UP CLOSE | Yale and China

UP CLOSE | Is the Yale-China relationship in jeopardy?

The University's future actions could situate it as either a bridge — or another divide — between the United States and China.
Published on April 25, 2022

When the United States Department of Justice ended its controversial 2018 China Initiative in late February, many on campus sighed with relief.

Yale, which has the oldest relationship with China of any American university, had managed to escape the high-profile cases plaguing peers at Harvard and M.I.T., where professors were suspended and arrested on accusations of spying for the Chinese government or failing to disclose ties to Chinese institutions. At the height of the DOJ’s campaign, new China-related counterintelligence cases were being launched every ten to twelve hours, often targeting researchers of Chinese descent, according to current FBI director Chris Wray. Faculty and administrators alike condemned the China Initiative, with University President Peter Salovey himself speaking to government officials about the importance of open scientific exchange. When the initiative ended, it seemed to some that scientists on campus could turn over a new leaf, thawing what many had described as a chilling, hostile environment for scientific research.

But just a few weeks later news broke that a Yale School of Medicine professor had been suspended by the University amid a DOJ investigation. Faculty quickly wrote a letter to administrators protesting the decision. Though that professor has since been cleared by the government and returned to his lab, the ordeal has thrown into question the University’s position amid rising tensions between the U.S. and China — how will the University react to geopolitical pressures, and will its relationship to China emerge intact?

“The history and connection between Yale and China is incredibly positive. So I was absolutely shocked,”  Weimin Zhong, professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, said regarding the recent professor suspension. “This is the history of Yale. What happened?”

Anasthasia Shilov

(Anasthasia Shilov)

The News spoke to 11 administrators, program directors and faculty members about Yale’s historical precedent of deep collaborations with China. All pointed to the continued strength of the University’s connections in China and expressed optimism about the relationship moving forward. But many warned that how Yale acts over the coming years could situate the University as either a bridge — or another divide — between the world’s largest superpowers. 


When Yung Wing graduated from Yale College in 1854, he was the first Chinese person to graduate from any American university — and he remained the lone Asian graduate from an Ivy League institution for at least two decades more.

When he returned to China, Wing founded the Chinese Educational Mission, which sent more than a hundred young Chinese men to high schools across New England in the 1870s, jointly funded by the Qing dynasty government and the United States. 

Yale would eventually receive more than 30 of those young men, by far the most of any college. Many of them returned to Chinese society after graduation; one became the ‘Father of China’s Railroad’, while another founded what became the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing. A substantial number became cabinet members, forming China’s first nationalist government in 1911. 

“I was determined that the rising generation of China should enjoy the same educational advantages that I had enjoyed; that through western education China might be regenerated, become enlightened and powerful,” Wing later wrote in his memoir.

That same mindset spurred a group of alumni, many of them born in China as the children of missionaries, to in 1901 form Yale-in-China, now known as the Yale-China Association, which propagated clinics and schools in various parts of China over the first half of the 20th century. Many of those institutions are still operating today: Yali High School in Changsha, named as a transliteration of “Yale”, as well as a medical school, nursing school and hospital at Central Southern University named Xiang-Ya (the “Ya” also standing for Yale). The Yale-China Association would also later come under fire from those who viewed its activities as imperialist.

For decades after World War II, Yale and other Western institutions were barred from mainland China, and many organizations began refocusing on work in Hong Kong or Taiwan. After the opening of China in 1979, however, connections once again began to strengthen. 

A steady stream of Yale graduates became diplomats and ambassadors to China, and, taking advantage of the newly opened relationship between the two countries, individual faculty members began collaborations with Chinese researchers, reaching several dozen over the course of the next two decades. In 1990, Yale University Press began a joint publishing venture with Beijing-based China International Publishing Group. 

By this point, Yale had built up the reputation of its Chinese Studies programs with professors like Jonathan Spence, who mentored several Chinese scholars. Chinese students became the largest international contingent on campus, concentrated particularly in the graduate and professional schools. 


In the summer of 2008, former University President Richard Levin went to the Beijing Olympics.

His appearance was not his first visit to the country; it came after years of building connections to China. Levin, who made the University’s internationalization a core piece of his vision, kicked off the tri-centennial in 2001 by leading a delegation to several highly-ranked Chinese universities: Tsinghua, Peking, and Fudan. The interest in China as the center of this effort came from both a desire to raise the University’s profile with potential Chinese students and from economic predictions that China would eventually rise to be the United States’ counterpart, Levin told the News.

