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A Global University: Georgetown’s deepening relationship with the Chinese Communist Party

September 15, 2011


The day after an August exhibition game between the Georgetown men’s basketball team and the Bayi Rockets of the Chinese Basketball Association ended in a brawl, University President John DeGioia spoke at a reception for the team at the American Consulate in Shanghai. While stunning photos and videos of the fight raced across the Internet and were shown throughout the day on American television, state-controlled media in China largely ignored the fracas. What had begun as basketball diplomacy became a test of Georgetown’s efforts in China. President DeGioia’s remarks had to address not only the moment, but also the University’s entire mission.

Of the University’s many relationships with countries around the world, none has expanded more in recent years than its partnership with China. Since 2004, the number of agreements between Georgetown and Chinese institutions has grown to 27, second only to its connections in the United Kingdom. These agreements range from study abroad opportunities for undergraduates to joint research programs for faculty to executive leadership programs for Chinese government bureaucrats.

Demand has kept pace with supply. The number of undergraduate students studying abroad in China has increased five-fold in as many years. Faculty exchanges, virtually nonexistent before 2004, have become commonplace. There is no doubt that Georgetown students and scholars are in China to stay. But at what cost?

Alongside the connections between Georgetown and Chinese universities in Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Harbin, and Xiamen, the University has established partnerships with the State Administration for Religious Affairs and the Central Party School, two government institutions of critical importance. SARA oversees—and often restricts—the activity of religious groups in China, while the Central Party School trains the elite of the Chinese Communist Party in government affairs. Professor Victor Cha, the director of Georgetown’s Asian Studies program and the former head of Asian Affairs for the National Security Council, described the two institutions as “two of the most orthodox agencies of the Chinese state apparatus.”

While many American universities have established connections with China in recent years, Georgetown’s relationships with SARA and the Central Party School are unique. Because of the oppressive nature and policies of these institutions, it is difficult for the University to avoid moral questions over these relationships.

“As a university community committed to our Catholic and Jesuit identity, Georgetown has a distinctive challenge,” DeGioia said in Shanghai. “We need to do our part to expand our understanding of globalization—to move beyond strictly financial and market terms—and to ensure that we harness these forces for the betterment of human kind.”

Because of the atheist character of the Chinese state and the long history of foreign missionary work in China, the Chinese Communist Party’s policy toward Chinese religious communities has ranged from wary concern to active suppression. As the department of the Chinese government that handles religious issues, SARA administers exchanges between religious organizations within China and their counterparts abroad, and establishes policies that affect the practice of religion in China. For example, in 2007, the government proclaimed Buddhist reincarnation without government approval to be illegal. This policy, condemned by the Dalai Lama, is an attempt to install a Chinese Buddhist leadership that pays obeisance to Beijing.

SARA’s policies toward Chinese Roman Catholicism—which have similar goals to the state’s policies concerning Buddhism—have been a flashpoint in the relationship between the People’s Republic of China and the Vatican. Although the practice of religion has become more widespread and tolerated in China since the beginning of the country’s economic liberalization, every important aspect of religious life, from the appointment of leadership to the construction of churches, requires the approval of SARA.

“One of the principles of China’s governance of religion is that religious communities must be organized on a national level,” Professor Thomas Banchoff, the director of Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, said.

Today, Chinese Catholics who remain loyal to the Vatican are pressured to switch their allegiance to the state-founded Catholic Patriotic Association. The Vatican and China are frequently in wars of words over the appointment of bishops, which the Chinese government considers its prerogative. Three times in the last year, the Communist Party has appointed bishops over the objections of the Vatican. The Economist relayed reports that several Chinese bishops were forced to attend the ceremonies. A Vatican-linked news agency said one of the bishops was taken from his house sobbing before a ceremony in July. The Chinese government denied these allegations.

In 2008, Georgetown established a partnership with SARA’s Center for Religious Studies to hold conferences between Georgetown faculty and Chinese religious authorities. At the signing of the agreement with SARA Minister Ye Xiaowen in Riggs Library, President DeGioia drew a comparison between Georgetown’s representation of the Catholic faith and SARA’s representation of Chinese cultural values. “How we engage in our increasingly interconnected world very much depends on our traditions and values,” DeGioia said. “For SARA and Georgetown, these are the millennia-old values that are inherent in Chinese culture and Catholicism. Each of us will be bringing these values to our partnership—and in the process—learning from each other and about each other as we preserve and share our most important and intrinsic values.”

The University expanded its relationship with SARA this summer when the Berkley Center organized a tour of several American cities for Chinese civil servants to study the relationship between religious and governmental organizations. As director of the center, Banchoff believed that the program was successful and envisions that similar programs will exist in the future.

