, that when the Dalai Lama says “we seek autonomy, not independence,” Westerners get confused and lose the direction or focus of their support.

Tang: There is a popular view among Chinese dissidents: they believe the Tibet issue has to do with the Communist Party, with human rights. Without democracy in China, Tibet can’t be free; but if China democratizes, the human rights issue would disappear, and Tibet would have no need of independence. What do you think of this?

Sperling: I think it’s still a “Great China” way of thinking. If the Tibet issue is “between the CCP and Tibet,” then how come the 13th Dalai Lama didn’t recognize Tibet as a part of the Republic of China? He fundamentally rejected the notion of Tibet being a part of China. The Tibet issue was influenced by the CCP later on, but at its root it’s not about the Party, it’s a “Great China” problem, a problem between China and Tibet. After the destruction of the Manchu Qing, the revolutionary party and the republic wanted to maintain the empire. They just changed the words they used: “We’re not an empire, we’re a multi-ethnic country.” This is Chinese chauvinism, the idea that the “Middle Kingdom” controls “all under heaven.”

Also, by emphasizing that the Tibet issue is a “CCP vs. Tibet issue,” doesn’t that upset the Dalai Lama? The Dalai Lama often says that he’s a Marxist and that he likes communism. So it’s contradictory for the Tibet issue to be an issue “with the CCP.” On the other hand, the Dalai Lama doesn’t really understand Marxism. When you hear him talk about it, it sounds like some kind of Christian movement that helps the people and so on. He doesn’t understand the Marxist view of history, he doesn’t understand dictatorship, class struggle — this is all Marxist theory. Of course, Marxism differs from Maoism. Marx’s theories are really interesting, but there are huge problems putting them into practice. All of the administrative systems in the world that call themselves Marxist are authoritarian, and none have any regard for human rights. Now the Dalai Lama says he’s not against Marxism. Even Lopsang Sangay has said that he doesn’t oppose communism or communist rule. If you’re not opposed to communist rule, does that mean you accept limits on human rights? Communism is not communism if it doesn’t strip human rights.

Tang:  Do you think China’s denial of Tibet’s sovereignty is related to natural resources in Tibet and East Turkestan?

Sperling: I think at first it’s because of their view of history. The Chinese didn’t think about the issue of natural resources during the Xinhai Revolution [in 1911]. They just thought that they belonged to China. Even though they often said that “China was a semi-colony” etc. etc., they themselves fought for the largest colonial boundaries. India wasn’t a semi-colony, it was an actual colony. But they recognize their own history and acknowledge the changes to India’s historical borders. China’s colonial “wounds” were inflicted by other countries controlling Chinese territory, like the British in Hong Kong and Japan’s occupation of Manchuria. So China wants to recover all of its imperial territory!


Elliot w Ilham

Sperling befriended Ilham Tohti in Beijing in 2012. Photo: Woeser.


Tang: I knew of you before as a Tibetologist and Sinologist. Recently, I learned that you’ve put a lot of effort into trying to rescue Uighur professor Ilham Tohti. Then, have you also done research on the “Xinjiang problem”? Could you introduce the work you’ve done on Xinjiang?

Sperling: I’m interested in China’s policies towards nationalities and the situation of ethnic minorities, but I’m not an expert on the Xinjiang issue. Ilham Tohti is a very important person. Look at Ilham’s website, “Uighur Online.”[xii] A lot of information about the Uighurs and Xinjiang was there. I first noticed him in 2009. Public Security had him and no one knew where he was being held, so I signed an open letter calling for Ilham’s release. But I didn’t meet him face-to-face until 2012. It was a truly happy occasion, and we became friends. I invited him to the US, to come to Indiana University as a visiting scholar in 2013-2014, for one year. But, as everyone knows, he was stopped at the airport and wasn’t allowed to leave the country. He’d already been under house arrest several times. He was detained this January [2014]. From that point until now, only his lawyer has seen him, and only once.[xiii] He’s in a terrible situation. They’re rough on him. Of course I’m worried about how they’re treating him. Ilham and I have talked a lot. I know he doesn’t support East Turkestan independence. Besides, he writes in Chinese. His Uighur is excellent, but he writes in Chinese. He wants his website and his writing to help Han people in China understand what’s happening in Xinjiang and what the Chinese government is doing there. He wants dialogue. It’s just like Wang Lixiong said: among Uighur intellectuals, Ilham is probably one of the few who doesn’t support East Turkestan independence. He wants dialogue, but have you seen how the Chinese government treats him? They say he’s a separatist, that he praises terrorist activities, and on and on. If this is how they treat someone who’s willing to have dialogue and compromise, then there’s no hope for the Uighurs.

Tang: Even though you’re not a Xinjiang expert, I still want to ask: what’s your general sense of China’s claim that “Xinjiang has been a part of China since ancient times”?

Sperling: First, this is how I see it: since 1949, so much blood has been shed in Tibet and Xinjiang. They’ve been under such brutal rule. Having gone through this, they should decide their future for themselves.

When people ask me if I think Tibet should be independent, I say, “It’s not for me to decide. It’s for the Tibetans to decide.” Of course I still imagine that if Tibet did gain independence, my greatest wish would be for Tibet and China to be equal, to have friendly relations. I hope they would both be democratic countries. And I hope that Chinese people would continue to go to Tibet, not of course to control their economy, but to travel, to study Buddhism, to help Tibet develop. I hope that Bodpa would go to China, too. I hope the Nationalities University would continue to exist. That the two countries would have a relationship of mutual benefit, and that they would both have seats at the United Nations. I don’t want hatred to linger between them. This is my sincere hope. I believe the future of Tibet should be decided by the right of national self-determination. Tibetan history is a great tragedy. Just based on this alone, the Tibetan people have the right to decide what kind of future they want.

Xinjiang is the same. They’ve been under the same kind of brutal rule. These people must freely express their own will. Without the pressure of an authoritarian system on them, they ought to speak freely. It’s their right. As for saying that Xinjiang is historically a part of China, obviously that’s twisting history. China says that artifacts from the Han dynasty have been found in Xinjiang, which proves that Xinjiang belongs to China. But you can find anything on any kilometer along the Silk Road. They’ve also found ancient Chinese coins in Rome. Does that mean that Europe belongs to China? That doesn’t make any sense. It’s the same as China declaring its right to the South China Sea, but in Xinjiang they’re even crazier. Over the past few centuries, Xinjiang has been most closely tied to Central Asia historically, culturally and politically. They didn’t have any connection with China. The Central Asian peoples were made a part of Czarist Russia, then the Soviet Union, and now, they’re no longer within Russia’s borders. Xinjiang’s history is complicated. You can’t say it’s belonged to China since ancient times. That’s Tan Qixiang’s “historical method.” History is always changing. The map we see today isn’t necessarily what it will be 100 years from now.

China labels the peoples of the territories as Chinese “ethnic minorities” just because China ruled over them for a few years or a few decades in the past. But this identity of “ethnic minority” is really problematic. “Ethnic minorities” were created by China alone. It’s not a natural classification. What is an “ethnic minority”? What are their characteristics? In fact, each group is different from the other. But if you look at sources from the 1980s about “ethnic minorities,” all they say is that they’re “good at song and dance” and are “colorful.” Besides this, for example the Tibetans, the Zhuang, the Yi, what connects them? What common features do they share? Language, culture, history? They have nothing in common.

According to the historical and cultural background of the Uighurs, they should be considered Central Asian. China has labeled them East Asian according to their modern history, but from a historical perspective, the Uighurs belong to the Central Asian cultural sphere. When Chinese officials describe the age of a Tibetan mural, or when a temple was built, or any other historical artifact, they don’t use the Gregorian calendar. They use the Chinese calendar system instead: this dates to the Tang dynasty, that to the Song, etc. They do the same in Xinjiang. We know that the native peoples of Xinjiang, their ancestors were Indo-European, Central Asian, and Turkic. They don’t consider themselves to be Chinese. Their languages are Indo-European and Turkic. But China’s logic is this: from the moment a Han Chinese person set foot in a place, it became a part of China. China argues the same point for its claims in the South China Sea. As long as Zheng He crossed that point, it belongs to China. This is bound to create conflict with other countries, and these conflicts have no logical basis.


Cérémonie de la remise du prix Martin Ennals 2016 à Uni-Dufour.

Sperling accompanied Jewher Ilham to receive the Martin Ennals Award on behalf of Ilham Tohti from UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein in Geneva in October, 2016. Photo: MEA


Tang: Some people compare the Tibet issue and the Xinjiang issue to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What do you make of that?

Sperling: There are those who say these conflicts are the same, but they really aren’t. Perhaps you could say a similarity exists: there are Westerners who support Tibet, but they don’t really understand the many aspects of the Tibet issue. It’s the same for the Middle East. A lot of people say they support Palestine, or that they support Israel, but they don’t arrive at these opinions based on nuanced understanding of the issue.

The problems in the Middle East are quite complicated. The Muslim world also has a tradition of anti-Semitism, though certainly not everyone is like that. In the past, many Muslims societies didn’t recognize the individual, only the ethnicity or the group. Certainly, Jews were persecuted. It was the same in the West. In history, Jews frequently faced pogroms and exile. In medieval Germany, there was an attitude that “the Jews want to get rich, so we must kill them. We can’t let them flourish.” I’m not saying that we should excuse Israel’s current policies. I’m not fond of Netanyahu, and I don’t agree with Likud’s policies. What I mean is, there are anti-Semitic forces in the Arab world, and the Palestine-Israel conflict isn’t one-sided. I must say that I oppose Israeli settlement on the West Bank of the Jordan. I also believe that Israel can engage [Mahmoud] Abbas in dialogue. He’s made a lot of compromises. In this respect he’s better than Arafat. But he hasn’t gotten the chance. This is a big mistake on Israel’s part.

But there are people who don’t consider the complexity of the issue, fantasizing Hamas. For instance, in Gaza, eight months after Israel withdrew—the borders hadn’t been closed—Hamas launched an attack on Israel from Gaza. No one seems to have noticed. But when Israel attacked Hamas, then everyone took notice. This explains the psychological element of why many people in the outside world support Tibet or Palestine. It’s about people and culture, but they’ve forgotten about the nature of the conflict. And I must emphasize, when I say this, it is not to excuse Israel. It’s similar to the Tibet problem. There are those who really don’t understand the complexity of the issue. Like when I criticize the Dalai Lama or the government-in-exile, they tell me, “You’re against Tibet, you’re against the Dalai Lama.” The truth is, our world is full of complexity.

