Even on US Campuses, China Cracks Down on Students Who Speak Out
Sebastian Rotella (ProPublica) 01 December 2021
This story was originally published by ProPublica.
 
Students and scholars from China who criticize the regime in Beijing can face quick retaliation from fellow students and Chinese officials who harass their families back home. U.S. universities rarely intervene.
 
On the bucolic campus of Purdue University in Indiana, deep in America’s heartland and 7,000 miles from his home in China, Zhihao Kong thought he could finally express himself.
 
In a rush of adrenaline last year, the graduate student posted an open letter on a dissident website praising the heroism of the students killed in the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
 
The blowback, he said, was fast 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.
 
Kong, who goes by the nickname Moody, had already accepted an invitation from an international group of dissidents to speak at a coming online commemoration of the Tiananmen massacre anniversary. Uncertain if he should go through with it, he joined in rehearsals for the event on Zoom.
 
Within days, MSS officers were at his family’s door again. His parents implored him: No public speaking. No rallies.
 
Moody realized it didn’t matter where he was. The Chinese government was still watching, and it was still in charge. Just before the anniversary event, he reluctantly decided not to give his speech.
 
“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.”
 
As the regime of Chinese President Xi Jinping reaches across borders to control its citizens wherever they are, its assaults on academic freedom have intensified, according to U.S. national security officials, academics, dissidents and other experts. Chinese intelligence officers are monitoring campuses across the United States with online surveillance and an array of informants motivated by money, ambition, fear or authentic patriotism. A comment in class about Taiwan or a speech at a rally about Tibet can result in retaliation against students and their relatives back home.
 
Students who don’t conform to the “views and ideology of the Chinese Communist Party,” said Mike Orlando, who leads the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center, “risk being targeted for harassment.” China’s efforts to “suppress free speech and debate on U.S. campuses are concerning,” he said.
 
At Brandeis University near Boston, Chinese students mobilized last year to sabotage an online panel about atrocities against Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region. Viewers interrupted a Harvard-educated lawyer as she tried to describe her brother’s plight in a concentration camp, scrawling “bullshit” and “fake news” over his face on the screen and blaring China’s national anthem. To the dismay of participants, the university’s leaders failed to condemn the incident.
 
At the University of Georgia, a graduate student became the prey of an intelligence officer in China who pressured him over the phone to become a spy and inform on fellow dissidents in America. When the student made the conversations public, Chinese security forces harassed his family back home.
 
“It is real: the fear of being constantly watched, of being at risk,” said Chuangchuang Chen, a law student at St. John’s University in New York, whose dissident chat group on the encrypted Telegram platform was hacked. “If there are more than three or four Chinese students in the same class, you are scared to talk. A Chinese student is definitely seen in good favor by the Chinese government for reporting someone.”
 
U.S. law enforcement agencies have struggled to respond because much of the censorship and harassment occurs in a legal gray area. Victims are often frightened or don’t believe anyone can help. And university administrators are not always eager to intercede because it means risking a lucrative financial stream. U.S. universities have received more than $1 billion in donations from mainland China — from individuals, companies, government organizations — since 2013, according to the Department of Education. That doesn’t include tuition paid by Chinese students, whose numbers in the U.S. reached 370,000 in 2019. Moreover, the complexities of free speech and identity politics make administrators even more reluctant to confront Chinese state influence. Continue Reading…
 
Courtesy: ProPublica.org
 
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