How Should Universities Respond to China’s Growing Presence on Their Campuses?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Over the last several months, opponents of the ongoing protests in Hong Kong have clashed with protest supporters at universities across the world. In Australia and New Zealand, pro-Beijing students have occasionally shoved, doxed, and threatened peaceful protesters. In some cases, these activities seem to have been directed by Chinese embassies and consulates, while others appear to have been spontaneous actions, undertaken by students from mainland China.

Meanwhile, in mid-October, the London School of Economics suspended a plan to launch a China program funded by Eric X. Li, a Shanghai businessman known for his pro-Chinese Communist Party views. In Belgium, the former head of a Confucius Institute was recently accused of spying and banned from entering Europe’s 26-country Schengen area.

Such events have prompted larger concerns that as China’s power grows, so too has its ability to shape, suppress, and censor speech around the world. This has raised alarm at the prospect that various forms of pressure emanating from China’s government could erode the foundations of liberal education and democratic debate.

How should universities encourage respectful dialogue on contentious issues involving China, while at the same time fostering an environment free of intimidation, harassment, and violence? And how should university administrators and governments involve themselves in this process? —Charles Edel


Australia has seen a number of violent clashes between mainland and Hong Kong citizens. This August, I reported on a rally in Sydney, where an estimated 1,500 mainlanders, mostly students, came out to support Beijing amid the Hong Kong controversies. They chanted “Long Live China” and sang the Chinese national anthem. They surrounded an elderly man holding a “democracy, human rights” banner and shouted “Traitor! Traitor!” A few even tried to physically assault him. A young woman muttered, “We’d beat him to death if the police weren’t here.”

This nationalist fervor evokes memories of the red guards during the Cultural Revolution. Similar demonstrations have been held in the United States, Canada, Britain, and France.

Universities and societies that host large numbers of mainland students have to face up to this challenge. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. Many of these students not only fail to recognize democratic values, but also actively seek to police and silence dissent on behalf of the Chinese authorities—even in free societies. This is a result of three factors: the patriotic education campaigns in China following the 1989 Tiananmen Square Crackdown, Internet censorship efforts, and ramped-up media propaganda about Hong Kong.

Labeling a group of people “brainwashed” or “indoctrinated” risks sounding offensive or discriminatory. Indeed, a few years ago, fresh out of China’s education system, I didn’t like to be called “brainwashed” despite being blindly supportive of repressive, essentially Han supremacist Chinese policies.

In China, we learned in school that Taiwan and Hong Kong are sacred, inseparable parts of China. We were guided to think that the Western powers that once invaded and humiliated China would never stop trying to sabotage our progress. We were trained to quickly and passionately defend the state when it comes to contentious, territorial disputes. It should come as no surprise that many mainland students would promptly believe that the CIA and Western media were to blame for the Hong Kong “riots.”

Many mainland students are unable to articulate their thoughts or make actual arguments on topics like Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Tibet—probably because they don’t possess their own thoughts on the issues—and end up resorting to yelling, swearing, or clinging to nationalist symbolism like the Chinese flag or national anthem.

Censorship and propaganda limit critical thinking. This doesn't mean the affected people become less intelligent, but that they collectively have blind spots. We’re beginning to see how these blind spots can undermine freedom of speech on and off campus.

It takes empathy, patience, and a lot of nuanced, balanced information to rid the mind of such blind spots. As universities in Western democracies take in large numbers of mainland Chinese students, faculties have a responsibility to help these students develop critical thinking skills, understand values such as freedom of speech, and assist them in actually enjoying their time in a free country.

I am only surprised that anyone is surprised that this is happening. Under Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party’s (C.C.P.’s) United Front Work Department has been considerably strengthened and given new functions.

What is happening on campuses and elsewhere is typical United Front mobilization. It should also be no surprise that Chinese embassies and diplomats should be involved. It is not typical diplomatic behavior, but it is in accordance with United Front activity.

