Notre Dame’s China Trap


“[It is] ludicrous that Notre Dame should establish a college with China when the Vatican is essentially excluded from China”

NOTRE DAME, IN — We report here on Notre Dame’s desire to partner with a Chinese state-owned and controlled university in operating a liberal arts college in China despite China’s appalling and intensifying persecution of the Church and human rights activists and its hostility to academic freedom.

china-church-fireWe agree with a long-time Notre Dame professor who, though non-Catholic, called it “ludicrous that Notre Dame should establish a college with China when the Vatican is essentially excluded from China – ludicrous, self-destructive and in a way ridiculous.”

Read on and tell us what you think.

(Note: This bulletin is so fact-filled that we provide links in the text sparingly and list our sources in the refence list below.  For what’s going on at the university, we draw upon a university “white paper” describing the project, a transcript of a town hall faculty meeting and an address by Father Bill Miscamble, C.S.C. during the 2015 Sycamore Trust Alumni Weekend.)

The Proposal

The Chinese Government and Zhejiang University (ZJU) have invited Notre Dame to become a partner in a new liberal arts college on a campus in Haining. The Chinese would dominate, with 70% of the faculty and students as well as the deanship. Notre Dame would have the executive deanship, and the board would be equally divided.

Committees have been formed; Chinese and Notre Dame delegations have exchanged visits; most faculty at a town hall meeting objected; but in his 2015 address to the faculty, Father Jenkins seemed inclined to go ahead. A decision is expected shortly.


China’s and Notre Dame’s institutional interests are parallel. They both want to burnish their reputations.  But the costs are not remotely commensurable.

It’s fatuous to think that China wants to expose students to a genuine Notre Dame liberal arts education. What Notre Dame teaches about God and man, history and political science, is anathema in China. What China would get is bragging rights: The world’s leading Catholic university does not find China’s persecution of the Church and human rights advocates and its appalling abortion policy so offensive after all.

And bragging rights is what Notre Dame would get as well.  The white paper notes that Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, New York University, Duke, and the Universities of California and Michigan have various sorts of programs in China. This new venture would overtake them as a spotlight-grabbing residential liberal arts college involving an iconic Catholic university. It would, the white paper claims, “advance Notre Dame’s global academic reputation.”

But once again the casualty of the university’s vaulting ambition for secular acclaim would be the school’s Catholic identity; and this time the school’s integrity as a university would be at risk as well.

The town hall meeting at which many faculty voiced objections highlighted the problems. Faculty members deplored China’s religious persecution, deprivation of human rights, and denial of academic freedom, and they peppered administration representatives with questions about whether the liberal arts program would be worthy of Notre Dame. Would it be an untrammeled multi-disciplinary search for truth?  What about criticism of China? “Will we have Catholic theology accessible to all students?” “Can we have Mass in a chapel accessible to all students?”

University representatives promised answers, but so far none have been disclosed, nor have any further open and public meetings with faculty been scheduled.

Whatever the answers, and even if Chinese promises were trustworthy, there could be no muting of the scandal that would arise from Notre Dame’s partnering with a ruthless anti-Catholic regime whose population policies have made it an abortion charnel house.

The white paper simply ignored this towering obstacle. During the town hall meeting, only Dean John McGreevy addressed it. He thought “engagement” better than a “puritan” policy.

Student and faculty exchanges engage. The limited projects of Notre Dame and some other universities engage. This would not be an engagement. It would be a marriage to the persecutor of the Church and her members.

Now to a selection of representative facts undergirding the objections.

Religious Persecution – A Few iIlustrative Facts

  • The government is officially atheistic and the authentic Catholic Church has been driven underground.
  • Hundreds of bishops, priests, nuns, and laypersons have been imprisoned. Some, including a Cardinal in prison for 30 years, have died there. See the reference list to the comprehensive article by James M. Thunder (ND ’72).
  • An illustrative case: When a bishop of the official church jumped ship in 2012, the government placed him in detention and  “priests and nuns have been required to attend learning classes ever since [July 2015].”

And the situation is getting much worse. Referring to the “alarming increase in systematic, egregious, and ongoing abuses,” the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reported:

In 2014, the Chinese government took steps to consolidate further its authoritarian monopoly…. This has meant unprecedented violations against Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants, and Falun Gong practitioners.  People of faith continue to face arrests, time, denials of justice, lengthy prison sentences, and in some cases, the closing or bulldozing of places of worship.

Mr. Thunder asks whether Father Jenkins would approve this project if a prison with all these prisoners could be seen from the college. Is it “out of sight, out of conscience”?

The situation is especially alarming in the home province of the proposed college. It has recently seen the “roundup of church activists, the removal of “more than 1200 crosses”, and, as reported in the town hall meeting by a faculty China expert, the destruction of 68 churches last year.

