Student group with links to Beijing banned from McMaster

A student union at Canada’s McMaster University has revoked permission for a Chinese student group to operate on campus over alleged links to the Beijing government. It was responding to reports earlier this year that the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) disrupted a talk on campus by an Uighur activist at an event organised by students.

It is a rare instance of a university student body acting against the CSSA, which operates on hundreds of university campuses around the world, often with the backing of Chinese embassies or consulates.

Amid rising campus tensions between some mainland Chinese students and supporters of Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang, which are sensitive topics for Beijing, disruptions have been reported at universities in the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, Ireland, France and the Netherlands involving mainland Chinese students, though not all of them have been ascribed to campus CSSAs.

Originally set up as social clubs for mainland Chinese students, both academics and non-Chinese students say some CSSA groups are becoming more political, and are increasingly willing to aggressively promote the Communist Party line on overseas campuses and they fear such activities with the support or direction of Chinese officials could corrode free speech on campuses.

In an unusual move, the Student Representative Assembly (SRA) of Canada’s McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ontario, on 22 September voted to ‘de-ratify’ the CSSA as a club allowed to operate on campus. The revocation came into immediate effect.

“All students wishing to form a club agree to a specific set of rules regarding the conduct as a club,” Joshua Marando, the university’s student union president said in a statement last week. “It was the determination of the SRA that CSSA had violated those rules.”

The delisting of the campus CSSA came seven months after an event in February organised by two Muslim student groups on campus entitled “The genocide of Uighur Muslims”, which featured the Uighur activist Rukiye Turdush as a speaker.

“When this event occurred, it was disrupted by students whose identity we do not know and it was also filmed by those students,” SRA member Simranjeet Singh told the SRA meeting last month.

Students associated with the McMaster CSSA said they filed an official complaint about the event to the Chinese consulate, after filming Turdush.

Explanation sought from CSSA

When the disruption caused media headlines in Canada and the United States, the McMaster students’ union asked for an explanation from the CSSA. Singh told the union meeting last month that the CSSA had “referred information gathered on campus to the Chinese government, while at the same time denying that they had any connection with the government”.

“Providing information to the consulate is an act of intelligence gathering as well as a threat, insofar as the intelligence provided to a dictatorship engaged in crimes against humanity,” Singh said, referring to more than one million Uighur Muslims currently held in detention camps within Xinjiang.

The Chinese government on numerous occasions has said the camps are “vocational education centres”.

“If anyone present happened to have Uighur relatives still in China, then mere presence at the talk would be more than sufficient to send their entire family off to a concentration camp system, perhaps never to be heard from again,” Singh said.

“If we allow this organisation to exist on campus, it undermines the safety of students on campus,” he said.

“While we have no ability to change what’s happening in China or prevent the hideous crimes there, we do have the ability to try to protect the people who are at McMaster.”

In February the Chinese embassy in Ottawa, in a statement, denied any involvement in the CSSA protests but lauded the “just, patriotic actions of Chinese students”.

But anonymous Chinese students who wrote to McMaster student union said they were terrified by the presence of an organisation that reports campus activities to the Chinese government, and stressed that the student group should have taken action much earlier.

Links to consulates

The CSSA at McMaster describes itself as a “support network” for newly arrived Chinese students, assisting them in adapting to the cultural environment and organising social events. But union representatives say their documented links with the Chinese consulate in Toronto raises questions of Chinese government influence on universities abroad.

The online profiles of several CSSAs in Canada, the US and elsewhere, such as the University of Toronto CSSA, indicate they were set up “under the leadership” of the Chinese consulate.

In another incident, Chinese officials tried to pressure a human rights institute at Canada’s Concordia University – the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies – to cancel an event in March that featured an exiled Uighur Muslim.

In February, Chemi Lhamo, a University of Toronto Scarborough student of Tibetan ethnicity, was harassed after being elected president of the student union because she had spoken out against the Chinese regime’s abuses in Tibet. Some Chinese students organised a petition calling on her to step down, amassing some 10,000 signatures.

More visible and more active

Not all mainland Chinese students are involved in such activities and hold a range of views. Academics suggested tensions involving mainland Chinese students “are blown out of proportion” when face-offs also occur between other rival nationalities on campus, with discourse – even if it gets heated – being a normal part of campus life.

“The Chinese students [at McMaster] might have breached some regulations and have left the other students on campus with the suspicion they are [involved in] political interference. On the other hand, in North America – in the US but also in Canada – there is a kind of Sinophobia, so it is a type of political correctness to talk of China as a threat to Western liberal values,” said Qiang Zha, associate professor of education at York University, Toronto.

