In an incident reflecting China’s growing efforts to control political discourse in U.S. universities, a Uyghur student was recently confronted by Han Chinese classmates who threatened to report him to the Chinese embassy for voicing “separatist” views.
But the students’ teacher, an English language instructor, backed the young Uyghur, reminding the class to respect and peacefully discuss opposing views.
Asked with the others in his class to introduce themselves, the Uyghur student, a resident of northwestern China’s Xinjiang region, said that he had come from East Turkestan, the name preferred by many ethnic Uyghurs for their historic homeland, now ruled by China.
“Everyone looked at me in bewilderment,” the young man told RFA’s Uyghur Service in a recent interview. “Then, suddenly, several Chinese students stood up and angrily said in front of everyone, ‘Where is East Turkestan? You are speaking with the voice of a separatist!’”
Further angering the Chinese, the young Uyghur insisted that they review the history of the contested region.
“This land was an independent country before the Chinese invasion, and it is now under the occupation of the Chinese Communist government since they took it over in 1949,” replied the Uyghur student, who asked that RFA not mention his name or the name of his university for fear of Chinese retaliation against his family at home.
“We cannot allow you to speak against China in our class!” his Chinese classmates shouted. “And as you are a separatist, we are going to report you to our embassy!”
“If you report me to the Chinese authorities, I will report you to the American government. And we will see who wins,” the Uyghur student, who now lives and studies in Virginia, said.
Also speaking to RFA, Uyghur American Association President Ilshat Hassan, who said he was aware of the incident, said that the students’ language instructor then told his class that if the Chinese students reported the Uyghur to their embassy, the Uyghur student would have the right to report them to authorities in the United States.
“And if he turns you in to the FBI, you will be subject to investigation,” the teacher said, according to Hassan.
“The Chinese students became worried upon hearing this, and they begged him not to take the matter any further, and that was how it was settled,” Hassan said.
Beijing's reach into schools
U.S. lawmakers and intelligence officials have voiced growing concern in recent weeks over Beijing’s reach into U.S. universities, with FBI Director Christopher Wray telling Congress that China has planted spies in many schools, and a Florida senator warning that China seeks to stifle open discussion and criticism of its policies.
More than 100 U.S. universities now partner with the Chinese government in the running of Confucius Institutes, centers set up in U.S. schools to promote the study of the Chinese language and a view of Chinese history and affairs favorable to Beijing.
These centers serve mainly as a “tool to expand the political influence of the [People’s Republic of China],” Florida Senator Marco Rubio warned in a Feb. 5 letter to Florida schools, urging them to cut their ties to the groups.
Especially worrying, Rubio said, is the self-censorship increasingly practiced “in academic settings where there is a Chinese government presence in the form of a Confucius Institute,” with politically sensitive topics such as Taiwan, Tibet, the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, and universal human rights typically placed off-limits for discussion.
Reported by Mihray Abdulim for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Richard Finney.