The students participating in these actions may have different motivations. Some may be moved by genuine patriotism, while some may be intimidated into participating because they fear their families in China may be penalized if they don’t join. But their motivations, and the involvement of diplomats, are irrelevant.

The key consideration is whether the students’ actions accord with the laws of the land and university regulations. Western authorities are reluctant to violate their values of free expression, which allow peaceful protests. But these are clearly not all peaceful protests. I believe that the Hong Kong protests have gone too far and turned nihilistic—destruction for the sake of destruction. But violence and intimidation in Hong Kong does not justify the same elsewhere.

If students break laws and regulations, then decisive action has to be taken against them in accordance with these laws and regulations. Universities should not allow themselves to be intimidated into inaction. Redlines denoting unacceptable behavior must be drawn and enforced, without exception.

Nothing much can be done about the involvement of diplomats and embassies. They can be expected to deny involvement, and in any case enjoy diplomatic immunity.

If any diplomat can be proven to have egregiously breached norms of diplomatic behavior as defined in the Vienna Convention, one can insist on their recall. That is not always going to be easy to prove. But formally protesting their actions and showing that those protests have been made communicates to students and officials that their actions are not costless.

Expelling students from universities and cancelling the visas of those who have clearly broken laws or regulations or otherwise behaved unacceptably will have a salutary effect.

Tough on the students, of course, but their parents can be expected to complain to the Chinese authorities about their children’s futures being jeopardized, and the C.C.P. cannot entirely ignore this kind of public unhappiness if it is widespread enough.

The authorities must have the political will to act. If universities don’t enforce their own regulations and the police do not enforce the laws of the land, they have only themselves to blame.

Taking strict and consistent action against students may cause the C.C.P. to think twice about using students. The C.C.P. probably assumes that Western authorities are too tender-hearted, too squeamish, or too hamstrung by their own values to act decisively against students.

In the long run, establishing that this is a false assumption will help the students themselves: Sometimes one has to be cruel to be kind.

Democratic societies have always faced a dilemma. How can we protect the democratic rights and freedoms of people who may try to use those rights to suppress the rights of others?

Chinese students on campuses enjoy the freedoms of speech and assembly. If they demonstrate or speak out in defense of their country’s oppressive policies, that is their right.

But Western democracies are facing a version of this dilemma that is completely new, and utterly bewildering. What to do when the largest group of international students on campus come from a country that has instilled in them a sense of the rightness of authoritarianism and nationalism? And how to respond when that country’s government actively seeks to reward Chinese students abroad who try to suppress what they perceive as “anti-China” sentiment?

Universities and student governments have struggled to find an appropriate response. Last year, White House advisor Stephen Miller unsuccessfully pushed for the United States to cancel all Chinese student visas—a move that would have caused profound economic, diplomatic, and personal disruption. The student government at Monash University in Australia came under fire in September after it effectively banned international students from running for student office. The rule was passed after it became clear that Chinese international students would take control of the student body in the upcoming election. Chinese students at Monash called the regulation “racist” and “biased.” University executives intervened to cancel the election; the issue is still under discussion.

But a recent occurrence at McMaster University in Canada offers a potential path forward. In February, Muslim student groups invited the Uighur activist Rukiye Turdush to speak about the Chinese government’s campaign to detain and forcibly assimilate Uighurs, a largely Muslim ethnic minority in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang. Once word of her talk, called “The Genocide of Uyghur Muslims,” spread, some Chinese students became upset and reached out to the Chinese Consulate in Toronto for guidance. Consular officials told the students to find out if any of the organizers or attendees were Chinese nationals. A few Chinese students disrupted the event and took video and photos, which they then sent to the consulate.

Members of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), a campus organization that has chapters at hundreds of colleges around the world, were involved in these activities. The McMaster CSSA also issued a Chinese language statement after the event, denouncing Turdush, defending the students’ actions, and noting that the organization had contacted the consulate over the matter.