As Georgetown’s relationship has deepened with the Chinese government institution most often at loggerheads with the Vatican, Georgetown administrators have not been concerned about the possibility of tension with Church policy.

“They obviously know what we’re doing, and they’re oftentimes involved in our dialogues,” said Fr. Dennis McNamara, a sociology professor and Special Assistant to President DeGioia for China Affairs. “We are never incongruent with the Vatican. Our relationship with Rome … is absolute.”

Banchoff said that the University’s relationship with an institution that often represses Chinese Catholics does not undermine Georgetown’s own deeply held ideals.

“To engage in dialogue with them is in no way to relativize or undermine our own convictions about what’s important and just in political life,” Banchoff said. Such dialogue, he continued, is “important to advance understanding on both sides, to sharpen our appreciation of where we differ and manage our relationship more effectively.”

The Central Party School trains Communist Party civil servants for high-level government positions—Jeff Anderson, the director of Georgetown’s BMW Center for German and European Studies and a participant in two of Georgetown’s conferences with the Central Party School, described it as “the finishing school for the top party elite.” It is also the Communist Party’s “primary think tank for generating new ideas and policies concerning political and ideological reform,” according to David Shambaugh, an expert on Chinese politics at George Washington University.

“I’d be hard-pressed to call what goes on there anything other than a kind of indoctrination,” Anderson said.

Since May 2006, Georgetown and the Central Party School have held yearly conferences and “study tours” in the United States and China. According to McNamara, there are about six to eight people in each delegation, though when Georgetown professors go on “study tours” of China, two to three of them are usually already in China. When China hosts the exchange, the Central Party School pays for it. When Georgetown hosts, Georgetown pays.

Although the dialogue has improved somewhat over time, both Anderson and Cha commented on the noticeable difference in the quality of scholarship put forth by Georgetown and the Central Party School.

“I wasn’t impressed at the time with the quality of the participants coming from the Central Party School,” Anderson remarked of the first conference he attended. “I just didn’t feel like there was a whole lot of dialogue going on. The paper that I commented on, it was like two ships passing in the night.”

Cha held no illusions about the academic component of the relationship with the Central Party School. “The substance of our meetings is fine,” he said. “It’s not outstanding, obviously, because it’s not a free exchange of ideas.” Smiling, Cha emphasized that Georgetown undergraduates do not study abroad at the Central Party School.

Even McNamara, who has been the enthusiastic point-person for the relationship with the Central Party School, admitted, “Our faculty are not meeting faculty with similar academic expertise.”

Though Anderson was not optimistic about the prospects of change within the Communist Party as a result of these meetings, he did speak positively of the study tours Georgetown offers to Chinese delegations. “They’re getting exposed to a broad range of viewpoints when they come here,” he said. “I think that’s a great service that Georgetown can perform.”

The relationship also sheds useful light on the inner workings of the Communist Party. And even if the scholarship is not usually impressive, there are still opportunities for academic insights. Cha noted the indirect value the conferences offer. “Whatever the topic is, you pretty much know what they’re going to say,” Cha said. “If you see something that deviates from that, that’s interesting, that’s academically interesting.”

Considering the breadth of academic engagement with Chinese institutions, Cha emphasized that Georgetown’s association with the Central Party School cannot be evaluated without considering broader political dynamics. “Everybody around the world who has been engaging with China is hopeful that this sort of exchange, though it can sometimes be uncomfortable, in the end is going to help to integrate China’s peaceful rise in the world,” he said.

The University is not under the illusion that engagement with the Central Party School will change the governing ideology. “I think their approach is, ‘We’re not trying to change you, you don’t try to change us. But we want to understand you,’” McNamara said.

“Certainly we want to understand them.”

The Chinese government’s repression of many freedoms is not a purely academic subject for American scholars who study China. In recent years, several prominent professors have been prevented from traveling to China because the Chinese government considered their viewpoints dangerous. Speaking to the Voice in 2008, Sam Robfogel, the Director of International Initiatives in the Office of the Provost, said, “If we ever felt that academic freedom in our program was suppressed in a way that didn’t allow us to be the Georgetown University that we wanted to be it would be a matter of concern.”

Although the University insisted it would defend the academic freedom of its professors, the unofficial blacklist included School of Foreign Service professor James Millward, a graduate of Harvard and Stanford and an expert on the Chinese province of Xinjiang, who contributed to the scholarly text Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Frontier. In 2004, Millward was prevented from acquiring a visa to visit China because important figures in the Chinese government believed that 13 of the contributors to the text, including Millward, supported the notion of the province’s independence from China.

