China and the Difficulties of Dissent (University of Queensland)

Lessons and implications for Canada, particularly universities and academics:

…The University Takes Sides

Following a successful social media campaign, these confrontations caught the attention of local and internationalmedia, and the pro-Hong Kong camp decided to protest again. Amid Facebook and Twitter wars freely available to the reader (particularly UQ Stalkerspace), it became clear that Chinese nationalists were making threats of violence against pro-Hong Kong protestors. Even the Chinese consulate in Brisbane got involved, sending a message of support to “patriotic” Chinese protestors, a clear indication of how Beijing likes to deploy its “soft” power.

Quite rightly, the University of Queensland decided to act. Unfortunately, UQ shares a great deal of commercialised intellectual property with fascist China. It has even promoted a Chinese diplomatic representative to the post of adjunct professor without advertising the fact. It was therefore not entirely surprising that, when the university did finally act, it was against free speech.

First, they attempted to shut down future protests by threatening the enrolment of the protest’s student leaders. The pro-Hong Kong students would be “held responsible” for any violence in a future protest and potentially expelled. In effect, Chinese nationalists were handed a “heckler’s veto”—they were free to cause disruption, secure in the knowledge that the university would silence the speakers, not those disrupting them. The university said it was acting in the interests of safety. Fortunately, the protestors refused to be intimidated, and plans went forward for the protest.

In a final gambit, the University of Queensland decided it would allow the protest but wanted it moved, away from everyone else and away from the plaque commemorating the Tiananmen Square Massacre, which is where it was due to be staged. Again, the protestors refused to back down and the protest went ahead. By now, the issue had become wider than Hong Kong.

The Fragility of Collective Action

The media attention generated by the first two groups of students and their allies caused other dissidents to emerge from the shadows. Free speech advocates, Taiwanese, Uighurs, Falun Dafa practitioners, and Tibetans came out in support of the Hong Kongers and their protest, and soon formed a tiny but determined coalition. Their enemy, however, had changed.

Originally, the enemy had been the Confucius Institute on campus and the extradition bill in Hong Kong; now, it was now the University of Queensland, the Confucius Institute and its propaganda, the lack of transparency regarding Chinese Communist Party (CCP) influence, Vice-Chancellor Peter Høj, and the Chinese nationalists on campus. By the time the protestors gathered a second time, they had various speakers arranged from China’s persecuted minorities, Australia’s own left-wing political parties, and a woman from Hong Kong. As if that wasn’t broad enough, the Taiwanese (ROC) flag was hung above a nearby building, emphasising the common struggle of those threatened by the CCP.

Chants were directed against the oppression of the Uighurs, Tibetans, Hong Kong, and Falun Dafa. Former Greens senator Andrew Bartlett said in his speech that these events should be understood in the broader context of Chinese influence, UQ and freedom of speech, digital surveillance, and colonialism. There were land acknowledgements to the Aboriginal people of Australia, who were neither present nor lending any support to the protest. There were party policies on free speech read aloud to little fanfare or resonance. And there was a speech on the executions and organ harvesting of Falun Dafa practitioners which (if I read the mood correctly) was treated with incredulity and disbelief.

China’s government teaches its people that all dissent against its policies is ultimately directed towards the breakup of the country, and the protest served that narrative perfectly. Protestors really did shift from “close the Confucius Institute” and “withdraw the Hong Kong extradition bill” to “free Hong Kong, free Xinjiang, free Tibet, free Taiwan, free Falun Dafa” in a single move. I agree with all of those aims, but that is exactly why the Chinese nationalists on campus are hypersensitive to any protest movement, to any sense of dissent, to anyone who dares delegitimise the CCP, to anyone who opposes the dictatorship.

In such circumstances, even more moderate Chinese nationalists, who may not be enamoured by many of China’s internal policies, will line up to defend the regime. The status quo seems much more attractive to the average Chinese person than the anarchy they (falsely) think is demanded by liberalisation protest movements. Collective action is fragile and vulnerable to fragmentation, and leftwing protestors who had initially shown solidarity with Hong Kong broke away. UQ’s Socialist Alternative student group refused to back the protest, fearing that somehow it would be hijacked by racists, a fear which proved unfounded.

The Protestors Lose Control of the Narrative

As protestors gathered for the second protest, I saw two curious and unrelated things which I suspected would become related and consequential. First, I watched a man with a deliberately insulting, profane, homophobic sign directed at China’s dictator, Xi Jinping, being led away by police. Second, I watched a Caucasian reporter conduct interviews which appeared to be aimed at creating a pro-China angle.

The interviewer was a left-wing, pro-communist journalist eager to conflate protests against China’s government with racism, and to ignore the depredations of Chinese fascism. The protest, he reported, was “ugly,” and the presence of a former Greens senator was a “cynical effort to put on a more favourable face” on Australian racism. When the protestor with the profane sign was arrested, no one from the protest movement followed him, supported him, or attempted to interfere with his arrest. Indeed, when someone pointed out the arrest taking place, two of the protest organisers urged people to “ignore him” and reiterated “he’s not with us.” However, because the arrest was the only piece of action that day, a media scrum ensued and the headlines followed.

The pro-China Left had a field day, and used that protestor to tarnish everyone else as racists and homophobes, and, naturally, fascists. The Tibetans and Greens in attendance had been duped and used, the argument went. This was all dismayingly predictable. No matter how often the speakers reiterated their commitment to universal human rights and their opposition to the CCP not the Chinese people, their reassurances only succeeded in making them sound defensive. The pro-Hong Kong protestors had been drawn into a bitter squabble with the leftists who ought to have been their allies against Chinese fascism. Their battle has been lost.

