Mon, May 08, 2017 - Page 7 News List

Beijing’s hand felt on US college campuses

By Stephanie Saul  /  NY Times News Service, SAN DIEGO, California

Illustration: Yusha

In the competition for marquee commencement speakers, the University of California, San Diego thought it had scored a coup this year — a Nobel Peace Prize winner, best-selling author and spiritual North Star to millions of people.

“We are honored to host His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama,” university chancellor Pradeep Khosla gushed, “and thankful that he will share messages of global compassion.”

However, within hours of Khosla’s announcement, the university was blindsided by nasty remarks on Facebook and other social media sites.

“Imagine how Americans would feel if someone invited bin Laden,” one said.

At the center of the opposition was the UC San Diego chapter of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), which threatened “tough measures to resolutely resist the school’s unreasonable behavior.”

The Chinese government accuses the Dalai Lama of promoting Tibetan independence from China, and if the student group’s message sounded a bit like the Beijing party line, that may have been no coincidence: The group said it had consulted the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles on the matter.

China’s booming economy has increasingly allowed its young people to seek a college education in the West; 329,000 study in the US, more than five times the number recorded a decade ago. By far the largest contingent of foreign students, they can be an economic lifeline for colleges, since they usually pay full tuition, and they can provide a healthy dose of international diversity.

However, Chinese students often bring to campus something else from home: the watchful eyes and occasionally heavy hand of the Chinese government, manifested through its ties to many of the 150 chapters of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association.

The groups have worked in tandem with Beijing to promote a pro-Chinese agenda and tamp down anti-Chinese speech on Western campuses.

At Columbia University a decade ago, the club mobilized students to protest a presentation about human rights violations in China, urging them to “resolutely defend the honor and dignity of the Motherland.”

At Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, the group was accused of inciting a harassment campaign in 2008 against a Chinese student who tried to mediate between sides in a Tibet protest.

More recently in Durham, England, the group acted at the behest of the Chinese government to censor comments at a forum on China-Hong Kong relations.

In rare instances, members of the student group have been accused of spying.

The organization’s influence troubles some academics specializing in China and human rights activists, who say it wields outsize sway over US campuses because of the sizable tuition paid by Chinese students abroad, a group recently exhorted by China’s government to increase their patriotism and devotion to the Chinese Communist Party.

“I basically don’t think that any student organizations that are controlled by their government — which clearly the CSSA is — should have a presence on foreign university campuses,” said Jeffrey Henderson, a professor of international development at the University of Bristol in England.

A Hong Kong expert, Henderson was invited to speak at a 2014 workshop at Durham University in England organized by the Chinese Students and Scholars Association and two other groups to discuss the Umbrella movement — in which protesters had shut down streets in Hong Kong demonstrating against the Chinese government’s failure to hold democratic elections there.

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