Qiang noted Chinese student bodies were becoming more visible, in part because of the large number of Chinese students in Canada – around 140,000 are enrolled in Canadian universities. And there are around 360,000 students from China in the US.

Chinese students make up nearly two-thirds of the international student body at the University of Toronto, more than one-third at the University of British Columbia, and almost a quarter at McGill University in Montreal. “We are more and more aware of their political voice,” said Qiang.

Gerry Groot, lecturer in Chinese studies at the University of Adelaide in Australia and an expert on China’s United Front Work Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, which handles Beijing’s influence and propaganda activities overseas, said: “CSSAs have become a bit more emboldened because of the policy changes in China itself, but they were always there and they were never totally benign.

“The political situation around the world has meant that they’ve got more reasons to be active,” he says, referring to the anti-China protests in Hong Kong, as well as the plight of the Uighurs. “Many of the China student groups including CSSAs can be seen as responding, often spontaneously, to what they see as threats to China’s national dignity.”

But CSSAs can also reflect ideological developments within China. Under President Xi Jinping nationalist rhetoric has substantially ratcheted up, with an accompanying campaign against Western influence in textbooks and on Chinese university campuses. In 2016 Xi called on students studying abroad to serve their country.

Groot also notes that in 2015 the Communist Party held a national summit on the United Front Work Department, which is specifically aimed at promoting China’s image and points of view in foreign countries, which “caused quite a stir, as it was addressed by Xi himself”.

At the conference “student groups were made an explicit target of the United Front Work Department. Before that they were just a ministry of education responsibility.”

Chinese embassies and consulates have “adjusted to suit and that’s one of the reasons we are seeing more organisation of these kinds of things abroad”, Groot says.

Government links

CSSA links with the Chinese government have been reported on elsewhere. According to a report last year on Chinese influence and American interests by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, CSSAs operate on some 150 US campuses and “maintain regular contact with China’s diplomatic missions in the US”.

“Even when these contacts are purely for cultural purposes, the CSSA provides a ready channel or entry point for the political departments of China’s embassy and consulates in the US to gather information and coordinate action, which in some cases includes pressuring the behaviour of Chinese students,” the report noted.

While China is not the only country that seeks to influence universities, what makes it different is its scale and its geopolitical ambitions, a recent report titled A Preliminary Study of PRC Political Influence and Interference Activities in American Higher Education and published by the Wilson Center, a non-partisan think tank in Washington DC, said.

“Such pressure may limit critical discourse about China on campus, harming the learning environment for other students from the PRC [People’s Republic of China], the United States and third countries,” it said.

If such activities become widespread, “faculty, students, administrators and staff in the United States may find themselves acclimatising to the PRC’s domestic censorship standards”, the report said, referring to widespread curbs on academic freedom within China.

But also, the Chinese government has been known to retaliate if it sees its interests threatened by overseas universities.

In 2017 the University of California San Diego (UCSD) faced protests from Chinese students after inviting the Dalai Lama to speak on campus, with academics voicing suspicions that the CSSA at UCSD was acting on guidance from the local Chinese consulate.

When the event finally took place as planned, the Chinese government retaliated by banning students and scholars with funding from the Chinese government’s China Scholarship Council from attending UCSD.

Calls for government action

As the number of campus incidents increase, there have been more calls for governments to take action.

McMaster University’s two Muslim organisations that hosted the February event, supported by another campus group called Students for a Free Tibet, later wrote a letter to Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale asking the government to investigate Beijing’s role in directing students to silence human rights activists on campus.

Similar calls have been heard in Australia, though Groot noted “there hasn’t been very much evidence yet that universities in Australia are very keen to take any initiatives which they feel may jeopardise relations with Chinese students”.

While banning CSSAs could be a step too far, and is likely to provoke criticism that it infringes on freedom of speech, in the US some have called for CSSAs to be more closely monitored and to be brought under the Foreign Agents Registration Act or FARA, which covers organisations and individuals linked to foreign influence and lobbying activities.

FARA includes exemptions for “religious scholastic or scientific pursuits”. “Where it crosses the line for FARA is when they start engaging in what FARA calls ‘political activities’,” said Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy, a bipartisan think tank in Washington DC.

Political activities can be lobbying activities and it includes anything that would impact public opinion in the United States, he explained.

“Where you have a student group that is trying to change public perception of the Uighurs, which is a key foreign policy of the US, that, right there, is a slam dunk political activity under FARA that would not allow them to claim exemption.”

It would not stop their activities, but it would require them to declare they are acting on behalf of a foreign principal. “So at one of these campus events, if they handed out pamphlets about Uighurs, for example, they would have to label those with what FARA calls a ‘conspicuous statement’, that this is being distributed on behalf of the Chinese government.”