Scores of undergraduates were traveling to China for language study under the Light Fellowship, which was established in 1996. Soon, the University embarked on a flurry of formal partnerships, including a new China-focused center at Yale Law School, a biotech program at Peking, and a genetic center at Fudan.

In 2006, the University opened Yale-in-Peking, a physical hub for research to launch further China-based collaborations. Many ties, Levin noted, were sparked by Chinese-educated faculty who had maintained contact with former classmates and faculty. Meanwhile, the University expanded its international student population, which grew after the University made financial aid available for international students in 1999.

As students came from China to study in New Haven, Levin’s administration launched several academic diplomacy programs that brought Chinese leaders to campus as well. For one week every other summer, Yale hosted the Yale-China University Leadership program, in which Chinese government and university officials gathered to hear from Yale leaders about the running of a western university. Throughout the week Chinese attendees would participate in seminars on how Yale manages finances, faculty or holistic admissions, for example. Some years, Levin took a delegation from Yale to universities in China to meet with their leaders. 

“After a few years, [Chinese universities] embarked on a whole set of reforms,” Levin said. “It naturally became more of a form of exchange and commentary on what they were up to, what innovations they were trying out and what was working.”

This model was later replicated for Yale’s relationships with other countries in Asia and Africa. But Levin noted that alumni of the Yale-China University Leadership program became particularly influential, returning to China and becoming presidents and provosts of prestigious programs across the country. Alumni of the program include the current president of Jiaotong University. Chinese officials, Levin said, were opening up the country’s education system and sought to emulate the research universities in the States. 

By 2010, when United States and China relations were at their strongest in recent years, nearly a quarter of the Yale College population was traveling to China at some point during their academic careers for research or language study, Levin said.

The era of positive relations also yielded major economic benefits for the University.  Hillhouse Capital, a private equity giant named for a street on the north side of campus that manages upwards of $50 billion through East and Southeast Asia, was started by Zhang Lei GRD ’02 SOM ’02, who was mentored by former chief investment officer David Swensen himself. Swensen seeded the fund with $20 million from the Yale endowment. Lei later donated $8,888,888 million — a lucky number in Chinese culture —  to the School of Management with the goal of strengthening Yale-China relations.

During this time, the Bush administration encouraged such collaborations, Levin said. For the three decades after the opening up, American and Chinese officials maintained amicable relations, and so too did their academic counterparts. Then-President of China Hu Jintao himself even concluded his first visit to the U.S. in 2006 with a speech at Yale; his alma mater, Tsinghua University, received a similar visit from President George W. Bush ’68.

The connections formed during this golden era — specifically, through the Yale-China University Leadership program — were how Levin received his invitation to the Beijing Olympics.

The highlight of the Olympics trip, Levin recalled, was the U.S.-China basketball game (the United States won, 101-70). He also observed the Games’ opening ceremony from just two rows behind President Hu. Levin was attending the Olympics as part of a small delegation of university presidents, and was the only Ivy League president included in the group.

This visit, and many others like it, cemented Yale’s position in the international arena, and was heralded as a testament to the University’s increasingly global outlook. Every year, the University was establishing and strengthening formal partnerships with Chinese universities and playing host to delegations of students and administrators traveling back and forth between the two countries. 

But Levin’s trip also came during a very different period of U.S.-China relations, when both governments not only permitted but encouraged cultural and scientific exchange. In the decade since, relations between the world’s two biggest superpowers have soured, and college campuses are often viewed not as bridges but as hosts to espionage and threats to national security. 

At Yale, the cracks have started to show.

This year, a prominent research program — the Chinese Scholarship Council-Yale World Scholars program— was forced to suspend its recruitment from China. Meanwhile, faculty have been conducting research in the face of fear and government scrutiny. 

“I had felt that mutual understanding and peaceful relationships, encouraged through academic connections, were perhaps going to be able to keep the two nations from becoming hostile,” Levin told the News. “How I wish that were true.”

Dan Murphy

(Dan Murphy)


Maintaining partnerships with China was made more difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of China, including urban metropoles like Shanghai, remains under harsh lockdowns. Short-term travel between the two countries has been virtually impossible.

