Why is China suppressing speech at schools in other countries?

U.S. universities and colleges accept students from all over the world. Everyone benefits, as students interact with peers with different perspectives and experiences.

Line of marchers with "Stop the war now!" sign (© AP Images)
New Orleans college students took part in a peaceful demonstration in 1969 to show their feelings about the war in Vietnam. (© AP Images)

That’s how it’s supposed to work. And that’s why China’s efforts to suppress free speech not just within its own borders but in other nations’ universities are troubling.

Universities rely on free speech. Quality research and scholastic excellence depend on the free flow of information and open exchange of views. Faculty and students alike speak their minds plainly, even when their views are critical of political leaders.

When the Chinese Communist Party first allowed Chinese students to attend western universities, it reportedly created the Chinese Students and Scholars Association to monitor those students’ activities. There are 150 Association chapters on U.S. campuses and dozens more at schools in other countries. Membership is limited to Chinese nationals. Chinese consulates often provide funding and guidance to these chapters.

No one objects to groups that help students adjust to life abroad. But U.S. think tanks and scores of independent reports document incidents suggesting the association’s real purpose is to suppress views that China’s government doesn’t like.

    • Members are reportedly pressured to report campus discussions “that offend official … political sensitivities” (Hoover Institution report).
    • Chinese consulates direct students on strategies to disrupt offending speeches and events (Hoover).
    • In January, the Chinese consulate in Toronto, Canada, coordinated with an Association chapter to intimidate a Uighur activist invited to speak at a local university on human rights violations in Xinjiang.
    • Students have been paid by the Chinese Embassy to stage welcome rallies when Chinese officials visit the U.S. (Foreign Policy report).
Demonstrators holding signs and Chinese and American flags (© Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Images)
Chinese Students and Scholars Association members from Virginia Tech University wait to see then-Vice President Xi Jinping in Washington in 2012. (© Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Images)

Not all chapters comply with consulate demands, and not all Chinese students approve when chapters do. An organization called the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars released a letter condemning the Chinese consulate and students in Canada for attempting to censor free speech on a university campus.

A Taiwanese researcher working in the United States says she signed the letter in solidarity with Uighurs and Tibetans whose voices are suppressed by the Party’s attempt to silence campus free speech. She has heard of Chinese students demanding Taiwanese students stop talking about their identity because “it hurts their Chinese feelings.”

The Wilson Center confirms similar incidents where Chinese students asked faculty to adjust lectures or teaching materials. The students cite “hurt feelings,” but their objections were understood to be political.

The Taiwanese researcher dismisses the objections: “I regard it as bullying and nonsense.”


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