A group of Chinese students in Washington, D.C., is taking a stand against the Chinese Communist Party’s interference in U.S. academia.
This small but determined group of students at George Washington University released a statement April 25 announcing the establishment of an Independent Chinese Student Union to give young local Chinese a platform to organize and express political ideas free from the prying eyes of the Chinese Communist Party.
The students’ top priorities, according to their statement, are to protect students from the CCP and the Chinese Students and Scholars Association that the party directs, and to convince George Washington University to fully divest from “companies complicit in the Uyghur genocide and which enable the CCP.”
This is just the latest manifestation of a political awakening among Chinese students on American college campuses. It’s a significant development with the potential to spread to other campuses in the U.S. and throughout the world.
Yet, curiously, mainstream media largely have ignored this phenomenon. With all the outrage about Beijing’s infiltration of U.S. academic institutions, it’s shocking how little attention is paid to the Chinese students, many of whom are the Chinese Communist Party’s primary victims.
The development also represents a cry for help by a vulnerable population whose rights are violated routinely by what essentially are agents of a foreign adversary acting illegally on U.S. soil. Yet universities, law enforcement, and the U.S. government routinely fail to protect these students.
The statement from the GWU students complains of “a systematic campaign of repression” by the Chinese Communist Party, in which “all of us—and our families back home—face the constant reality of intimidation, surveillance, harassment, blackmail, and other infringements upon our rights.”
As a result, the students say, they “lack meaningful access to academic freedom and to our civil rights, despite studying at a university that claims to promote and defend these.”
Such is the harsh reality facing China’s overseas students, who for decades have had to rely on Chinese government-funded Chinese Students and Scholars Associations to organize social and cultural activities with their peers.
On the surface, these bodies function much the same as other on-campus clubs, but they make no secret about their ties to the CCP, which uses them to keep tabs on other Chinese students and scholars; ensure they remain loyal to the party; and harass, intimidate, or report on those that don’t adhere to party orthodoxy.
Multiple times last year, pockets of Chinese students throughout the U.S. and other countries took the risky decision to stand up against their oppressive regime at home. In February, students hung banners on GWU’s campus opposing the Winter Olympics in Beijing on human rights grounds. In October and November, Chinese students throughout the world demonstrated in solidarity with brave compatriots in China who had stood up to oppose Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping and his “zero-COVID” policy.
Rather than celebrate their students’ rare decision to exercise their freedom and stand up for democratic principles, administrators at many universities turned a blind eye while pro-CCP nationalists harassed, intimidated, and sought to identify these students for the purpose of reporting them to the Chinese Embassy. These CCP proxies also pressured universities into removing protest banners on the grounds that they somehow encouraged anti-Chinese racism.
To be sure, not all Chinese students have found themselves at odds with their school’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association. Some genuinely support the CCP regime and CSSA activities.
But far too often, these organizations threaten and bully Chinese students to prevent them from exercising their freedom of conscience. When they do so at the behest of the Chinese government, they are acting as agents of a foreign adversary.
The organizers of the Independent Chinese Student Union at GWU hope to break what they characterize as the CSSA’s coerced monopoly in representing Chinese students. To date, “more than 12” students have joined this nascent group, and they all have chosen to remain anonymous out of fear for their safety and that of their family members in China.
Most Chinese students fear joining an organization that is likely to be targeted by the CCP, and would prefer to sit on the sidelines. Nevertheless, membership is likely to grow in the coming months, as news spreads to other students in the Washington area. From there, it could spread to other major metropolitan areas, and even other countries.
It’s far from certain how much impact student groups such as this will have. The odds are stacked against them, and it’s hard to imagine them rivaling Chinese Students and Scholars Associations in influence, due to the Chinese Communist Party’s coercive power. But the very presence of such student groups represents a threat to the CCP and its efforts to keep the hearts and minds of all Chinese citizens chained to the party.
The regime in Beijing fears the Chinese people more than anything, and it’s especially fearful of China’s overseas students. The regime can’t control their access to information as easily as it can in China, and it knows firsthand the role that overseas Chinese played in previous revolutionary movements. The party’s own founders first were exposed to Marxist ideology while enrolled in universities in Japan.
This is why what these students are doing is so critical. Although it’s important to manage expectations about their direct impact, any platform in which young Chinese are free to exercise their civil liberties and develop political ideas independent of CCP influence contributes to the long-term goal of freedom from tyranny and constitutes a threat, however small, to America’s primary adversary.
This nascent movement is and should remain an organic effort by and for Chinese students, but policymakers and universities have a role to play in helping to protect their rights and level the playing field currently weighted in favor of the far more powerful Chinese Students and Scholars Associations.
Politicians and universities should educate Chinese students more actively regarding the constitutional rights that everyone in America is promised regardless of citizenship status.
Meanwhile, law enforcement should focus more efforts toward prosecuting bullying behavior that occurs on behalf of the Chinese government. The charges brought against a Boston man Tuesday for giving the Chinese government lists of pro-democracy dissidents—a tactic Chinese Students and Scholars Associations also use—shows this can be done.
Finally, politicians and universities should seriously consider banning CCP-directed organizations such as Chinese Students and Scholars Associations from U.S. campuses. Although the elimination of such groups wouldn’t prevent the CCP from harassing Chinese students, it would make it harder for the party to mobilize on American campuses.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal