Letter to the Editor: Medill should boycott China for press violations

Halting journalism students enrolled in Global 301 courses’ trip to China was a necessary move. But why did the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications plan this visit in the first place?

China is the world’s leading jailer of journalists. Among the 250 journalists imprisoned worldwide in 2019, 48 were held in Chinese prisons, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Turkey ranked second with 47 jailed journalists. “Picking quarrels and provoking trouble” is a charge often used by China’s government to silence journalists and dissenters. Joel Simon, the CPJ’s executive director, said the imprisonment of journalists “is a threat to the global information system on which we all depend.”

Medill vigorously champions freedom of the press. In my view, sending its students to a nation that jails journalists and rigidly censors all media is akin to supporting the #MeToo movement while streaming R. Kelly’s music. If Medill resumes students’ visits to China in the future, Dean Charles Whitaker owes an explanation to all Northwestern students, faculty and alumni.

China’s assault on human rights goes far beyond imprisoning journalists. The government detained more than one million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslims in the northwestern province of Xinjiang last year. The People’s Republic of China helped Hong Kong authorities suppress pro-democracy protesters by providing digital surveillance technology.

After the coronavirus outbreak, Chinese authorities also silenced doctors and other medical personnel for raising red flags, playing down the danger. As a result, public health experts say China “lost one of its best chances to keep the virus from becoming an epidemic” and the virus has now killed more than 710 people and infected over 32,500.

Considering these factors, I feel that not only Medill, but all Northwestern schools must boycott China until the government allows all of its people to enjoy basic rights and freedoms. For far too long, America’s academic and business institutions conducted business with China while tolerating its abuse of human rights. Then-president Bill Clinton justified this attitude in 2000 by supporting a bill to grant China permanent normal trade relations. “We can work to pull China in the right direction or we can turn our backs which almost certainly would push it in the wrong direction,” he said.

During the past 20 years, China expanded its economy while pushing its human rights record in the wrong direction. Northwestern and other universities have been passive partners in this downward spiral. Unless Northwestern severs all ties with the country, I can only draw two conclusions: Beijing’s big bucks outweigh Evanston’s ethics and Northwestern’s moral compass points only to the bottom line. Northwestern students have formed movements urging the university to divest from fossil fuel and private prison companies. It’s time to add a new movement.

Richard Reif, MSJ 1964