ProPublica: China cracks down on the free speech of Chinese students, even here on US campuses

ProPublica has published a revealing piece about China’s efforts to stifle dissent even here in the United States. The piece opens by describing a Chinese student at Purdue university in Indiana who, thinking he was free to speak his mind, posted a statement praising the pro-democracy students killed during the Tiananmen Square massacre on a “dissident website.” The reaction was swift and frightening:

His parents called from China, crying. Officers of the Ministry of State Security, the feared civilian spy agency, had warned them about his activism in the United States.

“They told us to make you stop or we are all in trouble,” his parents said.

Then other Chinese students at Purdue began hounding him, calling him a CIA agent and threatening to report him to the embassy and the MSS.

The student,  Zhihao Kong, had also accepted an invitation to speak at a Zoom memorial for the victims of the massacre but the pressure from China didn’t stop. His parents called again to say that MSS agents had come to the house. They warned him not to say anything else. So at the last minute he dropped out. He blamed the pressure on the CCP:

“I think that the Zoom rehearsals were known by the Chinese Communist Party,” he said. “I think some of the Chinese students in my school are CCP members. I can tell they are not simply students. They could be spies or informants.”

The story goes on to describes another incident involving Rayhan Asat, a lawyer whose brother had been imprisoned in the Xinjiang region of China. She was invited to talk about that experience as part of a group of experts assembled over Zoom by Brandeis University. When it was her turn to speak, she was harassed the entire time by pro-China plants in the audience:

As the panel got underway, Asat recalled, she had a bad feeling. There were about 70 viewers. Many of them masked their identities with icons, including photos of Xi. During a talk by a professor from Indiana University, someone played a recording of the Chinese national anthem; the moderator kicked out the disrupter.

Finally, it was Asat’s turn. Launching into her PowerPoint presentation, she was ambushed. Insults appeared onscreen over the photos of her brother in a multicolored, crayonlike scrawl: “Bullshit,” “Fake News,” “hypocritical,” “rumors.” She felt as if an invisible hand were trying to erase Ekpar. The Chinese anthem blared again, another attempt to rattle her…

The event, designed to highlight a horror unfolding in Xinjiang, ended up bringing attention to a harsh reality in the United States, Asat and other panelists said: widespread interference on U.S. campuses that is often directed or encouraged by the Chinese state.

Brandeis computer techs were never able to identify who was responsible for the harassment of Asat, but some Chinese students told her that the whole thing had been planned in advance on WeChat. Ultimately, because the school couldn’t prove what had happened, they issued a tepid response essentially saying some people had behaved rudely during the discussion when what had really happened was closer to shouting down a speaker aka the heckler’s veto.

ProPublica points out that schools often seem hesitant to confront or penalize such behavior because foreign students from China are a reliable source of money for many schools. There’s also a political angle to all of this, which is that complaints about free speech on campus are now considered the purview of the right as are complaints about Chinese infiltration of American campuses.

A rift between universities and the government over China worsened during President Donald Trump’s administration, whose policies were seen as hawkish and even racist by critics in academia. When then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech in December raising the specter of China meddling on U.S. college campuses — from stealing secrets to censoring students — some university officials dismissed it as overblown rhetoric.

“The reaction I was getting was: ‘This hostility with China, it’s Trump-driven. It will go away,’” said one U.S. intelligence official who talks with university leaders. “I said, ‘As long as Xi Jinping is in power, it will get worse.’”

Bottom line: No college administrator wants to sound like a conservative or to scare away lucrative Chinese students, so this behavior gets ignored. To some degree, colleges and universities have made the same bargain with China that the NBA has made. So long as the money keeps flowing in, there’s not much incentive to stand up to creeping communist fascism and plenty of incentive to stay quiet about it.

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