There is growing concern that overseas Chinese students are being used by Beijing to promote its position on university campuses in the West.
Although Chinese authorities deny such allegations, the trend seems to be growing, as indicated by a Chinese student’s campaign against a Tibetan student who was last month elected president of the students’ union at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus in Canada.
In the same month, Chinese students at McMaster University tried to interrupt a Uighur woman’s talk, filmed her presentation and reported it to the Chinese consulate in Toronto.
There is enough smoke to suggest that these students acted in coordination with Chinese authorities in Canada through the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA).
There have also been instances in which overseas Chinese students have mobilized against people denounced by Beijing, including the Dalai Lama, or organized patriotic rallies during the visit of Chinese leaders to countries where they could face protests from Tibetans, Uighurs or Falun Gong members.
Chinese embassies encourage Chinese students to pursue its foreign policy agendas, often with monetary incentives.
The main organ responsible for recruiting people to further Beijing’s political interests is the United Front Work Department (UFWD), which became more powerful under Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平).
In an official document in 2015, the UFWD identified 12 different social groups that could be recruited for its missions. Overseas Chinese students are included on the list. Most Chinese embassies have dedicated UFWD officials who deal with the overseas Chinese community and students.
In a report on China’s rising influence at US campuses, the role of Chinese authorities in the political activities of Chinese students has been established.
While I was studying in London in 2017, China sent a delegation to speak about development in Tibet. The day before their talks at Westminster University, my Chinese friend received a message from a Chinese embassy official.
The message told him that some Tibetans were going to attend the talk and instructed him to defend China’s position.
He not only refused to comply, but also asked the official to respect his integrity.
There are several reasons for Beijing to galvanize students to push its political agenda on foreign university campuses.
Although China’s physical control over regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang is robust, its official narratives about the liberation and development of these areas is never readily accepted by international groups.
Beijing wants to change that by bringing its narrative to the corridors of world’s premier universities. For that it needs to use Chinese students, because its officials cannot interfere directly in what happens in the classrooms of foreign universities.
This strategy seems to come from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (孫子兵法), which says “kill with a borrowed knife.”
It means to defeat an opponent by using a third party and without being directly involved.
The deployment of students for political purposes as seemingly non-official, non-state actors is strategically effective and politically safe, as Beijing can easily deny it.
However, as Chinese influence at international universities grows in scale and intensity, skepticism and scrutiny regarding the activities of the Confucius Institutes and CSSA also increases.
While a rising China is impatient about selling its stories and consolidating its narratives, a certain degree of civility would likely score better than nationalistic offensives.
The idea of seemingly spontaneous patriotic outbursts from Chinese students in the face of criticism against their government is slowly but steadily giving way to a more alarming view of Chinese interference in educational centers.
If this view gains ground, it would undermine China’s soft power and risk the likelihood that people of Chinese origin will be stereotyped as potential threats or thieves.
Although it is easy for Chinese authorities to rebut such views as racial prejudice or an anti-China mentality, playing the victim will not solve the problem.
While it is imperative to prevent the unhealthy influence of an authoritarian China to protect academic freedom and free speech, caution is also needed so that not all Chinese students are swept under the same carpet.
Like my friend, there are also Chinese students who might refuse to do Beijing’s bidding, even if it means incurring some personal costs.
Common sense indicates that China should recalibrate some of its propaganda strategies. However, Beijing’s behavior is unlikely to change, as it seems more interested in countering the rise and existence of other narratives, and cementing its own position.
The increase in censorship and self-censorship from Hollywood to Cambridge encourages China to act more aggressively.
Therefore, it is time that infringements on free speech and academic freedom at university campuses are stopped. The increasing pushback against Confucius Institutes in some democratic countries could be a step in the right direction.
Palden Sonam is a China Research Programme researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in Delhi, India.
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