Universities Are Turning a Blind Eye to Chinese Bullies
Mainland thuggery against Hong Kongers is being extended to foreign campuses.
I am not prone to naive optimism. But I must admit that I felt unusually hopeful standing on Monash University’s campus outside Melbourne, Australia, on the chilly afternoon of Aug. 6, watching students from across the Hong Kong-China divide engage in open and rational discussion of Hong Kong’s unfolding crisis.
Over the past two weeks, pro-Chinese Communist Party students in Australia and New Zealand, where mainlanders make up at least 30 percent of overseas students, had engaged in a series of violent outbursts against protesters voicing support for the Hong Kong struggle. The confrontations stretched from the University of Queensland to Auckland, New Zealand, with counterprotesters pushing fellow students; tearing away protest signs; destroying Lennon walls, first created during the Occupy protests of 2014, where anyone can use Post-it notes to share their thoughts; and engaging in doxxing and threats against anyone with different opinions. Brazenly adding fuel to the fire, Chinese consulates have openly voiced their support for such thuggish behavior, while universities have, shamefully, taken no action against the offenders.
In such an openly hostile environment, Hong Kong students at Monash were understandably anxious about holding an event in support of the struggle back home, but they also refused to be scared into silence. Donning the facemasks, safety goggles, and hard hats that have come to represent the movement, students set up a mobile Lennon wall on Tuesday, handing out fliers and encouraging passersby to share their thoughts on Post-it notes.
I watched the protest from the sidelines much of the afternoon and was pleasantly surprised to see calm and rational discussion. There were students from China who disagreed with the impetus of the protests, but they shared their thoughts in peaceful and open dialogue. Was I witnessing an elusive moment of genuine communicative reason?
This fleeting optimism was, however, unwarranted. A small gang, caricatures of the so-called angry youth cultivated through patriotic education in China, soon came sauntering in our direction. One of them immediately placed his mobile phone on the ground in front of the protesters as it played the national anthem of the People’s Republic of China.
I watched perplexedly as the patriots failed to sing along with the anthem, as legislation currently under consideration in Hong Kong would require students to do as part of school curricula, only managing to shout in unison the final lines, “March on! March on! March on!” The next hour of harassment and intimidation laid bare the fundamental (and fundamentally flawed) logics of contemporary Chinese authoritarian nationalism on the global stage.
First, volume is key. “Hong Kong is part of China, isn’t it? Isn’t it? Hong Kong has always been a part of China and always will be part of China.” Such declarations of absolute ownership, shouted in close proximity, overlook the realities of history, wherein it was precisely Hong Kong’s separation from China that allowed it to develop into the dynamic city that it is today. An inverse relationship is apparent between the soundness of an argument and the volume at which it is delivered, aiming not so much at winning hearts and minds as overpowering eardrums.
Second, victimization is your best friend. Despite being the aggressors in this case, invading protesters’ personal space and menacingly shouting people down, the patriots perpetually framed themselves as victims. Citing an earlier incident in which a group of protesters in Hong Kong threw the Chinese flag into Victoria Harbor, the loudest of the patriots demanded answers from the Melbourne-based protesters for this offense, as if they had personally grabbed the flag from his hands: “Answer my question, are you on the same side as those people who threw our flag into the harbor?” Such accusations and pre-emptive self-victimization in turn provided cover for such blatantly threatening comments from the Chinese students as “We Chinese just want Hong Kong’s land, we don’t care about the people” and “We’ll upload video of this to Weibo, then see if you all are still alive tomorrow.”
Third, nationalism eats its own. “We are all Chinese” is not a statement of solidarity but rather a threat to embrace a particular ideological line based not in reason but in imposed identity. While the Hong Kong students were the main targets for harassment, particularly venomous hatred was reserved for fellow Chinese who failed to adopt a suitably hostile stance. In a moment that highlighted the troubling intersection of authoritarian nationalism and sexism, one student from the province of Sichuan who was speaking with protesters rather than yelling at them was shouted down as a “Sichuan sister” who “needs to be reported to the consulate.” The assembled group of patriots laughed as this student shook her head and stared down at the ground. Images of this student continue to circulate on Chinese social media today, with threats to report her to the authorities “in every province.”