“Before COVID I used to go to China every year, a couple of times some years,” said Pericles Lewis, Yale’s vice president for global strategy. “Zoom allows for certain kinds of exchange and collaboration, but the relationship is never as deep.”

But the University’s relations with China had weakened even before the pandemic. Distrust has steadily risen on both sides of the Pacific over the last decade, said applied physics professor Yu He, who was born in China.

Stephen Roach, a senior fellow of the Jackson Institute, emphasized “off the charts” anti-China sentiment among the American public, which is also fueling vitriol against Asian Americans.

“I don’t think the decline of friendliness among the public is spontaneous,” professor He said. “It has a lot to do with how officials are making choices and doing public education, how the media are choosing their narrative.”

Lightning rod issues such as the status of Hong Kong and the oppression of Uyghur Muslims have pushed both countries to trade cultural, political and economic jabs. The last decade, Lewis said, has seen greater strain over issues surrounding Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang. Faculty engagement with China has become riskier, Lewis said, in part due to those political concerns.

“We’re not accelerating, but maybe we’re not exactly slowing down,” Lewis said. “We’re just trying to maintain, recognizing that some relationships will come and go.”

Not all relationships have been severed, and many remain vibrant. Sten Vermund, dean of the Yale School of Public Health, who has worked extensively in China over the last two decades, noted that both the Yale School of Medicine and YSPH have continued vibrant collaborations with departments and programs at Changsha University and South Central University, for example. Several new partnerships with Chinese schools have been initiated in the last five years.

But those who do engage with China may face higher hurdles. Comparative literature professor Jing Tsu, who spent the last half-decade researching for a recent book, noted that conducting research in China has become more difficult for scholars from the West.

“China is becoming less and less accessible to the outside,” Tsu said. “In the last year, [we’ve been] talking about, ‘What are we going to do? How will we continue to study China when the archives and libraries and even our contacts are closing down?’”

The academic strain between the two countries has also been driven by the policies of the countries’ governments. 

The Trump administration’s DOJ China Initiative created immense hurdles for Chinese professors and those wishing to collaborate with Chinese sources for research. New Chinese policies regarding foreign entities, including non-governmental organizations, have also made it more difficult for Yalies to access China. Yale-China Association Vice President and Director of Education Programs Leslie Stone told the News that her office has been inundated with paperwork. She called the present moment the “most challenging time I’ve had in this work.”  

“The U.S. government, especially the funding agencies and the FBI, became a little skeptical of some of our engagements with China,” Lewis said. “And it’s not all one way; some Chinese universities started to get cold feet about the U.S.”

Lewis noted, however, that the previous relationships the University had forged with Chinese academic institutions has allowed Yale to more easily weather the “ups and downs.”

Though pressures have been building for some time, discussions about how U.S.-China relations are affecting academia have burst into the open this year. In December, nearly 200 professors signed onto an open letter condemning the China Initiative.

In late February, it was revealed that Haifan Lin, a prominent School of Medicine professor from China, had been suspended by the University amid a federal investigation into alleged issues with disclosure. Whether the investigation was directly linked to the China Initiative remains unclear, but the news sent shockwaves through Yale’s research community, particularly affecting those of Asian descent. To many, the suspension confirmed that Yale too was vulnerable to government pressures.

Entire programs have been upended. The China Scholarship Council-Yale World Scholars Program, which places top Chinese researchers in the YSM’s Biological and Biomedical Sciences program, has been forced to suspend admissions until further notice, program director Craig Roy told the News. Proclamation 10043, first issued by Trump, targeted initiatives like the CSC Program that drew funds partially from military-minded schools. The Biological and Biomedical Sciences program, however, does not conduct military-related research. 

The proclamation barred those involved with CSC from obtaining visas, making it impossible for the program to admit new students and jeopardizing the status of the program’s current participants. The current students were eventually granted visas after the program funded them directly with money from the University, but that funding source is not enough to sponsor new participants. 

The proclamation has continued to be enforced by the Biden administration, Roy added, noting that contacts in the State Department indicated no appetite to reverse the policy.

“We would love for this program to continue, but it’s so far out of our hands,” Roy told the News.

(Council on East Asian Studies)

Part of the confusion, Roy said, is that the government has never explicitly banned the CSC, but simply denied visas to its program participants with no explanation. 

