Chinese students, China studies professors in US under classroom intimidation from Beijing

(Illusstration courtesy: Eleftheria Alexandri/ Foreign Policy)

(, Jan15’20) – Chinese students and China-studies professors in the US have expressed fears over the fact that the Communist Party of China (CPC) had reached into their classrooms and was effectively censoring their academic and other activities, reported Jan 14.

The report said interviews at a half-dozen US universities revealed that students from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) had to self-censor in class on topics deemed sensitive by the CPC, including the ongoing massive protests in Hong Kong, the large-scale repression in Xinjiang, and the status of Taiwan and Tibet.

“I wouldn’t feel safe to speak publicly or under recording,” the report quoted a PRC graduate student at Georgetown University in Washington as saying.

The report cited Chinese students as saying they were concerned about being watched by fellow Chinese students.

One student was cited a saying he feared it would negatively impact his family back in China, his future, and his visa.

“For me, I will go back to China and get a job,” the student has said. “Maybe, I will work for a government corporation. So, if I say something sensitive about Hong Kong, I worry that the Chinese government will know something about my opinion and that will influence my work or my future in China.”

Another student has said his political-science undergraduate research was hindered by his discomfort speaking on certain class topics: mass protests in Hong Kong, the independent status of Tibet and Taiwan and recognition of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader.

The report noted that the Wilson Center, a bipartisan think tank in Washington, had reported in 2017 that a small community of PRC students and diplomats had engaged in intimidation tactics ranging from intelligence gathering to financial retaliation.

“A Preliminary Study of PRC Political Influence and Interference Activities in American Higher Education” issued by it examined PRC influence in American universities.

Western college professors have said they, too, felt that Chinese intelligence gathering was going on in their classrooms.

“There have been a couple times where I have had these older gentlemen from the PRC show up in my classroom unannounced and claim they were visiting and who wanted to sit in on my class,”  Crystal Chang-Cohen, who teaches political science at University of California-Berkeley, was quoted as saying. “But they could not produce any ID so I said no.”

A professor who research Chinese politics and history has said Chinese who attended his class who appeared older than a typical student were asked to leave if they declined to produce student identification.

A University of Maryland history professor has said he, too, occasionally saw classroom visitors he did not recognize and suspected they were gathering intelligence.

“I think it is a concern that we have organizations on campus that have significant ties to the Chinese government, and are used to monitor the behavior of my PRC students,” a government and politics professor at the University of Maryland has said. Classroom discussions “are typically dealing with PRC sensitive issues, for example, history or political science,” the professor has said.

All the interviewees have asked to remain anonymous.

In 2013, China retaliated against the University of Maryland after it hosted the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, despite warnings from Chinese diplomats. In 2018, Vice President Mike Pence described China’s funding for the Maryland program as “suddenly turned from a flood to a trickle”, the report noted.

He has said at an address at the Hudson Institute in Washington that Chinese Students and Scholars Associations “alert Chinese consulates and embassies when Chinese students, and American schools, stray from the Communist Party line.”


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