China upsets degree awards

September 19, 1997

Montreal. A LAW doctorate proffered to Chinese president Jiang Zemin has sparked a debate over who should get honorary degrees in Canada.

The University of Victoria senate voted last month to award the degree to Mr Jiang, who will be in British Columbia for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders' summit in November.

University president David Strong said the honour was given in order to help accelerate the pace of reform in China.

"We cannot correct the past but we can do something about the future," he said.

Mr Strong is aware of Mr Jiang's past. Mr Jiang imposed harsh sentences on two Tibetan sympathisers who compiled a list of political prisoners and on a journalist who leaked one of his speeches.

But to the many China followers that the university consulted, the man who was Deng Xioaping's hand-picked successor is a moderate in China and should be supported.

Mr Strong said that the honorary degree could help the reformer in confronting hard-liners. But Michael Conlon, president of the Victoria Graduate Students' Society, said the president overestimated what the degree could achieve and said the senate's interpretation of the honorary degree was "an insult".

"This guy doesn't measure up," he said. China was recently given the distinction of having more executions than all other countries combined.

Mr Conlon added that there were many other world politicians more deserving of recognition.

An announcement from Mr Jiang's office last week that he would not accept the honorary degree has not dampened the debate. One national student leader has called for the abolition of all honorary degrees.

Last year the University of Alberta was engulfed in protest following the offer of a degree to the province's budget-slashing maverick premier Ralph Klein. Mr Klein declined the degree.

Not long after, Matthew Hough, former student president, put forward a motion to exclude sitting politicians from nominations for an honorary degree.

"It's supposed to be a celebration not a debate," said Mr Hough, whose motion was eventually passed with an amendment which excluded only Canadian holders of office from receiving the degree.

Other universities have followed suit in saying that academia should be above the politics of the day.

An administrator from the Universite de Montreal, which also refuses to bestow a degree on a sitting politician, said that when honoring an individual, there should be a social consensus on that person's contribution rather than division.

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