On Feb. 16, United States Congressman Chris Smith visited NYU Shanghai at the invitation of Vice Chancellor Jeffrey Lehman. After a brief reception and introduction, the Congressman addressed a large group of students, professors, and university staff. As a student of this unique university, I wish to express my reaction to Rep. Smith, not as an American or international student, but rather as a global citizen who is concerned, yet optimistic about the future of U.S.-China relations. Here are my takeaways after speaking with a number of friends and fellow students:

  1. Rep. Smith does not speak for the entire United States citizenry––Rep. Smith belongs to the Republican Party and was elected by the 4th Congressional District of New Jersey, a small fraction of the U.S. electoral map. Though many share his views in Congress, his opinions on religion, human rights, the United States, and China are by no means representative of all American citizens, nor all U.S. politicians. In the same way, the shortcomings of Chinese politicians are by no means reflective of the sum morality of the Chinese people.
  2. Yes, of course human rights matter: Any and all violations of human rights must be declared for what they are––an affront to human dignity and the inalienable rights to which all human beings are entitled. Whether it is facing forced abortions and oppression of political opposition in the case of China, or racial discrimination and police brutality in the U.S., no society has become more stable and peaceful denying obvious injustices. Patriotism must not impede our rationality. To criticize one’s homeland is not treason or betrayal. Observation, along with appropriate action, only strengthens civil society. Territorial sovereignty cannot be conceived as the absolute right to manage one’s affairs free from the eye of the greater international community. The greatest atrocities of the 20th century––the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, the genocide in Cambodia, Yugoslavia, and Rwanda––all occurred because the international family did not care enough to try to establish peace in regions beyond not only their perceived national interests, but also their borders. The welfare of the Chinese people is of concern to all around the world, just as the welfare of the people in the U.S. is. Critique must be multilateral, not one nation attacking another for shortcomings. Let us all look inward at the harmful practices of our own respective countries. If this process fails, the international community––in accordance with international law and the human rights conventions––has a duty to declare violations of human rights and then work to end them.
  3. It’s time Rep. Smith examine his own views on human rights––Just as nations must consistently address human rights violations, so too must individuals. In January 2015, Rep. Smith expressed he “does not construe homosexual rights as human rights.” Not only is this hypocritical for a man who has indeed defended the rights of marginalized groups and religious minorities, but also it is an insult to the millions of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer people worldwide. In her keynote address to a focus panel in Geneva, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Flavia Pansieri highlighted:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. It does not say “some human beings” – everyone, without exception, must enjoy their effective protection and realization. And yet, UN reports, including the most recent one that we presented to the Human Rights Council earlier [in 2015], highlight pervasive, violent abuse, harassment and discrimination affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and intersex persons in all regions of the world.

As politics clouds the American and Chinese governments’ ability to address human rights violations, it apparently confuses Rep. Smith’s own views on just who deserves protection. Chinese Christians thousands of miles away from New Jersey rightly receive Rep. Smith’s concern, but the many honest, sincere LGBTQ people of his own state do not?

  • We must engage with those who differ from us. There was a sense of anger and contention in the 15th floor colloquium that evening. International students protested Rep. Smith’s latent tone of American exceptionalism, and many Chinese students felt the place they’ve called home all their lives was under attack. I understand the frustration. However, it is these types of exchanges––especially the Q&A sessions—that have the potential to benefit the world. The key is to make our discussions substantive and respectful. Engagement is not acceptance necessarily, but it is the first step to finding common ground. That Vice Chancellor Lehman even invited the Congressman to come speak is an expression of the sincerity of our university’s leadership. We welcome opposition. We welcome critique. NYU Shanghai, like China and the U.S., is not perfect.

In the past, Rep. Smith expressed concern as to whether the Chinese government is censoring our education at NYU Shanghai. I do not know what the congressman thinks after his brief visit to our university, but Rep. Smith is surely wrong if he thinks I was limiting my  “free American education” when my friend from Chengdu and I watched a documentary on the man who invented the word genocide and agreed on the importance of international law. He is wrong if he thinks I am limiting my free American education when my Chinese roommate and I stay up until the early hours of the morning discussing the world and the future of peace. He is wrong if he thinks gaining a nuanced understanding of Chinese history and the development of the modern Chinese nation-state from a professor educated both in the U.S. and China is detrimental to my critical thinking skills. All these experiences are what make NYU Shanghai a valuable American and Chinese institution.


This article was written by Anthony Comeau. Please send an email to managing@oncenturyavenue.com to get in touch.
Photo Credit: NYU Shanghai.

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