The Palestine-Israel conflict is a real tragedy. The Jews and the Palestinians both have the right to build a state. Some aspects of the Tibet and Xinjiang problems are completely different from the Palestine-Israel conflict. The Han people aren’t fighting to exist. The Palestine-Israel conflict, by contrast, touches on the existence of two peoples. Of course they should both work to come to terms with each other, and both should admit the mistakes made on their side.

Elliot_Tang & Elliot in NYC

Ms. Tang and Sperling at the cafe where this interview took place in July, 2014. 

Now people generally find and accept simple viewpoints that they see on Facebook or Twitter, and they treat the Palestine-Israel conflict or the Tibet and Xinjiang issues simplistically, too. There are people who say, “All Uighurs are terrorists.” First of all, while we must acknowledge that there have been terrorist activities, that’s doesn’t mean that their struggle for freedom is a terrorist movement; second of all, the fact that some people used terrorist tactics doesn’t justify China’s suppression, just as terrorist activity among some Palestinians doesn’t mean that Netanyahu and Likud are right. And another thing. In Israeli society, there are people who oppose Netanyahu and Likud’s Palestine policies. They can protest and hold demonstrations. There are soldiers who oppose occupation and refuse to serve in the West Bank or in Gaza. Could any of that happen in China? But if you ask most Westerners, “Whose predicament is the worst, the Palestinians’, the Tibetans’ or the Uighurs’?” They’ll say the Palestinians’.

The Jews still face problems in the Western and Muslim worlds. For a lot of people who are anti-Israel—I’m not saying they themselves are anti-Semitic—their view on Israel is anti-Semitic. Recently I’ve seen a lot of anti-Israeli writing that actually says “kill all the Jews.” But look at what the Russians are doing in Ukraine right now. Is anyone saying to “kill all the Russians”? They reserve this language for Israel. They say it’s a Jewish problem. This clearly proves that anti-Semitism still exists in Europe. These people don’t admit that they’re anti-Semitic, but they don’t realize what their words represent. They’ve been influenced by a certain type of thinking in which Jews are especially bad. Of course, if you ask them directly if that’s what they believe, they’ll deny it. Before, they could express these ideas publicly because there was a social basis for anti-Semitism, and they didn’t have to hide their sentiment. Today, while they won’t admit it, they really have been influenced by anti-Semitism.

As I said, I dislike Said’s Orientalism. I think it’s simplistic. It makes sweeping generalizations about Westerners: Westerners are like this, so inevitably they are prejudiced, and elitist, too;  they had to press imperialism on the “Orientals,” and it couldn’t have been otherwise; Western literature and art have all been influenced by this elitism, etc. etc. This is ideological, just like the CCP talking about “proletariat thought and proletariat morals,” the idea that every member of the proletariat is exactly the same.

What’s interesting is that Said isn’t willing to say who among those who are anti-Israel have been influenced by the Muslim world, and in which respects. Discrimination against Jews wasn’t all that bad in the Muslim world, even though there were some wealthy Jews, just like there were wealthy Jews in Europe. There are good people in the Muslim world, but there is also discrimination against Jews. I’m not at all saying that if a society is prejudiced, then every non-Jew oppresses every Jew; just as in the American South not every white person is prejudiced and violent against non-whites. There are also black people who have done well there, just like in the North. But they still live in a cruel, prejudiced society. So the situation isn’t simple. Said isn’t willing to apply this method of analysis to the Muslim attitude toward the Jews. There are those who say the Jews forced the Palestinians from their villages — that’s true. On some occasions it was because there was war, on others there was no good reason. It’s complicated; but the first expulsion happened in 1929 in Hebron. It was the Arabs expelling the Jews. They killed a lot of Jews, then forced them all out. Nobody talks about that. I’m not saying that we should excuse Israel’s policies, but Jews do have rights. This is also something they should consider.

Elliot_08_in 耶路撒冷_2012

Jerusalem, 2012. Photo: Woeser.

What I mean is that the situation is incredibly complex, but people only want to see one simple side of it. Before 1967 Americans thought of Israel as good and Arabs as bad. Now it’s been reversed. People like to simplify problems. When I try to explain the complexity of these issues, people tell me, “Oh, you support Netanyahu.” In India there are Tibetans who tell me, “Oh, you support the CCP. You criticize us instead of them.” There are also people who say, “Sperling always gets a visa to China. He’s definitely a secret agent for the CCP!” It’s like one crazy person saying “Woeser hasn’t been detained? Then she’s got to be a secret agent.” Before he was caught, people said that about Ilham Tohti, too. Now that I’ve been refused entry into China, I wonder what they think about me being a spy, heh heh.

Tang: I heard that an interested party from China has approached you about “collaborative scholarship.” It seems they want to give you research funds. Did this actually happen?

Sperling: Now, this is a funny story. They wanted me to be a spy in the U.S. They said, “You’ve been involved with the U.S. government.” That’s true. During the Clinton administration I was on an advisory committee at the State Department. They said, “Shi Boling (史伯嶺), you know U.S. government officials, don’t you?” I told them, “Yep, I know a few.” They asked who, but I pretended that I couldn’t understand them and didn’t respond. Then they asked, “Shi Boling, you know the American government’s view on the Tibet issue and its Tibet policies, right? We’d like to ask you to write some reports for us.” I feigned misunderstanding again. I said, “I’m very open-minded on the matter. You can look online and see what I think. Everyone knows.” They said, “no, no, we need you to give us an exclusive report.” I said I couldn’t, I refused. This happened in 2010, when I was in Beijing for a conference. I reported it to the US embassy. I told them I’m American, that people in China asked me to be a spy for them back in the U.S. The business cards they gave me were from the Institute of American Studies at the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences. Someone told me it was fake. A few of them, including their boss, invited me to dinner. We had a private room. You know how it goes in China: baijiu, drink, drink, bottoms up, bottoms up… after that I went back to my hotel room.

The next day the conference attendees were taken to visit a few Ming dynasty temples just outside of Beijing. They also treated us to dinner along with two or three other foreign scholars. It was a big banquet. Among the people soliciting me was a man who had all these Tibetan images of the Buddha, very valuable. After the banquet he asked us to go look at his collection. I got back to the hotel around 11 p.m. I was going home the next day. But the phone rang. It was one of those people from the banquet. He said, “Shi Boling, we’d still like to chat with you.” I said, “I’m sorry, it’s very late, I’d like to sleep.” They replied, “Then how about we meet up tomorrow?” I said, “I’m leaving tomorrow” and hung up the phone. They called again at seven or eight the next morning and asked if we could meet. I said, “But I have to leave today,” and hung up. Ten minutes later, they called again: “Hey Shi Boling, we can take you to the airport.” But Woeser had already agreed to take me to the airport. I refused and told them a friend was taking me. I didn’t want to linger in the room any longer. I left the hotel right away and waited for Woeser at a Starbucks nearby.

My guess is this: the first time they asked me to dinner, when they wanted me to write “exclusive reports” for them and I rebuffed them; they hadn’t brought up money. Maybe they thought that was why I had refused. So the next day when they kept pursuing me, it could have been to talk about money. In 2011, when I was a visiting scholar at Peking University, they found me again. The same people asked me to dinner and continued to press me to work with them. Slowly, cautiously, they felt me out. They said, “We’d like to invite you to our office. Think about it. If you’d like to come over, let us know a few days beforehand.” I thought: does their office even exist? Do they need me to tell them in advance so that they can buy office furniture and find some actors to be secretaries? Ha ha. In 2012 I went to Beijing for an international conference at the China Tibetology Research Center. I got there a few days early to show my daughter around the city. I didn’t tell any of the other scholars about our trip. But again I got an email from them saying they knew I would be at this conference and that they wanted me to contact them. The night before the conference they sent another email asking for my cell number. I told them my SIM card was having issues in China, and that if they wanted to meet with me they could find me at the conference. They didn’t show up. Here’s what I think. Maybe there’s a “capitalist” competition in Chinese intelligence. If they want funding from the relevant bureau, they might say, “We want to work with Shi Boling” or some such. It doesn’t matter whether or not I agree to cooperate, but they want to get funding this way. This is my guess. I don’t know what’s really going on.




[i] Throughout the interview, Professor Sperling used the Tibetan words Thubhothi (Tibet) and Bodpa (Tibetan person), rather than the equivalent Mandarin terms, Xizang (西藏) and Zangren (藏人).

[ii] Jamyang Norbu is a Tibetan writer in exile. He was a member of the Tibetan guerrilla group known as Chushi Gangdruk (1958-1974) at their base in Mustang, Nepal. He created the “Green Book,” the Tibetan government-in-exile’s tax system, which has financially supported the government since 1972. He also founded and directed the Amnye Machen Institute in Dharamsala. Norbu moved to the US after living in India for four decades. A supporter of Tibetan independence, Norbu has written a number of books and articles in both English and Tibetan, including the 1989 political commentary Illusion and Reality. His 2000 novel The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes (published as Sherlock Holmes: The Missing Years in 2001 in the US) won India’s Crossword Award for English Fiction and has been translated into more than ten languages.

[iii] Thubten Jigme Norbu (1922-2008), also known as Taktser Rinpoche, was an author and activist devoted to Tibetan independence. He was a professor of Tibetan studies at Indiana University’s Department of Central Eurasian Studies. He was also the oldest brother of the 14th Dalai Lama.

[iv] Because the recording is unclear at this point, I am unable to hear the name of Sperling’s other advisor.

[v] Early Ming Policy toward Tibet: An Examination of the Proposition that the Early Ming Emperors Adopted a “Divide and Rule” Policy toward Tibet. Indiana University dissertation, 1983.

[vi] Elliot Sperling was a recipient of the MacArthur “genius grant” in 1984.

[vii] “The Tibet-China Conflict: History and Polemics.” Washington, D.C.: East-West Center, 2004.

[viii] “Tibet and China: The Interpretation of History Since 1950.” China Perspectives 2009/3. For a more complete list of Sperling’s publications, see Roberto Vitali ed., Trails of the Tibetan Tradition: Papers for Elliot Sperling, Dharamsala: Amnye Machen Institute, 2014.

[ix] “Tibet and China: The Interpretation of History Since 1950.” China Perspectives 2009/3.

[x] Tan Qixiang, “China in History and China’s Historical Borders” (speech delivered at the May 1981 Symposium on the History of Chinese Ethnic Relations, available online)

[xi] Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission was disbanded in September, 2017.

[xii] Uighur Online, or Uighurbiz, was launched in 2006 and permanently shut down in January, 2014, after the arrest of Ilham Tohti. Over the years of its running, it was repeatedly suspended or attacked, and because of it, Ilham Tohti became a target of intense pressure from police.