In a blog post for The China Post titled “Being Blacklisted by China, And What Can Be Learned from It,” Millward described his dissatisfaction with Georgetown’s lukewarm support for his efforts to get a visa. Millward, one of Georgetown’s foremost scholars on China, asked the University to place him on one of its delegation to the Central Party School. Millward wrote in the post, “I was told that any plan to draw on our Central Party School relationship was ‘a non-starter.’”

Cha regretted the circumstances of Millward’s banning. “That’s the price everybody pays when they’re doing business in China, academic exchange or playing basketball,” he said. “There’s a price that you pay that where in form it may look like the same sort of exchange or transaction, but in substance it’s not.”

In his blog post, Millward was not optimistic for the future of American scholarship on China. “If institutions don’t support their own faculty, but allow visa refusals to occur and go on unchallenged for years, American academics may well gradually be placed in a situation akin to that of our Chinese colleagues: facing the Chinese state on our own, forced to consider the possible personal repercussions of everything we write,” Millward wrote.

In an email to the Voice earlier this month, Robfogel said, “Prof. Millward… acknowledges the support he has had from this and other Georgetown offices when trying to visit China… I will continue to support Georgetown and Chinese colleagues who seek to advance academic exchange. It is understandable if disagreements surface over specific tactics to take in pursuing this widely shared principle.”

In 2007, Millward was finally able to secure a visa to visit China after writing a letter to the Chinese ambassador that explained his predicament and made clear that he did not support the separation of Xinjiang from China. In 2008 and 2009, he was again denied visas.

While Georgetown’s relationships with SARA and the Central Party School have been maintained or even expanded, the budgets for regional studies programs, including the Center for Asian Studies, have been slashed significantly. Because the U.S. Department of Education was mandated to reduce funding to National Resource Centers, including Georgetown’s Asian Studies center, this summer its budget was cut by 47 percent. Asian Studies was forced to make cuts across the board, including a reduction in course offerings and faculty research grants, while student fellowship funding is the only budget item that remains at previous levels. Cha, the director of the center, said, “Georgetown is not making up the difference, so we’re operating with half of what we had.” Cha kicked his dysfunctional eight-year-old printer to underline his point. He was not optimistic about the possibility of government funding for NRCs returning to its former level.

Cha made clear that his program’s budget did not include the money spent on the Central Party School relationship. “If we did, we’d try to use it for something else,” he said.

Banchoff, McNamara, and Cha each indicated that important decisions about engagement in China are made at a very high level in the Georgetown administration. Neither McNamara nor Banchoff could recall how the ideas for the relationships with SARA or the Central Party School first emerged, but emphasized that the Office of the Provost’s International Initiatives team plays the most important role. Robfogel, the team’s director, declined to talk about the Central Party School program, and denied having any direct involvement.

“The decision of whether to engage with SARA or the Central Party School is a decision that’s made above my pay grade,” Cha said.

Cha and Anderson aren’t the only ones skeptical of the value that these relationships offer to Georgetown. “If Georgetown chooses to continue to invest considerable time and financial resources in these relationships with the Party School and SARA, we should make sure we are getting sufficient and the right sort of return from the investment,” Millward wrote in an email to the Voice. “Nor should we let concern over maintaining those political relationships hamper our other exchanges with China, or lead us to lose track of our primary academic goals of pedagogy and research.”

Although the basketball trip was the focus of his speech in Shanghai, DeGioia also referenced Georgetown’s relationship with SARA and the Central Party School, though not by name. “We provide, through our executive training engagements, an opportunity to share knowledge and experience with emerging leaders in China,” he said. “Our cooperative agreements with leading ministries of the government create opportunities both to define Georgetown’s unique identity as a global university, and to deepen our ties with a nation that rests at the center of our increasingly networked, globalized world.”

Cha does not dismiss the ethical questions inherent in a relationship with an undemocratic government. He recalled the reaction of the Central Party School delegation to a paper he presented in 2008 on the tension between the Olympic ideals of transparency and merit and China’s illiberal political system. “They hated it. They were upset. The head of their delegation was visibly upset,” Cha said. “Some people look at that and think, that’s exactly the sort of thing we should be talking with them about.”

Others argue that the intrinsic difficulties are no reason to give up on dialogue. “The opposite argument is, well, don’t do dialogue at all because they might possibly take something from us and use it in a negative way,” McNamara said. “Well my heavens, then we might as well close up shop! Once we need to interact with societies across the world, we have to take some risks in that sense. But Georgetown’s been doing that for 200 years. This is what a great university does.”



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