Amid U.S.-China Chill, Harvard Moves a Top Language Program to Taiwan

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Harvard University will move a popular Chinese-language program to Taipei from Beijing amid a broad chill in academic and cultural exchanges between the United States and China.

The program’s director, Jennifer L. Liu, told The Harvard Crimson that the move had been driven by a perceived lack of friendliness on the part of the Chinese host institution, the Beijing Language and Culture University. Harry J. Pierre, a Harvard spokesman, said, “The planned move of this program from Beijing to Taiwan has been considered for some time and reflects a wide array of operational factors.”

“The program’s new location presents a different opportunity for our instructors and learners to broaden their educational experiences,” Mr. Pierre, associate director of communications of Harvard’s division of continuing education, said in an emailed statement.

Harvard, like many American universities, has a number of programs in China, including executive education courses and a training program led by its medical school for Chinese doctors and hospital leaders. The summer language program — known as the Harvard Beijing Academy — allowed students not just to immerse themselves in advanced language studies, but also to travel across China and learn about its history and culture.

But Professor Liu said that the program had been experiencing difficulties securing access to the classrooms and dormitories needed from Beijing Language and Culture University, according to an account she provided to The Harvard Crimson, a student newspaper. She also said that in 2019, the Chinese university told the program that it could no longer hold an annual gathering to celebrate the Fourth of July, during which students and faculty would typically eat pizza and sing the American national anthem.

Though China has instituted stringent pandemic restrictions, with provinces undergoing snap lockdowns as coronavirus cases have flared up, Professor Liu said she believed that the unwelcoming environment was related to a shift in the Chinese government’s attitudes toward American institutions.

When contacted for comment, Ms. Liu referred a reporter to Mr. Pierre, the Harvard spokesman. Reached by telephone on Tuesday, an employee at the Beijing Language and Culture University declined to comment.

The Harvard Chinese-language program will now be hosted in Taipei, Taiwan.Credit…Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

Taiwan — a self-governing island claimed by Beijing as a Chinese province — has long been a hub for Chinese language study among foreign diplomats, scholars and reporters, though that status has waned in recent decades as mainland China opened up. Mandarin Chinese is the primary official language in Taiwan, but it uses the traditional written script while the mainland uses simplified Chinese characters.

The Harvard program started in 2005 and initially cost $4,500. By 2015, more than 1,000 students had participated, according to the Beijing Language and Culture University’s website. The program was canceled in 2020 and this year because of the pandemic. It is now scheduled to begin next summer under the name Harvard Taipei Academy at National Taiwan University in Taipei. The new host institution said that in addition to offering language courses over eight weeks, the program would give its 60 or so students the opportunity to visit attractions around Taiwan and participate in cultural activities like Chinese calligraphy and paper-cutting workshops.

“It is hoped that in the free academic atmosphere of National Taiwan University, we can lay a solid Mandarin foundation for the excellent students of Harvard,” the university said in a statement.

The relocation comes as ties between the United States and China have reached their lowest point in decades. Increasingly, the tensions have spilled over into the realm of people-to-people exchanges, as well.

In 2020, the Trump administration suspended the government’s Fulbright program in mainland China and Hong Kong. The suspension occurred months after the Peace Corps abruptly announced it was ending its China program. The withdrawal of the programs prompted criticism from some who argued that it cut off two key pipelines for Americans to better understand what was happening on the ground in China.

Harvard’s president, Lawrence Bacow, left, with China’s leader,  Xi Jinping, in Beijing in 2019.Credit…Pool photo by Andrea Verdelli

The Harvard program’s relocation to Taiwan also comes as the island has supplanted Hong Kong as a bastion of free speech in the Chinese-speaking world, an idea that Taiwanese officials have been keen to emphasize.

Joanne Ou, a spokeswoman for Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry, said the agency “believes that the democratic and liberal system and pluralistic society will enable young American students to have a deeper understanding of Taiwan and the Chinese-speaking world.”

She added, “Only in a free environment where speech is not censored can the best results of learning be achieved.”

William C. Kirby, a professor of China studies at Harvard and chair of the Harvard Center Shanghai, insisted that the decision to relocate had been taken “above all, for logistical reasons.” He added that the university was continuing to explore ways to maintain and deepen its other ties with China despite the challenges posed by the ongoing geopolitical tensions and the country’s strict virus-related border restrictions.

“Once before, in the early 1950s, vibrant ties between the United States and Chinese universities were cut off, to our mutual loss,” Professor Kirby said. “We should not let that happen again.”

Paul Mozur and Amy Chang Chien contributed reporting. Liu Yi contributed research.

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