April 6, 2007

Chinese Envoy Speaks to C.U.

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Yesterday marked a milestone in Cornell-China relations, as the highest-ranking Chinese diplomat in the United States, Ambassador Zhou Wenzhong, visited campus to deliver a lecture and to meet with President David J. Skorton and faculty members.

The visit comes a little over a year after the second highest-ranking diplomat from China, Liu Biwei, the consul general in New York City, came to campus. Although the day concluded with no substantive agreements to advance Cornell-China ties, Zhou’s willingness to offer his embassy in assisting Cornell is a significant step toward greater collaboration.

The visit is one result of Cornell’s emphasis of its international role, which has in recent years focused largely on Asia. Skorton met with the president and prime minister of India in January, while in November 2005, then-interim President Hunter R. Rawlings III met with government officials and several universities throughout China. During that trip, Rawlings officiated the China and Asia-Pacific Studies major at Peking University. The past few years have seen Cornell devote much time on improving its ties to China; aside from Rawlings’ visit in 2005, engineering faculty traveled to Beijing and Shanghai in October 2006 and law school faculty participated in an international conference on the World Trade Organization in Beijing last spring.

These examples of successful collaboration indicate that Cornell has overcome the stigma associated with the 1995 controversy over then-president of Taiwan Lee Tenghui’s visit to Ithaca. Lee, whose alma mater is Cornell, wanted to attend a reunion and the Chinese government reacted poorly to the U.S.’s approval of his visa. Cornell’s positive relations with China exist despite the fact that Taiwan’s status remains highly contentious and is arguably the most likely issue that would create unavoidable problems for U.S.-China relations. During his lecture, Zhou set aside the last part of his talk to address this question, admitting it was, by far, China’s “most sensitive issue” today. He repeated China’s official stance on the matter, that it “would never tolerate Taiwan’s independence,” and would “do whatever [it] could” to prevent it. In the midst of reaffirming China’s commitment to peaceful development and stability in the region, Zhou nevertheless maintained the need for continuing the buildup of missiles aimed at the island of Taiwan, claiming that the missiles are effectively deterring disaster. He added that in order to “safeguard our shared strategic interests, [the U.S. must] stop sending the wrong signals.”

In a press conference prior to his lecture, Zhou said the majority of people in Taiwan wanted to “come back to China,” indicating that Taiwan’s current leaders, including President Chen Shuibian, were promoting separatist ideology under the guise of “reform.” Zhou called the move “reckless and dangerous.” His discussion of Taiwan and China’s unchanging policy was in stark contrast to the rest of his lecture, which dwelled extensively on the “cooperative relationship” and “converging interests” between the U.S. and China, as well as other positive aspects of the partnership. The improvement in U.S.-China relations has been attributed partly to their increased cooperation in the war on terror, which has, as Zhou described, put them “in the same boat” and makes them “both stakeholders in the same global system.”

Emphasizing the enhancement of political relations and the desire for a “harmonious world,” Zhou made no mention of many Americans’ concerns with China in his prepared remarks such as the question of Tibet, as well as intellectual property rights, human rights, and the $200 billion trade deficit, although several similarly contentious topics were brought up within questions from the audience. Cornell brought in Susan Murphy ’73, vice president for student and academic services, to preface the event with a warning to the audience about how to voice dissent without intimidating the ambassador, including asking protestors to “stand silently in the back with signs,” if necessary. Answers to most of the audience’s questions were in line with China’s official policies. Zhou’s lengthy diatribe on Taiwan was surprising to some, while others found the topic particularly relevant to current events, as many of those observing cross-strait relations have claimed that the situation is slowly but surely coming to a head.

Zhou wanted to visit Ithaca in part to thank Cornell for “taking good care of … [its] large community of Chinese students,” which currently numbers over 400. In response to a question about the large number of Chinese students in American universities today, Zhou was unconcerned about the apparent brain drain of China’s brightest students to foreign nations. He said, “Many come to [the U.S.], and then many have gone back. Some come back and forth quite frequently. … It increases the bond between the two peoples.” Zhou cited the increasing trend of offering Chinese language courses in the U.S. and felt its popularity indicated that there would be many more U.S. students going to China. Cornell is no exception to the increasing interest in China.

According to Zhou, his responsibility during yesterday’s trip was to provide an “objective perception of China.” Given his very position of being a representative of China, Zhou had a difficult time achieving this goal, although, on this campus, the perception does not need much of a boost. With Skorton’s planned trip to China later this year, and our own envoy, student trustee Mao Ye grad, busy strengthening ties in the country, Cornell’s image in China appears to be moving far beyond the sticky issue of Taiwan and developing into an admirably stable foundation for much greater collaboration and cooperation. Ambassador Zhou’s promise of helping Cornell “in any way possible” opens up more opportunities to the University than ever before, and puts Cornell on the fast track for providing top-tier China studies.