A similar argument now prevails in academia, where scholars cannot shake the reputation of being “anti-Chinese” or racist simply for criticising China’s rather open attempts to influence Australian politics. Their battle is probably also lost.

The Danger is Real

Interestingly, and contrary to expectations, the pro-Beijing counter-protestors and most of the Hong Kongers decided to stay away from the second protest. This was not providence—at least, not in every case. Several Hong Kongers were told by family or friends not to attend. Several people reported visitations by the local branch of China’s party representatives. These representatives are either Australian residents or Chinese students who act as informants and messengers for the regime. The message from the Chinese government seemed to be that it was best to stay away entirely, rather than create more publicity in defence of the regime. The absence of the counter-protestors was, in its own way, a fascinating look into Beijing’s ability to discipline its own people in other countries.

Of course, this isn’t new or surprising. Chinese students have been known to report anti-Beijing activists directly to their embassy, and there have been concerns about China’s leverage of its students here for a long time. China’s diplomats in Australia have even been recorded explaining to a Chinese-Australian audience in great detail how “they are at war” and their job as soldiers for China is to influence the Australian political system. The danger is real. Given that China is a country that arrests you if you want to vote, unionise, or criticise the Party, it would be rather surprising if there were no risk involved in allowing China unfettered access to our politicians, academics, infrastructure, and markets.

Source: China and the Difficulties of Dissent

Hong Kong tensions reach B.C’s Simon Fraser University as notes, posters supporting protests partly torn down

Suspect we will see more of these tensions:

Tensions from protests in Hong Kong appear to be spilling over onto campuses around the world, including a university in British Columbia, where a student-organized campaign supporting Hong Kong demonstrators was disrupted.

Last week at Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby campus, Hong Kong international students and peers who have ties to the territory put up a “Lennon Wall” – a message board full of posters and colourful sticky notes that mainly express solidarity with Hong Kong’s demonstrators. According to some students, these notes, bearing messages such as “Stay with Hong Kong” and “Fight for Hong Kong,” were partly torn down three nights in a row.

There also was unrest at a university in Australia last week, where disagreements on the Hong Kong political turmoil turned violent. As seen in footage circulated on social media, punches were exchanged at the University of Queensland between pro-Beijing students and those who back the Hong Kong protesters, who began marching to oppose China’s proposal to extradite criminal suspects to the mainland.

Some SFU students from Hong Kong said they were disappointed to see those notes being ripped off.

“When the wall got destroyed, [I was] not surprised, but I am just disappointed, really disappointed,” said Michael Chan, president of SFU Hong Kong Society, who is familiar with the incident even though his group didn’t start the wall.

Mr. Chan said damaging the wall infringes on freedom of speech, and he calls on the university to protect such rights on campus.

Taylor Cheng, who left a note on the wall, said she hopes the vandals would express their opposition in a more respectful way. “I thought everyone could communicate in a civilized, well-mannered way,” she said, adding the incident has been reported to the university.

SFU spokesperson Adam Brayford said on Sunday the Campus Public Safety is looking into the vandalism reports.

Rummana Khan Hemani, SFU’s vice-provost and associate vice-president of students and international pro-tem, said the university expects students to express their views in a lawful and respectful manner. “We do not know if these specific posters were approved to be posted. However, the removal of approved posters or unapproved posters in a disrespectful manner is not acceptable,” she said in a statement.

So far, it is not clear who damaged the wall. Both Mr. Chan and Ms. Cheng have seen screenshots from a large SFU student group chat on WeChat that some students are critical of such campaigns and condemned Hong Kong separatism.

The incident has left Mr. Chan and Ms. Cheng with concerns that if tensions escalate on their campus, there may be violence similar to what happened in Queensland. “I don’t want SFU to become the second University of Queensland incident,” Ms. Cheng said.

Mr. Chan said he is worried that some messages on the wall may irritate some students from mainland China who may hold different views on the issue. “They may be angry. … I am worried this kind of [violent] situation may happen,” he said.

William Chen, a third-year student at SFU who is from mainland China, said the Lennon Wall campaign generates “a barrier” between him and some of his Hong Kong friends.

“My first reaction was sad rather than angry,” he said. “The conflicts in Hong Kong happened because some Hong Kong people are unsatisfied with some policies set by China. [But I wonder] who spread the anger to here.”

He said the campaign does not represent the views of all students from Hong Kong and may increase the tension between students from the territory and mainland. He further added that some mainland Chinese students may think these messages encourage Hong Kong independence.

Jia Tiancheng, a student from Douglas College in the Vancouver area, said if the posted notes are purely showing support for the protesters, then they’re acceptable. But if some contain radical political opinion, then it’s just “expressing rage.”

Mr. Jia, who is from Harbin, a city in northern China, said since the extradition bill has been suspended, Hong Kong protesters should have achieved their goal. But the continuing protests that demand the resignation of the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, and the complete withdrawal of the bill doesn’t benefit the city.

Students from Hong Kong and mainland China all expressed their longing for more understanding and communication.

“Hong Kong students are fighting against the extradition law, and is not trying to fight for Hong Kong to become an autonomous country, nor are we attacking Chinese people, “Ms. Cheng said.

“Hong Kong students welcome dialogue and discussion. We are not going against the fact that there will be different political stakes on the issue.”

Mr. Chen said many students from mainland China usually do not care about political issues, however, in this case, he agrees that some mainland Chinese students believe Hong Kong people are using protests to promote Hong Kong independence.

“They find it surprising: why Hong Kong wants independence,” he said.

“There has to be a good communication between students from Hong Kong and China, otherwise, the conflicts are inevitable.”

Source:     Hong Kong tensions reach B.C’s Simon Fraser University as notes, posters supporting protests partly torn down Xiao Xu July 29, 2019