[xiii] I interviewed Sperling on July 27, 2014. At that point, Ilham Tohti hadn’t been sentenced yet. Six months later the Urumqi Intermediate Court convicted him of “separatism” and sentenced to life in prison. He is being held at the Urumqi Number One Prison.On March 31, 2014, PEN International gave Ilham the Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.A number of international figures and organizations have nominated him for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, including the Dalai Lama and Elliot Sperling. On October 11, 2016, Ilham was given the 2016 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. Sperling, who has doggedly supported Ilham, went to Geneva with Ilham’s daughter Jewher Ilham to receive the prize.





The History of Tibetan Civilization: A Talk Series with Elliot Sperling, Trace Foundation, March, 2016. Session One, Session Two, Session Three, and Session Four.

Tibetan History Inside and Outside China by Prof. Elliot Sperling at Charles University, Prague, November 11, 2016.

Between China and the World: Issues in Tibet’s History by Prof. Elliot Sperling at the University of Zurich, November 17, 2016.

Chinese original  《唐丹鸿:2014年对美国藏/汉学家埃利亚特·史伯岭教授的访谈》





Ilham Tohti’s Nomination for Sakharov Prize Welcomed by Laureate and Scholars

China Change, September 19, 2016





Ilham Tohti (伊力哈木), a Uighur scholar known for his incisive writings on China’s policies in Xinjiang, was named by the European Parliament to be one of the five nominees for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought on September 15. Ilham has for years been a vocal advocate for the economic, cultural, and religious rights of Uighurs in Xinjiang. His role as a rational voice for Uighur autonomy led to his arrest in January, 2014, and a sentence to life imprisonment in September that year.

Incidentally, on the same day that Ilham won the nomination, Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, was received by the European Parliament where he spoke of his admiration for “the spirit of the European Union” and the need for different ethnicities and religions to exist together harmoniously in China.

In an interview from Beijing with Radio Free Asia on September 15, the renowned Chinese dissident Hu Jia (胡佳) remarked: “As both an ordinary Chinese citizen and the 2008 Sakharov Prize recipient, I feel that if one person in all of China deserved the Sakharov nomination and was qualified to receive the award, Ilham Tohti would be first on the list.”


Ilham Tohti in classroom.

“Ilham is a thorn in the side of the Communist Party,” he added. “He’s the conscience of the Uighurs, and has been given the most severe sentence. The people he represents have been repressed and spurned, so there’s a lot of pent-up hostility and bad blood. But the key to relieving this pressure is Ilham’s freedom. He was nominated for this award by members of a parliament elected by the people to represent Europe’s values, so it has a special place, and the Chinese authorities know the weight of it. They know that for whoever gets this prize, it will give both that person and the human rights issue they represent a lot of attention. This would put enormous pressure on the Chinese government. So there’s no doubt that they’re going to exert pressure on members of the European Parliament.”

Hu Jia said that Ilham Tohti’s wife and child just returned from Xinjiang to Beijing, but that they’ve been warned and intimidated by the authorities not to speak to anyone about Ilham.

Ilham Tohti’s daughter Jewher told China Change in an interview that her step-mother, Ilham’s wife Guzelnur, took the couple’s two children back to Xinjiang for their summer vacation, and that they visited him on one occasion, speaking face-to-face for about an hour. They were only allowed to speak about family affairs. She didn’t speak further about the circumstances of the meeting, but said that Ilham seemed to be healthy.

Ilham’s Sakharov nomination has Hu Jia feeling both glad and anxious. It so happened that, on another occasion recently he recounted how, in 2008 while in prison, the Communist Party authorities tried to force him to reject the prize:

In 2008, I was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison on charges of “inciting subversion of state power,” because I engaged in activities to promote human rights and liberty before the Olympic Games.

The European Parliament awarded me the Sakharov Prize, and I was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. When I was in prison, the head of the Beijing municipal political police led a group of public security and foreign ministry officials to pay a visit to me in prison — they were putting me under intense pressure, trying to force me to make a public announcement that I rejected both the Sakharov Prize and the nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize.

In exchange, these officials said that they would reduce my sentence by 2.5 years, and also pay me double the cash award of the Sakharov Prize, as economic “compensation.” These secret political police, and the jailers in their charge, lobbied me with this proposal on up to seven occasions. I flatly rejected all of these despicable, filthy political dealings. Thus, I am deeply aware of how moral support, and awards from the international community, place the Communist Party’s security organs and foreign affairs officials under enormous pressure.

Hu suspects that Ilham will receive the same treatment if he’s also given the award—though he suspects that the Communist Party will first attempt to interfere with the process of deciding the laureate in the coming weeks.  

Hu Jia told RFA that Ilham “opposes all forms of violence and bloodshed. If he’s awarded the Sakharov Prize, then his ideas, what he advocates, what he has attempted to realize, his wish that we’re all able to live with dignity as part of a big family, will be recognized by the entire world. The Xinjiang question will be looked at squarely by the world, as well as the question of the Uyghurs.”

Hu Jia added that not only Han Chinese like himself support the nomination, but Tibetans, including the well-known writer Woeser (唯色), are also behind it.

Elliot Sperling, a professor of Central Eurasian Studies at the Indiana University Bloomington, told Radio Free Asia: “China’s human rights situation is getting worse and worse, and the Party’s ethnic policies in Tibet and Xinjiang are being resisted by the people. The Communist Party doesn’t want to reflect on why its policies have been unsuccessful—instead, they look for scapegoats. Ilham Tohti is a scapegoat. The fact that he has received the nomination shows that the world is not going to be blind to this.”  

James Leibold, a professor of China’s minority policies at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, used Twitter to encourage the European Parliament to give Ilham Tohti the prize. “No more worthy recipient of the Sakharov Prize than Ilham Tohti. It’s time for MEPs to resist pressure from China,” he wrote.

In March 2015, Hu Jia met Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, for half an hour, during which time he brought up Ilham’s case, as well as his support for his receipt of the Sakharov Prize. Similarly, in July of this year in Beijing, he gave a letter to Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, to be delivered to the European Council’s president Donald Tusk, who was participating in a summit meeting in the Chinese capital.

The letter said, in part: “If I were to meet you and meet your for only one minute, I would use those 60 seconds to tell you about one Chinese citizen: Ilham Tohti.”

Perhaps as a result of the absence of sustained international attention, Ilham’s family in China continues to suffer persecution. Jewher Ilham told China Change that Ilham’s niece, a young nurse in Kashgar, was taken away by police earlier in the year after her cell phone was checked by police when she was at a mall buying clothes (Uighurs say it’s now become common for the police to simply stop them in the street and forcibly examine their phones). The police detained her after seeing photos of her uncle, Ilham Tohti, on the phone, and possibly also because of her refusal to cooperate with them, Jewher speculated. She said that she hopes that someone will raise the case of her cousin to the Chinese government.




Give the Sakharov Prize to an Uighur Intellectual, André Gattonlin, Marie Holzman, and Noël Mamère, July 18, 2016

Making the Case for Nominating Ilham Tohti for the Sakharov Prize – My Remarks at the European Parliament, Yaxue Cao, May 31, 2016.


Essential readings about Ilham Tohti:

A Short Introduction to Ilham Tohti, 2016 (downloadable PDF)

Statement to the Uyghur Service, Radio Free Asia before his arrest, July, 2013.

My Ideals and the Career Path I Have Chosen by Ilham Tohti, 2011.

Present-Day Ethnic Problems in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region: Overview and Recommendations (downloadable PDF) by Ilham Tohti, 2011-2013.

Voice of America Interview with Uyghur Professor Ilham Tohti, November, 2013.

Ilham Tohti, a 30-minute Documentary , October, 2015.




Testimony: American Universities Are Chess Pieces in China’s Grand Quest for Advanced Science and Technology

Yaxue Cao, founder and editor of

House Committee on Foreign Affairs

Subcommittee Hearing: Is Academic Freedom Threatened by China’s Influence on U.S. Universities?

June 25, 2015

(This is an abbreviation of the full testimony)


Dear members of the Subcommittee,

I’m pleased to have this opportunity to speak today about the Chinese government’s policies on joint higher education ventures, its mechanisms of controlling them, the Party’s presence in these ventures, and the regime’s severe suppression of academic freedom in Chinese universities.

Chinas national policies on joint ventures in higher education

In 2003, China first issued the Regulation on Chinese-foreign Cooperative Education (《中华人民共和国中外合作办学条例 》) to set the rules for joint-venture higher education programs. Between 2004 and 2007, China issued several follow-up regulatory documents regarding the implementation of the initial regulation.  In 2010, China promulgated the National Plan for Medium and Long-Term Education Reform and Development (2010 – 2020) (《国家中长期教育改革和发展规划纲要(2010-2020年)》) . The National Plan devotes a chapter (Chapter 16) to joint higher education, which gives a more detailed, and more visionary, description of its purpose and implementation. In 2014, the Ministry of Education issued a document reviewing the joint higher education ventures over the past three years, since the promulgation of the National Plan (《教育规划纲要实施三年来中外合作办学发展情况》).

The purpose of joint ventures in higher education is to bring the best international higher education resources to China. This includes: “bringing world-class experts and scholars to China to engage in teaching, research, and management; conducting joint research with first-rate foreign universities on advanced basic research and high technology, especially in the areas of science, technology, agriculture, and medicine; and introducing educational ideas, content, teaching methods, talent training models and management expertise.”

The Regulation encourages foreign education institutions to primarily use their intellectual property as their investment in the joint venture.

When admitted into WTO in 2001, China promised to open its education sector to foreign universities, and allow “foreign majority ownership.” But China has had no intention to deliver that promise. Meanwhile, it has sought to take advantage of the best education, research, and knowledge resources from foreign institutions.

The solution to these opposed goals is to set up a joint venture with the Chinese government being the controlling party.

The Regulation stipulates that the board of these joint ventures must have a Chinese majority, and the president must be a Chinese citizen. “Courses and imported textbooks in these joint-venture programs or universities must be submitted to government review and approval organs for record.” And “the joint-venture programs and universities must provide courses about the Chinese constitution, law, citizen morality, and the current state of the country, just as similar domestic institutions are required.”

The most insidious part of the control mechanism probably lies in the finance of these joint-venture universities. It is also the least transparent part. Financial dependence on the Chinese government, even if it is partial, puts foreign universities in a vulnerable position where they may feel the need to conform to China’s expectations, not only on the joint-venture campuses, but also on home campuses.

According to the Ministry of Education, the near 2,000 joint-venture programs in China focus on advanced manufacturing, modern agriculture, and modern service sectors. And China wants more talent in the fields of energy, mining, environmental protection, and finance. Of the near 2,000 programs, 37% are engineering, while literature, history, and law are less than 2% each.

