A Chinese Perspective

A group of students from Mainland China defend the administration’s current policy on flag raising.

Two questions are implicated in the current controversy surrounding the display of national flags in HBS classrooms: (1) should the HBS administration regulate flag displays in classrooms, and (2) if so, what should be the appropriate policy on the display of national flags, particularly with respect to the so-called ROC flag.

To answer the first question, we must ask ourselves why national flags are displayed in HBS classrooms in the first place. For many years, the school administration has allowed and encouraged RC students to display national flags in their section classrooms in order to showcase and celebrate the diversity of the school’s student body. Over time, the display of national flags has become a hallmark of HBS classrooms and an integral part of the HBS experience. However, the significance of the flag displays does not change the undisputed fact that HBS classrooms remain to be the property of Harvard University and the administration has the legal right to regulate what can be displayed in these classrooms.

Experiences in the past have repeatedly demonstrated that regulating what can be displayed in HBS classrooms is in fact essential for safeguarding the sacred “HBS experience.” Students with a wide range of political opinions and national identities sought to use the flag displays for purposes completely unrelated to the original intent of this noble tradition. Regulation has become absolutely necessary because the school administration cannot allow individuals to create a politically hostile environment for other students sharing the same classrooms. Moreover, MBA students must be cognizant of the fact that HBS classrooms are also used by many attendees of executive education programs, case protagonists, guest speakers and potential employers. As HBS expands its influence internationally, a large number of these aforementioned visitors today are foreign nationals, many of whom are even government officials. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to the integrity of the school’s reputation for us to ensure that classrooms on this campus are places where international norms are respected and followed.

Having concluded that the school must regulate the display of national flags inside classrooms, we then ask ourselves what policy should be the appropriate policy, particularly with respect to the so-called ROC flag, which a number of students from Taiwan have insisted on displaying in their section classrooms.

As stated above, the appropriate policy is a policy that should conform to international standards and is not politically hostile towards other students. The first possible standard that comes to my mind is the United Nations standard. But in practice, this standard presents many problems. For example, the region of Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations. In fact, 171 countries in the world, including the United States, do not recognize either Taiwan or the Republic of China as independent, sovereign countries. However, we, students from Mainland China, do recognize the reality that the region of Taiwan is in fact governed by a political entity separate from that of the People’s Republic of China. As a result, we understand well why students from Taiwan want to have their presence represented by a flag different from the national flag of the People’s Republic of China.

This thorny problem can be easily resolved by using another internationally recognized alternative, the International Olympic Committee (“IOC”) standard. In fact, we believe that this is the best standard to adopt as we find many parallels between the problem we are faced with here in HBS and those faced by the IOC.

Just as the Olympics are an event wherein athletes from around the world compete regardless of political differences, classrooms in HBS are places where students and visitors from around the world gather and learn from each other despite political differences. Under the IOC standard, the region of Taiwan is represented by the “Chinese Taipei” flag. Such a practice has been accepted by the governments on both sides of the Taiwan Straight and has been adopted in all the Olympics in recent memory. The administration of HBS has wisely adopted this same standard to keep HBS classrooms in line with international norms and free of political hostility. In fact, just as athletes from Taiwan have fiercely and proudly competed in the Olympics for the honor of their homeland under the “Chinese Taipei” flag, students from Taiwan have also thrived in HBS classrooms with their identity respectfully acknowledged by the same flag

Nevertheless, we understand that the IOC standard is not the preferred standard for a number of students from Taiwan. While we respect their feelings on this issue, we must point out that such a view is an individual political opinion that should not trump a school policy that is promulgated with a much wider audience in mind.

For many years, politicians on both sides of the Taiwan Straight have been working toward a satisfactory solution to cross-straight relations. Despite their efforts, many differences remain today. But the overwhelming majority of the people on both sides of the straight have decided not to let political differences cripple their daily lives and embraced each other warmly in their pursuits of excellence in sports, culture, economic development and, most relevant here in HBS, academic studies. If individual students from Taiwan are dissatisfied with the status quo and the political compromise accepted by their government, we, students from Mainland China, welcome them to freely express their opinions in ways that do not violate international standards and do not create hostility. For example, we welcome them to hold presentations on campus to express their views. We encourage them to honestly and candidly tell their government how they feel on these issues. But we cannot agree with the view that a minority political opinion held by a few students should force upon the entire student body a new policy that is in contravention of existing international standards.

Most importantly, reversing the existing school policy will be against the interest of the HBS community. Students from Mainland China will find each and every classroom adorned with a flag that challenges their home country’s legitimacy and breeds hostility toward their presence when the same flag is nowhere to be found in any respectable international organization. Executives and case protagonists from Mainland China, many of whom are government officials, will be outraged by the sight of ROC flags in HBS classrooms and will depart with negative views formed against the school and its students. The classrooms in HBS will cease to be a comforting place that draws students and visitors from around the world. Instead, it will mutate into a politically charged environment where differences that should be resolved by politicians are viciously fought over by students and visitors day in and day out.

If you believe, as we do, that this is not the kind of place that HBS deserves to be, please help us support the existing school policy on flag displays in classrooms.

January 20, 2009
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