On September 22, the McMaster University Students Union voted to revoke the CSSA’s official status, citing its “surveillance” and “intimidation.” This was an appropriate response to specific conduct that clearly violated school guidelines and the safety of fellow students. It did not punish people based on their race or nationality, but for specific and egregious behavior. This sent a strong message to CSSAs that they must abide by the same guidelines as everyone else.

Between 2006 and 2014, I taught a class on China’s post-1949 history at a regional university in Queensland. It attracted mainland Chinese students studying business who thought it would be an easy elective. However, because the content contradicted the official historical narratives taught in China, for many of them it became difficult.

I had great empathy for those students. The Chinese education system had failed them because of the historical falsehoods it perpetuated. Essay topics requiring engagement with academic critiques of government policies and leaders accentuated their discomfort. Students coped in three ways. They either stopped attending class, angrily disrupted lectures, or experienced a paradigm shift in their thinking.

I no longer teach that subject and, given the current climate, that is a relief. The heightened tensions, including violence, threats, and intimidation, on Australian university campuses has been alarming. The protests in Hong Kong and the extrajudicial internment of more than one million Uighurs in Xinjiang have become issues on Australian campuses.

However, universities are sites for robust academic debate and protest. All groups should have the freedom of assembly to voice their stances. University codes of conduct, combined with state and federal laws, should prevent violence, or at least ensure perpetrators of violence are held responsible.

Exercising freedom of speech within a democracy is itself a lesson in democratic freedom. Peaceful student protest by mainland Chinese students is not in itself a problem. University administrators should support the right to peacefully protest on campus, to exercise and experience those democratic freedoms.

But the involvement of Chinese consular officials in such protests demands attention. Praising and even encouraging the actions of mainland Chinese students in violent clashes, like the incidents at the University of Queensland, is unacceptable, as is the monitoring of such protests by consular officials to ensure that mainland Chinese students tow the official line. Mainland Chinese students living in Australia should enjoy a reprieve from the authoritarian controls they experience in China.

Universities also shoulder blame. Academic freedoms cannot be sacrificed in order to gain access to the lucrative mainland Chinese student market. Cuts to funding are no excuse for the erosion of academic freedoms. Nor do they excuse universities’ acceptance of Chinese government interference and monitoring of student bodies, their denying speaking opportunities on campus to voices critical of the Chinese Communist Party, or the undue influence on content and research via bodies such as Confucius Institutes. University administrators need to reconnect with the undergirding principles of liberal education: free speech, peaceful assembly, and the open exchange of ideas.

Universities also need to carefully scrutinize mainland Chinese institutions with which they develop research collaborations. Facilitating dual-use technologies or projects that extend the surveillance and monitoring capabilities of the Chinese state are also not acceptable. And examples of existing collaborations highlight the ignorance or disregard many universities demonstrate of the threats such research poses to Australia’s national security interests.

Awareness of how the long arm of the Party-state affects academic life is slowly growing across Europe. In 2017, the University of Salamanca in Spain cancelled its “Taiwan Cultural Days” following pressure from Chinese authorities. Interviewees in a 2018 study by the Leiden Asia Centre “shared stories of Chinese students’ reluctance to speak and of monitoring by Chinese embassies, Associations of Chinese Scholars and Students, and by local cells of the Chinese Communist Party at universities in Europe.” A few months ago, the German government declared it “has knowledge about efforts by Chinese authorities to influence Chinese students and academics in Germany as well as German academics doing research on China.” Just last month, at the pressure of Chinese students, campus security at the University of York (U.K.) forced Hong Kong students to take down a display of a “Lennon Wall” symbolizing the protests. A recent report by the nonprofit Scholars at Risk Academic Freedom Monitoring Project has documented a number of similar cases across the continent.

Despite slowly increasing public awareness, Europe is behind Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. in terms of finding the right responses to protect against the Party-state’s efforts to undermine academic freedom and freedom of speech.