When discussing such unabashed nationalist thuggery, I am often asked whether I think the students were taking orders from the Chinese Consulate. Beijing has played a role in mobilizing student protesters abroad before, most notoriously in 2008. And its embassies in both Australia and New Zealand have in recent weeks voiced their support in Chinese-language postings for violent acts against peaceful protesters—I am certainly not about to give them the benefit of the doubt. Yet the assumption that such ignorant behavior is directly dictated by the consulate is not always correct. Sometimes it’s a comforting story that we tell ourselves to avoid reckoning with the real, violent nationalism enacted by some Chinese students.
Such violence may in fact emerge spontaneously from genuinely held beliefs, no matter how misinformed those beliefs may be. After all, if your nation is threatened by silent protesters holding Post-it notes thousands of miles away, perhaps it is not all that strong. Yet one does not have to be correct to act with deep conviction. Such violence can also have careerist motivations, obviously directed toward an audience back in China—“put it up on Weibo,” as the gang said—or could just be an easy way to displace other frustrations. The picture is even less clear for bystanders: Those who stand by and cheer on such thuggery could genuinely think that unleashing violence against anyone critical of the CCP is a great idea, or they could simply be operating under a most insidious form of peer pressure, knowing that even in Australia one’s every act or word is potentially monitored by the CCP state.
Whatever the motivations, if any other group of students engaged in this type of intimidation, there would be genuine outrage and consequences. And if we reframe the Hong Kong struggle as a fundamentally anti-colonial struggle against the new metropole of Beijing, no university could countenance students from the colonizing center surrounding, shouting down, and threatening students from a colony.
However, whether due to economic concerns over alienating one of their most profitable sources of students, misplaced ideological frames, or a simple lack of understanding of the relationship between Hong Kong and China, from Queensland to Melbourne to Auckland, there is no sign of any university administration taking steps to respond to this ongoing wave of intimidation, harassment, and violence. In a twisted example of “Western” political correctness empowering the CCP’s version, there have even been calls for protesters to recognize that Lennon walls make some students “uncomfortable.”
Such abandonment of principles sends the wrong message to the patriotic provocateurs, who come to believe that they can extraterritorially deny fellow students’ freedoms without any consequences, just because they pay tuition: As one student dismantling a Lennon wall at the University of Queensland said on video to a university security guard, “Try calling the police. I’ll call the embassy.” Universities’ weak stance also hurts students from Hong Kong, China, Tibet, and Xinjiang who have come to Australia in search of the freedoms of speech and association that are either rapidly disappearing or already nonexistent at home. When students are more scared to protest in Melbourne today than in the emerging police state in Hong Kong, something is deeply wrong.
Universities need to take a two-tiered approach to these increasingly deeply entrenched trends. Clearly, orientation sessions for students from backgrounds that do not respect civil liberties need to emphasize the supreme importance of freedoms of thought, speech, and association as cornerstones of the university experience: The CCP’s crimes, Hong Kong’s legally guaranteed freedoms, and even Hong Kong independence are all topics that can be openly discussed.
Yet as a professor, I’m well aware that students aren’t always listening when you deliver a lecture to them. Given there are real incentives for such patriotic thuggery, there needs to be real disincentives. Universities need to begin handing out real punishments, in accordance with university policy, to students who threaten others. Police must also investigate and where appropriate prosecute any cases in which there is evidence of threats, doxxing, violence, or coordination with consulates. Finally, diplomats who encourage the violent suppression of basic freedoms should be condemned and expelled, not given visiting professorships, as the University of Queensland has given Chinese Consul-General Xu Jie.
Taking a hard and consistent line is the only way that Australia and other countries can reassure students seeking refuge from increasingly aggressive CCP repression that universities will not provide a safe space for authoritarian bullying and violence.