TAIPEI, Taiwan – Harvard University will move a popular Chinese-language program from Beijing to Taipei amid a wide-spread 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 was prompted by a perceived lack of friendliness on the part of its host Chinese institution, Beijing Language and Culture University. Harry J. Pierre, a Harvard spokesman, said: “The planned relocation of this program from Beijing to Taiwan has been under consideration for some time and reflects a wide range of operational factors.”
“The program’s new location provides another opportunity for our instructors and students to broaden their educational experiences,” said Mr. Pierre, associate director of communications for Harvard’s continuing education division, said in an emailed statement.
Harvard, like many American universities, has a number of programs in China, including courses for executives 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 only to immerse themselves in advanced language studies, but also to travel around China and learn about its history and culture.
But Professor Liu said the program had encountered difficulties accessing the classrooms and dormitories needed by 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 it could no longer hold an annual gathering to celebrate the Fourth of July, where students and teachers typically ate pizza and sang the US national anthem.
Although China has put in place severe pandemic restrictions, with provinces quickly shutting down as coronavirus cases have increased, Professor Liu said she believed the unwelcome environment was linked to a shift in the Chinese government’s attitude toward US institutions.
When approached for comment, Ms. Liu a reporter to Mr. Pierre, the spokesman for Harvard. An employee of Beijing Language and Culture University declined to comment by phone on Tuesday.
Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, spoke about Harvard’s move during a routine news briefing on Wednesday. “China has always welcomed foreign students,” he said. “We oppose any attempt to politicize people-to-people exchanges.”
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 declined in recent decades as mainland China opened up. Mandarin Chinese is the main official language in Taiwan, but it uses the traditional written script, while the mainland uses simplified Chinese characters.
The Harvard program began in 2005 and initially cost $4,500. According to the Beijing Language and Culture University website, more than 1,000 students had participated in 2015. The program was canceled in 2020 and this year due to the pandemic. It is now slated to begin next summer under the name of Harvard Taipei Academy at National Taiwan University in Taipei. The new host institution said that in addition to offering language courses for eight weeks, the program would give the roughly 60 students the chance to visit attractions in Taiwan and participate in cultural activities such as 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 Harvard’s outstanding students,” the university said in a statement.
The move comes as ties between the United States and China have reached their lowest point in decades. Increasingly, tensions have also spilled over into human-to-human exchanges.
In 2020, the Trump administration suspended the government’s Fulbright program in mainland China and Hong Kong. The suspension came months after the Peace Corps abruptly announced it would end its China program. The withdrawal of the programs sparked criticism from some who claimed it cut off two key pipelines for Americans to better understand what was happening on the ground in China.
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 better understand Taiwan and the Chinese-speaking world.”
She added: “Only in a free environment where speech is not censored can the best learning outcomes be achieved.”
William C. Kirby, professor of China Studies at Harvard and president of the Harvard Center Shanghai, emphasized that the decision to move was made “mainly for logistical reasons.” He added that the university continued to explore ways to maintain and deepen its other ties to China, despite the challenges of the country’s ongoing geopolitical tensions and strict virus-related border restrictions.
“Once before, in the early 1950s, lively ties between the United States and Chinese universities were severed, much to our mutual loss,” Professor Kirby said. “We can’t let that happen again.”
Paul Mozuro and Amy Chang Chien reporting contributed. Liu Yi research contributed.