Recent developments show that China’s quest for advanced knowledge and technology is coming to this country. Just a few days ago, newspapers reported the launch of a technology institution called the “Global Innovation Exchange Institute” in Seattle, a joint venture of China’s elite university Tsinghua University, the University of Washington, and Microsoft, that focuses on technology and design innovation in the areas of the Internet of things, intelligent cities, mobile healthcare, and clean energy. U.S. media reported that Microsoft was the investor, but in the Chinese press it was described as “an important step and a milestone of Tsinghua University’s international strategic deployment.”

Two other recent reports in Chinese newspapers indicate that China is seeking investment in the research triangle of in North Carolina. In an innovation forum at the University of Maryland, a Chinese official expressed the desire to build the first innovation incubation platform on the East Coast, with Chinese investment and research expertise from American universities.

Another component of China’s strategy is theft. Reports on this abound. For example in May, Penn State University disclosed that its engineering school had been invaded by Chinese hackers for more than two years. Penn State develops sensitive technology for the U.S. Navy.

China’s intentions in the world of higher education were made clear in two instances involving UC Berkeley. In November 2014, Peking University gave the President of UC Berkeley an honorary professorship, and expressed interest in “cooperation” on big data processing, a new and important computing technology with wide application. In February 2015, WSJ reported the forced closure of a labor center in Guangzhou jointly established by UC Berkeley, and Sun Yat-sen University, as part of the systematic suppression of rights activities and civil society.

The presence of the Communist Party in joint-venture programs

CCP presence in Chinese universities is thorough, from top leadership down to student cells. Reports in Chinese press confirm the CCP presence on joint venture campuses as well. From the Ministry of Education’s review in 2014, I quote: “Joint-venture universities have established Party committees so that there would be the Party’s work wherever the masses are, and there would be a Party organization wherever there are Party members, achieving the Party’s no-blind-spot coverage on a grassroots level. Some universities have also established overseas Party cells  to ensure that the Party’s work remains synchronized with its work at home when students….study abroad.”

Academic freedom pummeled at Chinese universities

In China’s current political system there has never been academic freedom as understood by Americans, though the level of repression has fluctuated. Much has been written about the Chinese Communist Party’s Document No. 9, issued in the spring of 2013, which prohibits Chinese universities from teaching ideas about constitutional governance, universal values, free press, civil society, and the rule of law. This edict is shutting down what little academic freedom was enjoyed before. Articles, such as a recent piece in the Christian Science Monitor, have reported that professors were fired, or pressured to quit their jobs, for espousing liberal ideas and teaching them in the classroom; Party officials cut or constrained trips to academic conferences; student reading lists were vetted for ideological content. A media professor told the paper that, “There are topics I know that as soon as they are mentioned in my classes, I would be sacked immediately.”

For the record, I would like to quote a social media post of the well-known law professor He Weifang (贺卫方) at Peking University from last December. The post was later deleted by China’s Internet censors, but I was able to read a preserved copy and have confirmed its authenticity:

【Universities are as silent as the winter cicadas】 When lecturing, it is like walking on thin ice because there are surveillance cameras overhead. Gingerly we conduct research. We are not supposed to write papers on constitutional democracy; even if we do, there is no place to publish them. To take part in an international conference, we have to file a request with the authorities one year in advance, and the request would be denied if it is deemed even slightly sensitive (there are no transparent criteria for what is sensitive). Many on-campus academic lectures must be approved by the propaganda department of the university’s CCP Committee. It’s a mystery which faculty members are on the “black list.” They have been incessantly talking about making Chinese universities world-class universities. How do they do that?


Over the past three decades, China has benefited from an unprecedented transfer of knowledge and know-how from Western countries, much of it through joint ventures and through theft of intellectual properties. Many such relationships have soured in recent years, and the trend is likely to deepen. Now, the Chinese government is attempting to duplicate its successes in the business realm and apply them to the world of higher education. Its aim is to extract the knowledge and expertise from the world’s most prestigious and successful research institutions, all the while pursuing a political agenda that tramples on the very principles that set the human mind free and that are the basis of higher education as we know it.

I have no problem with free exchange of knowledge and technology. But I have a problem with freely providing knowledge and technology to the communist regime in China, which has no other effect than to strengthen it and its grip on power. I have a problem with our institutions of higher education looking the other way as terrible human rights violations take place in the country.

The US-China relationship for the last 30 years has operated on the premise that the US should engage with China, help her grow economically, and that economic development will lead to the Chinese Communist Party’s embracing human rights and democratic values. Instead, today we have a monstrous combination of state capitalism, the kleptocratic marriage of power and money, and broader and harsher suppression of the Chinese people’s legitimate demands for political and civil rights. Internationally, we are witnessing an increasingly aggressive China, a rising threat to the global peace and security, and a challenge to the existing world order.

One can argue about all the defects of the current order, but I assure you with absolute certainty that you do not want a global regime set up and dominated by the Chinese Communist Party.

The CCP has mastered the game of taking advantage of a free society like ours. It is sad to see how easily our universities can fall prey to the Party’s scheme. It is my wish that American universities are able to see the full picture, where they fit into it and what end they are serving when becoming a business partner with the Chinese government.




Innocent Abroad? Liberal Educators in Illiberal Societies, by Jim Sleeper. Ethics & International Affairs, the journal of the Carnegie Council, summer issue, 2015.

A 6,000-word assessment of American universities’ joint ventures with regimes in Singapore, China, the Emirates, and elsewhere, accompanied by an audio interview with the author.

Testimony of Jeffrey S. Lehman, Vice Chancellor of NYU Shanghai, June 25, 2015.

New York University Shanghai: What Is the Deal? by Yaxue Cao, February 5, 2015.

Testimonies in the first of the series of hearings (more to come): Is Academic Freedom Threatened by China’s Influence on American Universities? December 4, 2014. Prof. Perry Link; Prof. Cushman; Prof. Xia Yeliang.


(According to the Subcommittee Chair, most of the university administrators called upon to testify have declined to do so; President Sexton of NYU was given 16 dates to choose from, but has evaded the hearing so far.)


Re-ideologizing Chinese Universities

By Hu Shaojiang, published: February 10, 2015

Bring back thought policing…… 


Yesterday [January 29], the Chinese Minister of Education Yuan Guiren (袁贵仁) called in a conference for the implementation of “The Opinions on Further Strengthening and Improving Propaganda and Ideological Work in Higher Education under the New Circumstances,” a document recently issued by the General Office of the Communist Party of China and the State Council. Leaders of Education Bureaus in Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu as well as leaders of Peking University, Tsinghua University, Wuhan University, Shandong University, and Xiamen University attended the conference. Yuan Guiren’s speech is part of the Chinese government’s effort to re-ideologize Chinese higher education.

In China, there was a time when universities were little more than the ideological mouthpieces of the CCP, diminishing their original purpose to disseminate knowledge and foster personal growth. Following the Party’s ideological bankruptcy in the 1980s, independent thoughts flourished on college campuses. However, the party has always resented the loss of its absolute monopoly on ideology on campuses and has held deep-rooted hostility towards Western ideas popular among university students and professors. Since Xi came to power, the re-ideologization of Chinese higher education has become what they call a “new normal” in education.

The campaign to re-ideologize Chinese universities draws on three points. The first is to demonstrate support for the party’s leadership. Reporting this conference, the mouthpiece media claimed that Chinese university professors and students “wholeheartedly support the party’s leadership, fully trust the CCP with comrade Xi Jinping as its General Secretary, and confidently believe in socialism with Chinese characteristics and the great revival of the Chinese nation through the Chinese Dream.” This glorification of Xi Jinping is aimed at legitimizing support for the party leadership in university education.

Following practices from the Mao era, administrative organs of education announced that they will take concrete measures to spread ideologies espoused by Chinese political leaders. This is the so-called “Three Into-es” requirement: “rigorously introduce the words of the General Secretary Xi Jinping into our teaching materials, into classrooms and into minds.” In other words, education bureaus in China will spare no efforts to use public resources and classroom podiums to advocates Mr. Xi’s ideology.

I believe it won’t be difficult at all to adapt Xi Jinping’s words “into teaching materials” and “into classrooms;” the education bureaus and the university authorities will only need to impose an administrative order to force the implementation. However, it is a completely different question as to whether these intellectually vapid and logically absurd ideologies can be implanted “into the minds” of the students. The history of China, or elsewhere, has proved that forced political indoctrination of young people with words of political leaders rarely achieves the goal of the indoctrinators. Instead, it fosters detestation.

The second measure to re-ideologize universities is to tighten control over teaching through executive commands. This has been specifically spelled out as the Four Nevers: “Never allow textbooks that promote western values into our classrooms; never allow any remarks that attack, defame or discredit the party’s leadership or socialism to appear in college classrooms; never allow any kind of speech in violation of the Constitution or laws to spread in college classrooms; and never allow teachers to make complaints, vent grievances in classrooms that would affect the students.”

The purpose of the “Four Nevers” is to prevent college students to gain knowledge about the evolution of human societies, suppressing any thought or speech that shows the deficiency of ideologies promoted by Chinese leaders. This is rather similar to orders given by Chinese imperial courts to “depose the hundred schools of thoughts and promote only Confucianism.”

The truth becomes clearer the more an issue is debated; only a heated debate with different points of views can test the validity of an idea. Ideologies that cannot withstand the heat of argument and are in need of administrative protection are often shallow, absurd and vulnerable.

The third measure to re-ideologize higher education in China is to restore and strengthen thought policing on college campuses. When an orthodox ideology has to be implemented through administrative enforcement and when it is sustainable only by eradicating competing ideologies, this ideology is bound to contravene human nature in fundamental ways. Such lifeless ideas cannot gain popularity, cannot sustain for long, let alone thrive. In this battle with the state and its leaders on one side and the people and the humanity on the other, a system of thought policing is inevitable.

On university campuses in China, there are two groups of people who carry out the thought policing. One group is the university staff in charge of propaganda, consisting of Party cadres, Youth League cadres, and full-time student counselors. The other group are faculty who teach the thought education classes. They are teachers but they are also thought police. They are long on political orthodoxy and short on any convincing scholarship. Yuan Guiren, in his speech, voiced clear support for these people and vowed to increase their ranks. One can anticipate that these “thought police” will once again be monitoring professors and students alike on campuses.



Hu Shaojiang (胡少江) is a commentator for Radio Free Asia.



China Education Minister Demands Rejection of Western Values, Associated Press, January 29, 2015.

China Tells Schools to Suppress Western Ideas, With One Big Exception, the New York Times, February 10, 2015.

China Is Not A Normal Country, by Chang Ping, December 22, 2014.


(Translated by Diana Zhang)

Chinese original


New York University Shanghai: What Is the Deal?

By Yaxue Cao, published: February 5, 2015



Photo credit: Online.