European academic institutions as well as their funders, be they public or private, can take inspiration from the Code of Conduct published by Human Rights Watch. It contains a number of very practical steps, from actively tracking instances of direct or indirect Chinese government harassment, surveillance, or threats on campuses (and sharing those in a database) to emphasizing protecting students and scholars from China against pressure from Party-state organs.

One element is absolutely critical for these steps to have a chance of succeeding: cutting financial ties to Party-state and Party-state-affiliated donors. Financial dependence has a particularly harmful effect on resisting efforts to curtail academic freedom and freedom of speech. The case of Free University of Brussels (VUB) illustrates this. A Chinese professor who formerly directed the school’s Confucius Institute was banned from receiving a visa to enter the Schengen Area for eight years, possibly because of concerns about interference and espionage. Meanwhile, VUB chose not to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre this June, although it has a monument to the massacre on campus. “You have to be pragmatic,” VUB’s Vice Rector Romain Meeusen said in justifying the decision. This illustrates the corrosive effect of taking Party-state money.

Unfortunately, many university administrators seem to prioritize profits over values and reputation. The London School of Economics recently considered accepting a multi-million gift from venture capitalist Eric Li, one of the Party-state’s poster-boy propagandists. As an LSE professor put it, that the school’s leadership “reached an advanced stage in negotiating a donation from an individual who prides himself on being an advocate of China’s authoritarian system shows that the school’s existing procedures for protecting our core values and reputation are inadequate.” In this, the LSE is far from alone.

Frances Hui, a student at Emerson College in Boston, joined on-campus demonstrations in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. As a result, Hui said, other students harassed her. A social media post linked to one of her own essays, for example, and suggested that those who “oppose” China should be “executed.” As a security measure, the college contacted the students involved. Hui asked the school to publish a statement rebuking those threats, but as of November 1 it had not.

As the Chinese government and the Communist Party—and, occasionally, nationalist students—threaten academic freedom around the world, universities are struggling to adequately respond. That schools with experience in grappling openly with other threats to campus speech won’t treat these issues as seriously is disturbing. It deprives some members of a university community of their free speech rights. In this environment, perfunctory appeals to respect freedom of expression are inadequate.

What should universities do? In March, Human Rights Watch published a code of conduct to help schools combat these kinds of pressures. Universities need to publicly and repeatedly teach, and be seen as teaching, what freedom of expression means on campuses. They should say clearly that disagreement is fine. But that it is unacceptable to threaten those with whom one disagrees, including by reporting their conduct to a foreign government representative who could bring harm to the families of the students or faculty involved.

Universities also need to publicly reject threats leveled by foreign governments, and establish ways for students to report any and all encroachments on academic freedom to the school. They also need to be transparent about their relationships, both academic and financial, with any Chinese state agency. And schools should gather and report annually on encroachments on academic freedom.

Absent such steps, universities leave students and faculty members with the impression that an institutional response to these kinds of problems will always be weighed against a school’s relationship with Chinese authorities, rather than encouraged by the school’s standards and commitments to academic freedom. A failure to vigorously defend academic freedom from Chinese government influence will only invite more interference, and will erode the reputation of universities in democracies as places of open debate.

The bullying activities of some Chinese diplomats and students in Western democracies have long since exceeded the norms of free expression which are vital to any liberal democracy. And they can no longer be tolerated or shrugged off. Freedom of speech ends at the point where it uses or threatens violence or other physical intimidation to stifle expression of alternative points of view. No democratic society should stand back complacently and allow organized groups—especially foreign organized groups, and even more so groups or actors working at the behest of a foreign government—to intimidate and censor the speech of others. Nowhere is this imperative more vital than in our universities, which are one of the most essential arenas for free inquiry and unfettered debate in any liberal democracy.