Professor He also expressed dismay at the sustained anti-China sentiment, labeling it as “cheap and easy bipartisanship.”

Results of the China Initiative only came to light when professors were either suspended or sued, meaning that the scale at which academics were investigated might be larger than what is publicly known. Junior faculty in particular, several professors say, may be more vulnerable to such suspensions and less likely to receive institutional support.

He also pointed to the case of Franklin Tao, a chemistry professor at the University of Kansas who was found guilty of fraud. The Asian scholarly community at Yale has watched his case and many others with great alarm, He and Qin Yan, a professor of pathology, said. Such recent events simply draw out latent feelings of xenophobia, He noted. 

This environment of suspicion and suspension has left researchers scared of new collaborations with China, chilling scientific research, seven professors said. Professor He noted that he had even avoided giving a Zoom talk co-sponsored by a Chinese university. 

“As an Asian American, this is a delicate situation where I generally feel that the University is supportive, but [there is] this fear and stress that we have experienced in recent years,” Yan told the News in March. 

Others have been more skeptical, criticizing the University’s general silence regarding these issues, especially regarding the recent suspension of Haifan Lin.

“I feel that suspending a Yale faculty member without due process, and without the conclusion of that investigation, seems unfair,” Sterling Professor of Immunobiology and Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology Akiko Iwasaki said. “Should any future cases like this arise, we need to know where the University stands in protecting us.”


Though the geopolitical strains to science have touched many corners of academia, the impact at Yale has been especially significant. The University has a large percentage of faculty trained internationally, including many from China. Its ability to attract top-tier international scholars may be in jeopardy, Professor He said.

In China, the practice of leaving the country to join academic institutions in the U.S. used to be widespread. In his graduating class of 80 from his undergraduate alma mater in China, He noted, nearly half went on to the United States for graduate schooling, with many opting to stay in the U.S. and continue their careers. That fraction has dropped significantly, he said, in part because Chinese universities have developed dramatically in the intervening decade. But another factor, He noted, is that the modern perceptions of studying abroad have changed.

“Back then, the understanding was that if you want to do good science, if you really want to push to the frontier, you should go to the United States,” He said. “We were never concerned about national security or the nationalism and patriotism you might see in today’s generation of college students.”

Yale Daily News

(Yale Daily News)

More and more Chinese students studying in the U.S. now choose to return home at the conclusion of their studies. Even many of those who have opted to stay in the United States, He said, are now having second thoughts. 

“This textbook notion of the American Dream has a lot of footnotes,” He said. “I meet a lot of visiting scholars or postdocs who are extremely competent, and [who] we would love to retain here. But staying here has evolved from a natural choice to a not-so-obvious choice and then to a non-starter discussion.”

Also at great danger, He said, is the status of the University’s push to invest in the sciences and engineering fields, since much of the University’s graduate research in the sciences is conducted by international students. Around 7 percent of students across all Yale schools are from China, particularly concentrated in the graduate and professional schools such as YSM and YSPH.

“With a declining interest to pursue these basic sciences in this country among immigrant populations, I really worry for how long this country will remain competitive,” He said. “… I will cross my fingers and hope to see more discussions and attention paid to this community.”

He and others noted that, if it acts correctly, Yale has the opportunity to remain a scholarly bridge to China. Despite tensions, University leaders said that they hope their collaboration with China remains strong. 

“I’m a firm believer in what is sometimes called soft power, namely the use of sciences, medicine, public health, the arts, academic exchanges to better understand people in other cultures, and to foster favorable institutional ties, because governments can sometimes go awry and sometimes institutions can be very helpful,” Dean Vermund told the News.

“Even when there’s a difficult political climate, there’s a lot to be gained from collaboration like public health, climate, law, those kinds of issues,” Lewis added. 

During the first decade of the 21st century, Levin, spurred by an era of geopolitical tranquility, saw a vision of what Yale’s relationship with its Chinese counterparts could create. Although the last decade has partially fractured that vision, the roots Levin’s administration created have allowed Yale to keep sparks of it alive — perhaps enough to last until the geopolitical tensions ease.

“We’re keeping the flame alive,” Vermund said.

Correction, April 26: This article has been updated with Stone’s correct title and the current name of the Yale-China Association.



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