A recent event prompted me to look into New York University Shanghai. I was rather surprised by what I found. This article pieces together my findings which include information available through the media as well as websites, in the spirit of “tossing out a brick hoping to attract a gem  (抛砖引玉).” If it can help deepen inquiries and debate about the host of issues that can arise from setting up university campuses in China, as more American universities are set to do, it will have more than served its purpose.

“A Testing Field to Demonstrate Reform on International Cooperation in Chinese Higher Education”

NYU Shanghai is a joint venture between East China Normal University (ECNU) and New York University, “the first Sino-US joint venture university” according to NYU Shanghai’s website, whose first undergraduate class was inaugurated in the fall of 2013. According to the Chinese state media China News, the joint enterprise was approved by the Ministry of Education of China on January 17, 2011, and construction began on March 28 the same year in Lujiazui, the heart of Shanghai’s newly-developed Pudong District (上海浦东陆家嘴). A vice president of ECNU headed the team that oversaw the construction of and preparation for NYU Shanghai. Given that China’s universities, ECNU included, are owned and run by the government, it is fair to say that NYU Shanghai is a joint venture between NYU and the Chinese government.

The Chancellor of NYU Shanghai, Yu Lizhong (俞立中), “joined NYU Shanghai from ECNU, where he served as president from 2006 – 2012,” and the vice chancellor is Jeffrey Lehman, a former president of Cornell University. On the “Leadership” page of NYU Shanghai website, no information about its Board is listed; the only disclosure made is that Chancellor Yu Lizhong doubles as the Chairman of the Board of Directors.

Yu Lizhong told Beijing News that “in January, 2006, in search of a cooperation partner, NYU chose ECNU and launched the NYU Shanghai Center. In 2008, NYU president John Sexton asked whether NYU could move a step forward to establish a campus in Shanghai. We told him that it was impossible under the current circumstances, and that if he wanted to open a campus in China, it had to be a joint venture.”

China’s Regulations of Chinese-Foreign Cooperation in Running Academic Institutions (《中外合作办学条例》), effective since September 1, 2003, stipulates that “the president or the principal administrator of a Chinese-foreign cooperatively-run school shall be a person with the nationality of the People’s Republic of China, domiciles in the territory of China, loves the motherland, possesses moral integrity, and has work experience in the field of education and teaching as well as compatible professional expertise,” and “shall be subject to the examination and approval by the approving authorities.”

As a joint business, China has 51% share in NYU Shanghai and is the controlling party, and NYU has 49% share. Correspondingly, 51 percent of each entering class must be Chinese nationals, while the remaining 49 percent come from around the world, but mostly from the U. S.

This arrangement of ownership is similar to the model with which China has attracted foreign companies over the last three decades, gaining intellectual properties and learning know-how from its western partners. Now it looks like China is trying to reproduce this model in higher education.

A Chinese official’s description of the negotiations between NYU and its partner suggests that this arrangement was not what NYU first envisioned, but a result of yielding to a considerably different vision held by the Chinese side. The former deputy chief of Pudong District, who oversaw the district’s education affairs and took part in the entire process of building NYU Shanghai, said the two sides had gone through “difficult negotiations” about the size of the campus, the scale of the school, and the property rights of the university. “We faced a series of challenges during the project preparation process, and the negotiations were extraordinarily arduous. But we persevered, holding our ground and overcoming one difficulty after another to defend the interest of the Chinese side.”

A delegation of Shanghai Municipal People’s Congress visited campus in March, 2014.

A delegation of Shanghai Municipal People’s Congress visited campus in March, 2014. Photo credit: NYU Shanghai website.

That China in the end is the controlling party of NYU Shanghai should surprise no one, because NYU Shanghai was to be the vehicle to test its vision and achieve its goals. According to the same official, the Chinese Ministry of Education designated NYU Shanghai as the No. 1 pilot project in implementing China’s Outline of the National Plan for Medium and Long-Term Education Reform and Development (2010 – 2020) (more elaboration later). Moreover, the mayor of Shanghai instructed in October, 2010, that “introducing New York University is a landmark project to internationalize higher education in Shanghai. ….With the full support of the Ministry of Education, the synergy between all parties will accelerate the first-phase work and propel the signing the agreement as soon as possible.” On March 29, 2011, Liu Yandong (刘延东), a member of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo and a vice premier of the State Council who oversees education and culture affairs, told NYU president John Sexton and his delegation that she “encourages all parties involved in the preparation work to deepen their cooperation and make NYU Shanghai a testing field to demonstrate reform on international cooperation in Chinese higher education.”

This was also confirmed by a delegation of Shanghai Municipal People’s Congress during a campus visit on March 27, 2014. During a meeting that seemed to have been attended by Chinese administrators only, including the Chancellor, the Chairwoman of the municipal NPC iterated that “NYU Shanghai is a national education reform pilot project” and “the success of NYU Shanghai will help other universities…in their continued innovation and education reform.”

“NYU Shanghai is not a branch of NYU”

NYU Shanghai’s inaugural class admitted 295 students in the fall of 2013, 150 of whom were Chinese nationals and 145 were international students that are mostly from the United States, according to Tyra K. Liebmann, then Dean of Students, in an interview with a Chinese paper. Its apparently outdated FAQ page says “NYU Shanghai will be admitting 300 student for class of 2014, …and the enrollment scale for class of 2015 will remain the same.” But as of October 2014, NYU Shanghai campus has 750 students, including exchange students from other NYU campuses, according to a Chinese media report.  NYU Shanghai says its “undergraduate student population will ultimately be in the range of 1,600 to 2,400.” All classes are taught in English.

NYU Shanghai acknowledges that “Ever since Cicero, the Roman statesman, coined the phrase ‘artes liberales,’ the liberal arts and sciences have been the touchstone of excellence in education for all individuals, regardless of their professional aspirations.” The question is, do “liberal arts” mean the same thing at NYU Shanghai as at NYU Manhattan, given CCP’s intense and persistent objection to freedom of thought and freedom of expression that are the very source of the liberal arts as we know it?

The humanities component of NYU Shanghai’s “liberal arts education” is packed into two compulsory courses: Social Fundations and Cultural Foundations. Each student takes two Global Perspectives on Society (GPS) courses and one China course. While I am curious how these GPS courses are designed and taught (little information is available on NYU Shanghai website), the China courses are geared toward a goal: “the crucial role that China plays in that global community will be emphasized throughout the curriculum.”

New York University Shanghai launches inaugural class; Not a reproduction of the American education model is the title of a Xinhua News Agency’s report on NYU Shanghai in September, 2013. Indeed, it is not. How much a role NYU plays to design and shape the curriculum at NYU Shanghai remains a question, but of one thing I am quite certain: NYU Shanghai’s curriculum will have to be approved, if not guided, by the Chinese government.

The Guangzhou-based South Metropolis Weekly (《南都周刊》) noted the difference between Chinese students and foreign students. Chinese students are required not only to take Gaokao, China’s national college entrance exams, but also fulfill the required military training, implemented after the Tiananmen Movement in 1989 to “rectify” incoming college students and install discipline in them. Chinese students at NYU Shanghai receive military training alongside undergraduate students at ECNU, the paper says.

What about the four “thought and political education” courses (思想政治教育) required of all college students in China? They are “Maoism and Theories of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” “Thoughts and Morality,” “Marxist Philosophy” (otherwise known as Marxist Materialist Dialectics), and “Modern Chinese History” (when I was in college in the 1980s, it was the History of Chinese Communist Party). Are Chinese students at NYU Shanghai required to take them? During a recent congressional hearing that probed whether China’s influence is infringing on academic freedom in American universities, Congressman Chris Smith asked the same question and did not know the answer.

If I have to take a guess, it would be “Yes” because, as Mr. Yu pointed out, as Chinese students at NYU Shanghai receive two separate degrees from NYU and ECNU, they must meet what is required of all Chinese college students. Furthermore, if they are not spared military training, why would they be spared the ideology courses? Just like the case with the military training, my guess is that they take these courses alongside ECNU students. However, whether on the NYU Shanghai website or in Chinese media, I have not found any mention of these courses. It seems to me that this simple yes or no question has been carefully tucked away.

Chancellor Yu Lizhong told Nanfang TV that, at NYU Shanghai, there are communist party members among faculty and students, and they participate in CCP activities at ECNU. Is there a CCP branch at NYU Shanghai? We don’t know. But according to the CCP bylaws, only three party members are needed to form a party branch. And I have come across articles about how the communist party should conduct its work in Sino-foreign universities (here and here).

If you are a foreign student at NYU Shanghai majoring in humanities, there are two majors to choose from: Global China Studies (required courses include “The Concept of China”, “Frontiers of China”), and Integrated Humanities. The first seems a thinly disguised version of the Party-state’s propagandist narrative about China, while the second one, only abstractly outlined, merits a closer look.

Photo credit: NYU Shanghai website.

Photo credit: NYU Shanghai website.

I should point out that China Studies have been popping up in Chinese universities in the last two years or so, mainly to attract foreign students as China sets to promote “Chinese culture” as a competing system of values against what the world recognizes as universal values, so as to gain the power to reshape the political discourse in the international arena. Ultimately, the goal is to redefine power, justice and freedom on the Party’s own terms. Leading the charge, Peking University launched The Yenching Academy in May, 2013, in the midst of strong student and faculty opposition, with the mission “to equip outstanding young scholars with a broad, interdisciplinary knowledge of China that reflects both Chinese and international perspectives, and to cultivate leaders who will advocate for global progress and cultural understanding.”

What are the incentives for American students to attend NYU Shanghai? I can easily imagine high school graduates being excited about getting a NYU degree in Shanghai, a vibrant city in a vibrant country. But the biggest incentive is probably money. Stephanie Ulan, from Queens, N.Y. was offered a deal worth $ $228,000: tuition, room, board and even reimbursement for her plane ticket to Shanghai, according to a NPR report in 2013. “The half a dozen others with whom NPR spoke said they got either huge discounts or free tuition.”

Ideally, one would want to take a look at the syllabi and textbooks, and talk to faculty and students. Since none of these materials are made public, as they routinely are in American universities, I settled for a crude, non-scientific experiment. I searched the NYU Shanghai website for the words “democracy” and “freedom” respectively. “Democracy” yielded two results that appeared in names of courses offered in study-abroad arrangements outside China, while “freedom” yielded three results, one in a bioscience paper, and two in descriptions of student life. “Human rights?” No. “Rule of law?” No. “Liberty?” No.

In 2013, NYU’s president was criticized by the university’s faculty for setting up the NYU Abu Dhabi campus and, among other things, straining faculty resources and diluting NYU degrees. But if you compare the vision of NYU AD and that of NYU Shanghai, the former at least states that it “is a residential research university and a branch of NYU New York, operated consistent with NYU New York’s academic quality and practices.” NYU Shanghai does not say anything like that in its mission statement, even though NYU President Sexton told the New York Times that “We’re comfortable that we will be able to offer an N.Y.U. education in Shanghai the way we offer it in Abu Dhabi or New York City.”