Here are some things the universities and governments of our democracies should do:

  1. Universities should join together (ideally globally) to craft a common code of principles and procedures to protect norms of free speech in the face of these intimidation campaigns. The Chinese Communist Party-state divides and rules, playing universities and even countries against one another in order to have its way. Universities in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, Japan, and throughout Europe should make it clear that they will stand as one in rejecting foreign intimidation practices against free speech on their campuses.
  2. Universities should clearly spell out their rules encouraging and protecting free expression, and promote them prominently in new student orientation programs. Foreign students (especially from non-democratic countries, but why single out China?) should have to attend mandatory orientation sessions where the rules about free speech and tolerance of opposing views, and the potential disciplinary consequences of violating these rules, are clearly enunciated.
  3. Colleges and universities should have publicly known provisions for disciplinary hearings and penalties that can be brought to bear against students who violate free speech rules, and in particular against those who intimidate or use coercion to stifle the speech of others. These rules should include suspension or expulsion from the university, depending on the severity of the action.
  4. National governments should compensate universities for the considerable financial trauma that might ensue if China withdrew its students en masse in retaliation against action to enforce democratic rules to protect free speech.
  5. Universities should prohibit foreign students or organized student groups, like the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, from taking instructions from their consulates or embassies with regard to political advocacy or protest—especially instruction that violates free speech norms. They should also ban foreign student groups from receiving funding from foreign governments without explicit university approval.
  6. National democratic governments must firmly defend principles of free expression. Chinese diplomats and other foreign representatives who encourage or organize physical intimidation of free speech should be expelled.

We have to rally around our values at the levels of both university and national governance. Increasingly, our own freedom is at stake.

“Shut Up! Hong Kong is China!” a man shouted as protesters hoisted signs outside a NBA preseason game in downtown Vancouver in October. The man’s anger only riled the protesters, who shouted louder: “Fight for freedom! Stand with Hong Kong!”

Canadian cities like Toronto and Vancouver have large populations of people originally from mainland China and Hong Kong. As we should all know by now, places with sizable ethnic Chinese populations tend to be targets of Chinese government influence work.

In one recent case, students from mainland China reported to Chinese consulate officials about their protests against a talk by a Uighur-Canadian at McMaster University. WeChat screenshots allegedly showed direct communication between the students and the embassy, and the university’s student union stripped the school’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) of its official club status.

Toronto Star colleagues and I have interviewed numerous newcomers to Canada who are upset about local support for causes that are highly sensitive in mainland China, such as democracy in Hong Kong, and rights for Tibetans and Uighurs. Some protest to voice their dissatisfaction, which is a protected right in Canada. But many others have told us in confidence that they try not to talk about politics at all in Canada, because they fear it would lead to consequences for their family members back home.

During the recent federal election campaign, new Canadians from mainland China were targeted by a flood of far-right misinformation on Chinese-language media outlets and on WeChat, my colleague Jeremy Nuttall found in an investigation, and there’s virtually nothing stopping it. A Conservative Party ad that ran on WeChat made the unsubstantiated claim that a re-elected government under Justin Trudeau would legalize “hard drugs.” (The Conservatives declined to comment.) It’s unclear what Canadian politicians could do to help combat Chinese-language misinformation if some of the politicians themselves might be part of the problem.

University of Toronto Scarborough Student Union President Chemi Lhamo has been an outspoken Tibetan rights advocate since childhood. Earlier this spring, before the student union election results at her school were totaled, she received a flood of hate, including rape and death threats. “You’re going to get shot and the bullets are going to be made in China,” one user wrote, while others admitted to being her classmates and organized a petition against her becoming president.

Lhamo told me she tries not to fear her fellow students, because she takes her job as their representative seriously and wants to hear their concerns, offer help if some feel pressured by Beijing to act, and help them feel like a part of the school community.

The vulnerability of communities of color in Western countries like Canada is an overlooked factor that journalists and researchers need to examine in further detail.