Father Jenkins is said to have spoken to “church representatives” in China, but not, it seems, to representatives of the underground church. And Father Jenkins says he also spoke to  unidentified “key leaders” in the Vatican and “was encouraged to explore this venture as a means of building bridges between the Catholic Church and China.”

As to this, Father Miscamble has observed: “The old Cardinal Casaroli crowd are back and active in the Secretariat of State and pushing rapprochement with the Chinese regime.”  In any case, these “leaders” are not responsible for Notre Dame. They want to see if Notre Dame might be useful for their purposes. However worthy those might be, they cannot trump the obligation of the administration and board to maintain the school’s Catholic identity, its academic integrity, and its reputation as a foremost defender of human rights.

Suppression of Human Rights

Reports of the hounding of civil rights advocates have ballooned recently. A leading China scholar, Professor Jerome Cohen, says:

Xi…has been crushing nongovernmental organizations and their personnel and persecuting human rights activists and those few hundred lawyers willing to defend them…[and] Christian churches are being desecrated and minorities cruelly suppressed.

In a conversation with Bill Dempsey, Professor Cohen said that in his view this is “the worst possible time” for the venture Notre Dame is considering. In almost identical terms, a Notre Dame China expert declared at the Town Hall meeting, “[T]he timing probably couldn’t be worse.”

(Professor Cohen was instrumental in the dramatic escape and relocation to NYU of one of these human rights advocates, Chen Guangcheng, who spoke last year at Notre Dame on “Human Rights in Communist China.”)

Then, as Father Miscamble pointed out in the town hall meeting, there are China’s “terrible population policies” that result in “upwards of 7 million abortions a year, many of them forced on women.”  As Father declared, this is  “state-sponsored violence against women and children.”

Academic Freedom

Here, too, the situation has gone from bad to much worse. Here are some representative passages from the sources listed in our postscript:

  • “A deep chill has settled among many intellectuals and scholars. New restrictions on freedom of thought at Chinese colleges are taking hold. Scholars are experiencing an increasingly stifling academic environment especially in the law and humanities.”
  • “The Minister of Education told university officials that teaching materials ‘that spread Western values must not be allowed to enter our classrooms.'”
  • “The strictures are the latest of a succession of measures to eradicate ideas about rule of law, liberal democracy and civil society.”
  • “The expanding list of taboo topics in universities now includes last fall’s democracy movement in Hong Kong.”
  • “‘Never allow statements that attack and slander party leaders and malign socialism to be heard in classrooms,’ the Minister of Education said.”
  • “The party’s determination to cleanse schools of politically troublesome ideas seems unstoppable.”
  • “Xi’s crackdown on free speech and academic freedom is the worst since the crackdown on the Tiananmen Pro–democracy movement in 1989.”
  • “Large swaths of ‘Western’ intellectual inquiry are being characterized as ‘hostile’ pursuits.”
  • “Document No. 9 bans discussions on ‘Western constitutional democracy’ and universal values like human rights and the rule of law. Scholarly critiques of history that include party mistakes are also taboo.”

Assurances that Notre Dame would pull out if censorship came in are risible. Recall that 70% of the faculty would be Chinese. Directives would not issue to the minority Notre Dame faculty. Pressure would be soft. Sails would be trimmed. Discomfort would be tolerated. Notre Dame would not risk the consequences of an open breach with China.

Notre Dame risks losing its soul in the quicksand of ambition and “engagement.” We think it glaringly obvious that this proposal should never have been entertained and should be firmly rejected now. What do you think?

 List of References Cited

  1. University “White Paper”
  2. Minutes of Town Hall Meeting, 12/5/14
  3. Rev. Wilson Miscamble, C.S.C. excerpt from Sycamore Trust address 6/6/15
  4. International Commission on Religious Freedom 2015 Report
  5. Rev. John I. Jenkins address to faculty
  6. “Should Notre Dame University Go to Communist China?, James Thunder
  7. The Insecurity Underpinning Xi Jinping’s Aggression,” Jerome A.Cohen, Washington Post, 9/23/15
  8. Testimony of Jerome A. Cohen to House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommitee
  9. “China Warns Against ‘Western Values’ in Imported Textbooks,” New York Times, 1/30/15
  10. “China Arrests Christians Who Opposed Removals of Crosses,” The Guardian, 8/27/15
  11. “China Orders ‘Reeducation’ for Catholic Priests and Nuns,” Breitbart News,  7/9/15
  12. “Innocents Abroad? Liberal Educators in Illiberal Societies,” Special Presentation of Ethics & International Affairs, Jim Sleeper.
  13. Notre Dame – Banning China or Embracing China?
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