“NYU Shanghai is not a branch of NYU,” said Chancellor Yu Lizhong. “Instead, it is an exploration and demonstration how two sides complement each other with their respective strength to have a brand-new university.”

What Is the Deal?

Chancellor Yu Lizhong told the Beijing News that, in the initial stage when NYU Shanghai was constructed and set up, neither ECNU nor NYU invested any funds except for human resources and other intangible resources, while the Chinese government provided “a lot of support.” (ECNU is a state-run public institution, so any ECNU investment would be a government investment anyway.) In the same interview, Mr. Yu characterized NYU Shanghai as a new model of schools that are neither public nor private, because it receives “government support” for its founding as well as its future development and operation.

Mr. Yu said government support is one of the three sources of funding for NYU Shanghai, the other two being public fundraising and tuition. No specific number is publicly available as how much the Chinese government funds NYU Shanghai, I would venture a preliminary guess that tuition income is insignificant at most, since generous scholarships are provided to foreign students, and even if all Chinese students pay the full tuition of RMB 100,000 per school year, that total would still be rather modest.

Jeff Lehman, vice chancellor of NYU Shanghai and a former president of Cornell, told NPR when NYU Shanghai inaugurated its first class in the fall of 2013: “We’ve benefited from tremendous philanthropic support…. As we prove ourselves, I very much hope that kind of support will translate into the creation of a great endowment.”

Three months ago on October 30, 2014, a Shanghai local paper reported that NYU Shanghai’s Education Development Foundation has received USD12.5 million donation pledges “from various sectors of the society,” and “raised USD 25 million from NYU’s global fundraising platforms.” The fund, according to the report, “will mainly be used to support student financial aid, teaching and researching,” “hire top-notch visiting professors from around the world, and spend on some hardware construction per donors’ requests.”

Days later on November 4, 2014, NYU president John Sexton announced, in Shanghai, a $1 billion endowment for NYU Shanghai. “Three very significant people have formed a foundation for the benefit of NYU, which will have the purpose of raising money for financial aid,” he said. “These three donors, he claimed, will contribute $1 billion to NYU Shanghai over the course of five years.”

He went on to predict that the NYU Shanghai endowment would grow more rapidly than that of NYU in New York. “Because the NYU Shanghai ‘pilot’—as they call it—is seen as so important in the friendship between America and China,” Sexton said, “a lot of successful Chinese have stepped forward.” (

One of these “three very significant people,” according to the same Chinese report, is Liu Yungeng (刘云耕) who, until February 2013, was the head of Shanghai Municipal People’s Congress and, before that, Party Deputy Secretary of Shanghai, chairman of the Party’s Politics and Law Committee in Shanghai, and Party Secretary of municipal Public Security, as well as an alternate member of the 16th CCP Central Committee. Another is Teng Yilong (滕一龙), who until June 2013 was chairman of Shanghai Industrial Holdings Limited, a state-owned investment company. Before that, he held other senior government positions, including the head of Shanghai municipal Superior Court, and Party Secretary of China State Shipbuilding Corporation. The report quoted Chancellor Yu Lizhong as saying that these non-paid board members of the Foundation raised funds with their prestige.

NYU President John Sexton. Photo credit: NYU Shanghai website.

NYU President John Sexton. Photo credit: NYU Shanghai website.

For an American university, endowment from Chinese sources can be fraught with problems that western university administrators are often not fully aware of. To avoid scrutiny, the Chinese government may mask its money through philanthropy, and donors can be little more than representatives or middlemen of the Party. An endowment from Wen Ruchun, daughter of the then Premier Wen Jiabao, to Cambridge University in 2012, can serve as a warning.

The endowment, supposedly from a charity run by Ms. Wen, appointed a professor whose most recent book Is China Buying the World?, “accuses Western commentators of scaremongering over China’s rise and failing to make a ‘balanced presentation’ on China’s role in the world economy.” According to a more recent update on the story in the UK paper Telegraph, the arrival of money from one of China’s most powerful political families might have something to do with the abrupt departure of Professor Zhang Wei (张炜).  Zhang, until 2011, had headed Cambridge’s Greater China Economics Research Institute, and was a high-ranking official in China’s Youth League system in the 1980s, and a peer of Li Keqiang (李克强). Unlike the vast majority of his peers, however, Zhang resigned following the June 4th massacre in protest and pursued a distinguished academic career overseas.

Privately I have heard about a couple of cases where Chinese donations to prestigious American universities, at least indirectly, changed the behavior of university administrators, and led to interference in academic events. While I am in no position to discuss these cases, others may be able to. There are ample grounds for concern about Chinese money corrupting the integrity and academic independence here in American universities.

Back to NYU Shanghai. One is bound to ask: What is NYU’s contribution in this joint-venture?

According to its website (faculty page in Chinese), NYU Shanghai has about 109 or so faculty members, and they are divided into 5 categories. Nineteen are “Senior Professors” who are mostly NYU professors and eight of them members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Twenty-one are Affiliated Professors (or “联聘教授” – jointly-hired professors) who are also mostly NYU professors and most of whom are in Shanghai for only a semester to teach one course. Fifteen are “Middle-aged and Young Professors.” Seventeen are “Other Professors” who teach lab and other auxiliary courses. For the 2014-2015 school year, there are thirty-seven “Visiting Professors” from around the world to teach a variety of courses.

When asked how faculty are hired at NYU Shanghai, Chancellor Yu told the Beijing News that “we hire faculty through New York University, and our hiring standard is very clear: it has to be higher than the average level of NYU.” He said 40% of NYU Shanghai faculty would come from the NYU Manhattan campus, 40% will be top-notch professors hired from around the world, and 20% would be guest professors from ECNU or other Chinese universities.

NYU Shanghai offers 13 majors (biology, business & finance, chemistry, computer engineering, computer science, economics, electrical engineering, global China studies, integrated humanities, interactive media arts, mathematics, neural science, physics, and self-designed honors major) and has five research institutes currently: NYU-ECNU Institute of Mathematical Sciences, NYU-ECNU Center for Computational Chemistry, NYU-ECNU Institute of Brain and Cognitive Science, NYU-ECNU Institute for Social Development, and, the latest addition, Volatility Institute.

NYU Shanghai only posts job openings in the English version of its website where the school is described rather differently than in its Chinese version. While the Chinese version describes it more accurately as a joint-venture that aims to become a world-class research university, the English version states that “NYU Shanghai is a highly selective world-class research university and the first American university with independent legal registration in mainland China,” leaving you with the impression that NYU Shanghai is a branch of NYU.

It is important to note that setting up joint-venture universities in China, foreign universities can count their intellectual properties toward their contribution, even though it is unclear whether this is the case with NYU:

Article 10 of China’s Regulations of Chinese-Foreign Cooperation in Running Schools (《中外合作办学条例》) stipulates:

A Chinese or foreign cooperator in running a school may contribute with funds, in kind or in forms of land-use right, intellectual property rights or other assets to establish the school.

Contribution of intellectual property rights by a Chinese or foreign cooperator in running a school shall not exceed one-third of its total contribution. However, for a foreign educational institution that comes to China for cooperation in running a school at the invitation of the education administrative department or the labor administrative department of the State Council or at the invitation of the people’s government of a province, an autonomous region or a municipality directly under the Central Government, its contribution in the form of intellectual property rights may exceed one-third of its total contribution.

Article 11 of Implementation Measures for the Regulation of Chinese-Foreign Cooperation in Running Schools (《中外合作办学条例实施办法》) stipulates:

Where a Chinese or foreign cooperator uses intellectual property as its educational investment, it shall submit the pertinent materials of intellectual property, including a photocopy of the intellectual property certificate, valid status, practical value, basis for the price computation and the pricing agreement concluded between both parties, etc.

Summing up the deal, I am tempted to say that, in this joint-venture, it looks like the Chinese government/ECNU:

  • Bankrolls NYU Shanghai;
  • Grows a first-rate research university with NYU professors and professors/researchers hired in the name of NYU;
  • Provides Chinese students who covet a US degree with a NYU degree while keeping the ideology program of the CCP intact;
  • Indoctrinates a continuous stream of foreign students, mostly Americans, who benefit handsomely from government scholarships, with the “Chinese perspective;” and
  • Possibly exerts influence on academic independence at NYU through real or pledged “endowment.”

In this joint-venture, it looks like NYU:

  • Provides key faculty;
  • Lends its brand and prestige to hire faculty from around the world and to attract students while ceding dominant control of the brand, in China, to the Communist government;
  • Gets a share of the Chinese education market; and
  • Solicits endowment; and builds what President Sexton describes as a “global network.”

I do not for a minute assume I have made a comprehensive assessment, given the scant information available. NYU professors want to know more. The Congress wants to know more. And the general public should know more. But that desire has been met with obstruction.

Prominent NYU neuroscientist Paul Glimcher lectures. Photo credit: NYU SH website.

Prominent NYU neuroscientist Paul Glimcher lectures. Photo credit: NYU SH website.

In September, 2013, the five elected officers of NYU-American Association of University Professors wrote a letter to NYU Board of Trustees to “record some grave concerns expressed by our members about the prospects for academic freedom in China and at the new campus.” Well-informed about ideological crusade and academic restrictions in China, which have gotten steadily and significant worse since 2013, the professors acknowledge that “it is difficult for us to imagine the campus can subsist as a bubble on an information landscape that is so severely constrained.”

The letter, which was entered into the Congressional record during the December 2014 hearing, pointed out that “the Shanghai initiative was conceived and shaped with minimal faculty consultation and with few faculty concerns about freedoms permitted to enter the discussions. Even now, we have not been given any formal evidence of the kind of agreement signed between our NYU Administration and the Chinese authorities (national, municipal or district).”

The professors worried about NYU’s name being sullied. “Accepting vast sums of money from foreign governments puts NYU and every scholar affiliated with the University in a morally compromising situation, and academic freedom is usually the first casualty.”  [I can’t seem to find a link to the letter; I’m quoting from a hard copy I picked up at the hearing.]

During the Congressional hearing “Is Academic Freedom Threatened by China’s Influence on American Universities?”, Rep. Chris Smith expressed similar concerns about the moral cost of this transaction. He said “we have repeatedly invited NYU’s President and faculty to testify before this committee [the House Foreign Affairs Committee], without success. On five separate occasions, we gave NYU 15 dates to appear.”

