■ This post has been updated; see note below.
Chris Smith, a Republican congressman from New Jersey who is a vocal China critic, charges that U.S. universities risk undermining their reputations for academic freedom by making “quiet compromises” to launch schools in the world’s most populous nation.
So it was a surprise when New York University this week hosted Mr. Smith for a full day at its campus in Shanghai – where, according to his office, the congressman used a podium to blast China for human rights limitations, including “muzzled” students and professors.
NYU Shanghai marks the boldest expansion yet into China by a U.S. university. The school confers degrees equivalent to the ones it offers to its graduates at home. But the Shanghai program is substantially underwritten financially by the eastern Chinese city’s local government.
|Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) speaks on Capitol Hill in
Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016.
Speaking on Capitol Hill, Mr. Smith has repeatedly questioned whether NYU’s subsidized arrangement and similar China ventures by other U.S. universities handcuff them to China’s educational policies, which he says limit discussion of democracy, press freedom, civil society, human rights, Communist Party shortcomings and judicial independence.
At Mr. Smith’s request, Jeffrey S. Lehman, NYU Shanghai’s vice chancellor and top American official, has previously testified on Capitol Hill, where he defended the Shanghai campus as having been founded with an “ironclad guarantee that (NYU) could operate the school according to the fundamental principles of academic freedom.”
And so, after an appearance in Washington last year, Mr. Lehman invited the congressman to see for himself.
The speech was preannounced to staff and listed on the university’s calendar of events as open to the NYU community. The statement from Mr. Smith’s office describes it as having been “open to NYU faculty and students with a standing room only crowd.”
The congressman’s low-profile visit to China, which he said is his first permitted by Beijing in eight years, follows one by another prominent China critic from Washington, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, whose itinerary last November included a rare trip to Tibet.
Mr. Smith attributes his past visa rejections to his vocal criticism of China which include — as he said at NYU Shanghai on Tuesday, according to his prepared remarks — a worsening trend to “silence dissent, suppress human rights advocacy, and control civil society, religious groups, academic freedom, and the Internet.”
A university official answering questions on behalf of Mr. Lehman, who is traveling, said in a statement by email that the multinational audience was “passionate and vigorous during a lengthy, challenging question and answer session.”
“By allowing him to speak freely with many of our colleagues, we believed that he would see the value of our work,” said the university official, Senior Counselor Thomas Bruce. “Hence the priority placed on fostering the dialogue with our community at the expense of broader visibility.”
It isn’t clear whether Mr. Smith’s daylong visit to NYU Shanghai affected his views on satellite universities. A spokesman for the congressman didn’t respond to that and other questions.
“The main focus he came to speak with us wasn’t about academic freedom,” said Allison F. Chesky, a 19-year-old sophomore at the school from Massachusetts, who said she based her conclusion on a lunch she had with Mr. Smith and an interview with him and other students about the visit for a campus publication, On Century Avenue. “It was about human rights abuses,” she said, adding that some students felt his remarks didn’t reflect the complexities of China.
The text of the congressman’s speech released by his office didn’t address his view of NYU Shanghai head-on: “There are so many impressive faculty and students here on campus committed to academic excellence, personal growth and making a positive difference in society,” Mr. Smith said at the start of his speech which focused primarily on his view that China unnecessarily restricts religious, academic and other personal freedoms.
According to the summary of his remarks, Mr. Smith appeared to make a veiled criticism of NYU at one point when he praised a blind dissident Chinese lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, as “great.”
In mid-2013, Mr. Chen claimed he was forced out of an NYU position just before the university launched its Shanghai venture. NYU says Mr. Chen had it wrong and that the agreement between the two sides had reached its previously-agreed end date. Regardless, Mr. Smith later referred to NYU’s Shanghai arrangement by charging “the transaction included a moral cost.”
The press release from Mr. Smith’s office about the visit also said, “Vice Chancellor Lehman and the Shanghai campus faculty are operating in a challenging environment, but are dedicated to providing a free and dynamic campus for Chinese and international (students).”
–James T. Areddy. Follow him on Twitter @jamestareddy.
Note: This post has been updated to clarify the university’s timetable for announcing the event. It also removes reference to a previous statement from Mr. Smith’s office that erroneously described the speech as a public event but has since been revised by his office. And it includes several paragraphs at the end of the post that had originally been omitted due to an editing error.