Smith said “American colleges and universities should not be outsourcing academic control, faculty and student oversight, or curriculum to a foreign government.” He said he will be asking for a GAO study to review the agreements of both satellite campuses in China and of Confucius Institutes in the U. S.” “I will also ask the GAO to study whether U. S. satellite campuses in China operate differently from Chinese universities and whether there is a two-tier system in place, where Chinese students and faculty have more restrictions placed on their activities and research than U. S students and faculty. I will also ask whether Communist Party committees operate on campus, whether fundamental freedoms are protected for both Chinese and U. S. students and faculty.”

I must point out that, the concerns of NYU professors and Congressman Smith arise from the assumption that NYU Shanghai is a campus of NYU, when essentially it is not. So, in addition to the questions they have raised, another set of questions must be asked and probed in the interest of the well-being of American higher education, as more American universities are in the process of setting up “campuses” or programs in China and as Chinese endowments slip into campuses here in the U. S.

China’s Ten-Year Plan, the Hefei Statement, and China’s Quest for World-Class Universities

China promulgated Regulations of Chinese-Foreign Cooperation in Running Schools (《中外合作办学条例》) in 2003 to set rules for foreign education institutions seeking access to China, as China was bound by its promise of opening China’s education market when it was admitted into the WTO in 2001. According to Chinese Ministry of Education, over the last decade or so, about 1,780 programs or projects have been set up between Chinese universities and foreign universities, most of which are confined to particular majors and areas within the existing Chinese universities, such as this one and this one. The first joint-venture university with independent legal status is the University of Nottingham Ningbo (UNNC) and it was founded in 2004.  Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University was the second;a joint venture between Xi’an Jiaotong University in China and the University of Liverpool UK that was launched in 2006 in Suzhou. NYU Shanghai seems to represent a model somewhat different from UNNC and XJTLU. Duke Kunshan University is a joint-venture of Duke University and Wuhan University “to create a world-class liberal arts and research university” that welcomed its inaugural class of students in the fall of 2014. Wenzhou-Kean University also went into operation in 2014.

A financial forum held in NYU Shanghai. Photo credit: NYU SH website.

A financial forum held in NYU Shanghai. Photo credit: NYU SH website.

China’s Outline of the National Plan for Medium and Long-Term Education Reform and Development (2010-2020) (《国家中长期教育改革和发展规划纲要 2010-2020年》), issued in July, 2010, devotes a chapter to “Expanding Education Openness” (Chapter 16) and the goals include:

  • Strengthening international exchange and cooperation;
  • Attracting more world-class experts and scholars to China to engage in teaching, researching and management, and introducing top-notch talent and academic teams from overseas according to plans;
  • Strengthening cooperation with top universities around the world, establishing cooperative platforms for teaching and researching, and jointly advancing high-level research on basic sciences and high-tech;
  • Improving the quality and level of achievement at Confucius Institutes;
  • Increasing the number of Chinese government scholarships given to foreign students studying in China with emphasis on students from developing countries.

Three years into the issuance of this ten-year Outline, the Chinese Ministry of Education issued a briefing on the implementation of joint-venture higher education programs in 2013, making three mentions of NYU Shanghai. The core purpose of these joint-ventures, it states, is to “introduce quality education resources from overseas,” and the key areas for this effort to take place are science, engineering, agriculture, and medicine, especially engineering. 37% of the current joint programs are in the engineering fields (工科), and only 2% of them are in law, literature, and history.

Ideological indoctrination in schools like NYU Shanghai apparently is a big concern of the Chinese government, and the briefing makes a special evaluation of it. “Joint-venture institutions and programs have focused on cultivating a scientific world view and positive outlook and values,” says the Briefing. “They have engaged in thought and moral education as well as patriotic education based on the characteristics of students in these schools and programs, and have achieved remarkable results. Sino-foreign joint-venture universities, such as the University of Nottingham Ningbo, have insisted on establishing Communist Party committees so that there would be Party’s work wherever the mass is and there would be Party organization wherever there are party members, achieving the party’s no-blind-spot coverage on the grassroots level. Some universities have also established overseas party branches to ensure that the party’s work keeps synchronized steps with its work at home when students of these joint-venture institutions and programs study abroad.”

China’s drive to take advantage of the best and most advanced educational resources around the world seems multi-pronged. In October 2013, nine top Chinese research universities (Peking U., Tsinghua U, Fudan U, Ha’erbin Institute of Technology, Nanjing U., Shanghai Jiaotong U., U of Science and Technology of China, Xi’an Jiaotong U., and Zhejiang U.) signed the Hefei Statement with three world university leagues (Association of American Universities, the League of European Research Universities, and the Group of Eight in Australia), and, in early 2014, the Russell Group of 24 leading universities in UK also signed the Statement. The purpose of the statement is “to identify the key characteristics that make research universities effective; and to promote a policy environment which protects, nurtures and cultivates the values, standards and behaviors which underlie these characteristics and which facilitates their development if they do not already exist.”

In signing the Statement, AAU, LERU, G8 and the Russell Group might have intended to “promote the fundamental principles of world-class research universities across the world, and to influence the development of higher education and research policy,” as the head of the RG puts it. The question I want to ask is this: What really motivates the nine Chinese universities to sign the Statement, or more precisely, what motivates the Chinese government to sign such a document, given that no Chinese university has the autonomy to act on its own, and to do so without government planning and approval, at a time when the Communist Party in China has been banning the teaching, and indeed any mentioning, of values that are the very foundation of western universities, expelling or punishing free thinking scholars, reinforcing its ideological indoctrination, further tightening Internet censorship, and conducting complicated surveillance on faculty and students alike?

“[The signing of Hefei Statement] coincides with Chinese government’s desire to quickly elevate the standing of Chinese universities in the world,” Chu Zhaohui (储朝晖), a research fellow at the National Institute of Education Sciences in China, pointed out. “Support from government [for the signing of Hefei Statement] is merely a stance which does not change the long-standing managerial system of government running the universities, nor can it change the relationship between the Chinese government and universities from a legal perspective.”

Is China signing the Hefei Statement, or similar documents, to merely help further its exchanges with top universities around the world, without intending to commit to the principles of academic independence and freedom? This is a familiar game that China has played again and again to great success. For example, to gain entrance to the WTO, China signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1998 but has never ratified it. Activists have been tried and imprisoned for advocating its ratification. Even when China ratifies some human right covenants, it does not necessarily mean these obligations would be implemented in good faith.

The Hefei Statement deplores instrumentalist approaches to research universities, and the harms they do to the well-being of these institutions. But cynically, China’s varying approaches to working with the best universities in the world probably represent the worst kind of instrumentalist approaches one can possibly imagine, and the well-being of these universities should weigh heavily on our minds as many of them are jumping on the bandwagon to China, convinced that they must be there and be there fast.



Yaxue Cao (曹雅学) is the founder and editor of this website.



Duke Kunshan University delayed again, following communication and funding problems, The Chronicle, Duke University, February 8, 2013.



Take a Considered Position through Disciplined Thinking – An Open Letter to Wellesley College

By Fengsuo Zhou, Yaxue Cao, published: November 4, 2014


We did not foresee writing this letter. We didn’t think it was necessary. All we need to do, we thought, is to present facts to the public, including the Wellesleyans. And we thought that truth is the only thing that matters, and that, before racism and McCarthyism become issues, the first order should be to find out what happened.

Fengsuo Zhou

Fengsuo Zhou

Let us introduce ourselves first. Fengsuo was a senior and physics major at Tsinghua University in Beijing in 1989. During the Tiananmen democracy movement, Fengsuo told the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on May 30, 2014, “I was responsible for setting up a student network that directed the protesters on Tiananmen Square, provided medical services to thousands of students on a hunger strike as hundreds and thousands more poured in from all corners of Beijing to rally in support. Through this network, ambulances were able to pass every 5 minutes through the crowds. Through this network [which included a radio station], many Chinese were able to express freely and publicly, for the first and only time in their life, their love for freedom and democracy and their hope for a better China” (watch hearing here). After the movement was suppressed with machine guns and tanks on June 4th, 1989, Fengsuo was No. 5 on the Chinese government’s most-wanted list of 21 student leaders. He was jailed for one year in Qincheng Prison in Beijing. He came to the United States in 1995, studied finance at Chicago University, and he is a financial analyst, father of two, living in California. Fengsuo was one of the tweeps who took part in google-searching “步起跃” (Professor Charles Bu) and exchanging thoughts on our findings on November 23, 2013.

Yaxue Cao

Yaxue Cao

Yaxue attended Peking University from 1980-1984. She came to the United States to pursue graduate study in English and American literature in 1991. She is a writer, translator, mother of two living in Washington, DC. In June, 2013, she launched, a website “devoted to news and commentary related to civil society, rule of law, and rights activities in China. It works with China’s democracy advocates to bring their voices into English and to help the rest of the world understand what people are thinking and doing to effect change in China.” Reports and translations on China Change have been cited or hyperlinked by the New York Times, Time magazine, the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Washington Post, the Economist, the New Republic magazine, the Atlantic (to name a few) and Congressional reports.

Last fall, Professor Charles Bu wrote three articles, as far as our search results show, in connection to the Xia Yeliang incident. On October 22, 2013, he published the first of the three in Chinese in Xinhua News under his Chinese name Bu Qiyue (步起跃). In it, he defended Peking University’s decision to fire Xia Yeliang as a pure professional decision that has nothing to do with Professor Xia being a dissident intellectual, and he chided his Wellesley colleagues for writing an open letter calling on the college to reconsider its partnership with PKU. “What makes them think they can point fingers at the internal affairs of a university on the other side of the planet?” (Wellesley has a full translation). Professor Bu wrote again on October 29, in the Wellesley News: Why the PKU partnership is good for Wellesley and, then again on November 3, in the Chronicle of Higher Education: Journalists Should Ask Peking U. Students About Yeliang Xia.

While Yaxue explained, clearly and meticulously, how her article Why Is a Math Professor at Wellesley So Hard Hitting against an Economics Professor Fired by Peking University in China came about in her Letter to the Editor on October 27, 2014, professor Bu has so far made no mention of his article on the Xinhua News website. Instead, Professor Bu hurled insults at Yaxue in his Letter to the Editor on October 30, accusing her of [making] false and defamatory statements, [feeding] a bogus story, and calling her a “complete joke.”

But to us, Prof. Bu’s Xinhua article is at the heart of the matter in terms of Professor Bu’s involvement, and the role he played, in the Xia Yeliang incident.

Professor Bu is entitled to his opinion about Xia, about his Wellesley colleagues, and about PKU’s decision. That’s not the problem. Yaxue’s report stated that in the very first paragraph.

Professor Bu might, or might not, have known his article was going to be used by all of CCP’s  major “mouthpieces” in what appears to us, to other China watchers, and to veteran Chinese journalists Yaxue talked to, a state engineered, all-out smear campaign against Mr. Xia, but this much is certain: Whether Professor Bu was approached to write this article, or he wrote it voluntarily and submitted it to Xinhua (highly unlikely by our assessment), when he wrote it “in Boston on October 21, 2013,” he knew perfectly that:

  • Xinhua is not an impartial and independent news organization, and as a CCP mouthpiece, it would never allow Mr. Xia to defend himself on Xinhua website;
  • if Bu himself, or anyone else for that matter, happened to be a supporter of Mr. Xia, he or she would not be able to voice their support on Xinhua either;
  • Professor Bu’s article could be published in Xinhua News precisely because it meets the need of official propaganda.

Let no one tell you that Xinhua News Agency is just like AP, Reuters, AFP or any other free and independent international wire service. China is an authoritarian state without press freedom where the Communist Party has a monopoly over the news organizations. According to Xinhua’s own description, “The work of the Xinhua News Agency has always been under the direct leadership of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.” “The Xinhua News Agency performs the duties assigned by the Central Committee: to be the mouthpiece, the ears and eyes, the think tank, and the information confluence.” “Xinhua News Agency follows the requirement of the Central Committee, upholds correct political direction, and directs the public opinion.”

In China, reporters and newspaper commentators have been regularly expelled, jailed, or beaten for dissenting from the Party line or for cutting-edge investigative reports. It is increasingly difficult for foreign journalists to obtain visas. Those whose reporting is deemed “critical” are denied visas altogether.

We believe that professor Bu’s engagement with Xinhua over the Xia Yeliang incident was highly problematic. At the very least, it shows his poor judgment as an American academic about what is, and what it is not, appropriate to do. If Professor Bu really wants to defend his honor and integrity, he can begin by telling us how his article for Xinhua came about, instead of hurling mud at people in a hysterical, unsightly manner.

From our search, we concluded that Professor Bu has close ties to the Chinese government. We believe anyone who has found what we have found will come to the same conclusion. He had been, until at least May, 2014, and may still be, an “overseas commissioner” of the Federation of Overseas Chinese of Changzhou; he was received by the deputy director of the CCP’s department of United Front Work (see my report for further explanation of this party organ) in Changzhou; he and his family were guests at a banquet at Diaoyutai, China’s state guesthouse in Beijing. All of the above information was found on official websites of these government/Party entities. We welcome Professor Bu to explain his connections with the Chinese government and the CCP. He can begin by telling everyone what title and position an “overseas commissioner” is.

After Yaxue’s Letter to the Editor was posted on The Wellesley News, two reports, titled similarly “The Municipal Federation of Overseas Chinese Received [its] Overseas Commissioner Bu Qiyue,” one dated October 16, 2013, and the other May 26, 2014, were taken down from the official website of the Federation of Overseas Chinese of Changzhou. Professor Bu owes the Wellesleyans an explanation.

According to both reports, Professor Bu thanked the Federation for “taking care” of his aging father. Professor Bu probably can also explain what “taking care” entails. We believe there is an issue of conflict of interest here.

In his agitated state, Professor Bu had trouble keeping his narrative together. In his article I Am Not a Communist Spy, he alleged that Professor Cushman worked with us against him. “Mr. Cushman and so-called ‘freedom fighters’ resorted to a McCarthy-style witch hunt. They couldn’t find anything, so they went after my hometown connection (Changzhou, a city most Americans have never heard of) and wrote a bogus story about me. In particular, it fabricated a ‘Communist Commissioner’ position for me, which I don’t even qualify.” (Again, nowhere in our report did we describe Bu Qiyue as a “Communist Commissioner.”) When this accusation fell apart, a week later in his Letter to the Editor, Professor Bu made Yaxue the main villain who “mislead Professor Thomas Cushman,” damaging not only Professor Bu’s reputation, the reputation of Professor Cushman, but also the reputation of Wellesley College. We are very amused by this remarkable show of mental gymnastics.

We are aware of the controversy over Professor Xia, Professor Cushman, and Professor Bu on the Wellesley campus. We are aware of the ongoing student petition and the issues raised by 20+ faculty members in their Letter to the Editor on October 22. We want to remind Wellesleyans that Yaxue’s report, which sums up the findings about Professor Bu by a group of Chinese Twitter users, is a key part of the whole picture, and should be considered carefully. In answering Professor Bu’s accusation that Professor Cushman worked with us to produce this report, Yaxue wrote to The Wellesley News and explained how our report came about. In this letter, we ask Professor Bu a few key questions and lay out some larger issues.

Wellesleyans know better than we do that identity politics at the expense of truth is poison. It can be easily manipulated to silence critics. For the sake of academic freedom, we ask Wellesleyans to carefully examine the facts first before letting loose these -isms. Wellesley students and faculty should not rush to sign a petition or take a side without knowing and understanding the facts of the case. Of all people, Wellesleyans should not be intellectually lazy.

Finally, we would like to share our thoughts on Wellesley’s partnership with Peking University. Professor Charles Bu has spoken glowingly of Wellesley’s partnership with Peking University and how great it is for Wellesley. Professor Cushman does not oppose such engagement but gives warnings about the limits and price of such exchanges. A reexamination of American universities’ partnerships with Chinese counterparts seems to be underway on some campuses, and we look forward to reading more studies from our scholars. Here we want to tell Wellesleyans a few stories you will not learn from your partnership with PKU.

Xu Zhiyong (许志永) was a PKU law student who went on to found Gongmeng, or the Open Constitution Initiative, in 2003, pioneering China’s rights defense movement over the last ten years. When Gongmeng was shut down by the government in 2009, he went on to launch the New Citizens Movement with a band of rights lawyers, journalists, liberal intellectuals, and pro-democracy netizens. Across China in over 30 cities, citizens met regularly to discuss current affairs, engage in activism, and to press for changes in social and legal arenas. When the crackdown on the New Citizens Movement came last year, scores were arrested and tried, and Dr. Xu Zhiyong himself was sentenced earlier this year to four and half years in jail for “disturbing order in a public place.” His court statement, which was translated by into English, was called “the China Manifesto” by the Telegraph. His close friend Teng Biao, also a PKU alumnus, is currently at Harvard, and perhaps Wellesley can have him over to discuss a few things you will never be talking about in your partnership with PKU.

Cao Shunli (曹顺利) was another PKU alumnus whose story you will never learn from your partnership with PKU. In September, 2013, Cao Shunli was detained in the Exit & Entry area of the Beijing Capital International Airport where she was en route to Geneva to attend human rights training. Her “crime” was to demand participation in China’s domestic plans to advance human rights, and report the progress to the UN Human Rights Council in advance of its Universal Periodic Reviews. For her work, she had been put in labor camp, and finally in jail. When her health deteriorated in prison last fall and this spring, the Chinese authorities denied her treatment. She died in custody in March, 2014. When NGO representatives around the world held up Cao Shunli’s photo on the floor of the UN Human Rights Council to protest her death, the Chinese delegates “went beyond diplomatic protocol….to block the moment of silence for Cao Shunli.”

Do you know Who Lin Zhao (林昭) is? She was another PKU woman you should know. She was executed during the Cultural Revolution for criticizing Mao Zedong and the Communist Party’s rule. You will not hear her name in your partnership with PKU but you can watch this documentary about her.

The list is long and this is not the place to enumerate it. As this letter is being posted, a 34-year-old PKU alumnus name Shen Yongping (沈勇平) is being tried in Beijing on November 4th for making a documentary about China’s failed one-hundred-year pursuit of constitutional democracy.

Although we are not Wellesleyans, based on our understanding of the Chinese Communist Party and our close knowledge of the Party’s practices, we are sure your partnership is sanitized and bleached to prevent you from any meaningful discussion with your PKU partners about some of the most important and riveting issues regarding China and the world.

And worse, since the university authorities, not independent but also directed by the Communist Party, have control over what you would be exposed to, and your activities would be monitored carefully, you would be led to believe the China they package and present to you is the real China if you are not thinking vigorously and seek out for yourself.

With spite and clenched teeth, Professor Charles Bu spoke of “freedom fighters.” We don’t know if we deserve to be call freedom fighters, but we are convinced that freedom is worth fighting for.


Fengsuo Zhou, California.

Yaxue Cao, Washington, DC.




A timeline of the events from September 2013 to the present:


1) On September 3, 2013, 100+ Wellesley professors published a letter to Peking University regarding the possible dismissal of Professor Xia Yeiang;

2) On September 13, 2013, Professor Cushman published the article Conscience and Compromise: The Troubling Case of Yeliang Xia in the Chronicle of Higher Education;

3) On October 18, 2013, a Friday, Peking University formally announced the dismissal of Professor Xia Yeliang;

4) On October 22, 2013, Professor Charles Bu published in Xinhua News website the article In American Universities Faculties Also Have to Be Evaluated to Get Contract Renewal (Wellesley has a full translation);

5) On October 29, Prof. Bu published the article Why the PKU partnership is good for Wellesley in The Wellesley News;

6) On November 3, Prof. Bu published the article Journalists Should Ask Peking U. Students About Yeliang Xia in the Chronicle of Higher Education;

7) On November 25, 2013, Yaxue Cao posted Why Is a Math Professor at Wellesley So Hard Hitting against an Economics Professor Fired by Peking University in China on China Change website;

8) On February 27, 2014, Professor Cushman gave a presentation at Cato Institute: Chinese Intrusions into American Universities: Consequences for Freedom;

9) On Oct 5, 2014, New York Times published an article about Professor Cushman, Policing University Partnerships in Authoritarian Countries;

10) On October 22, 2014, Professor Bu published the article I am not a Communist spy in The Wellesley News;

11) On October 23, 2014, Professor Cushman published a rebuttal On Charles Bu’s Falsehoods in The Wellesley News;

12) On Oct 26, 2014, 20+ Wellesley faculty members voiced disapproval of Prof. Cushman in The Wellesley News;

13) On Oct 27, 2014, a faculty/student/alumni petition against Prof Cushman led by Sophia S. Chen, Class of 2013, was initiated. Unclear how many people have signed the petition;

14) On Oct 27, 2014, Yaxue Cao explained how her report from a year ago came about in a Letter to the Editor of The Wellesley News;

15) On Oct 30, 2014, Prof. Bu threatened to bring a lawsuit against Yaxue Cao in his Letter to the Editor of The Wellesley News;

16) On November 4, 2014, Fengsuo Zhou and Yaxue Cao posted Take a Considered Position through Disciplined Thinking – An Open Letter to Wellesley College on China Change website.

17) On November 6, 2014, Wellesley Student Tiffany Chan published the article Conflict between Professors Bu and Cushman Creates Unsafe Environment in The Wellesley News.