Chinese government-sponsored student groups are coming under the spotlight in Canada, including in B.C. where a university authorized a military-style Chinese flag raising ceremony.
The Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) has dozens of chapters across the West, including Thompson Rivers University (TRU) in Kamloops, where students marched in military-style fatigues on a campus plaza to mark the anniversary of the People's Republic of China last October.
Critics of the authoritarian regime suggest such activities should first be understood and then countered with dialogue and support for Canadian democratic values.
With ties to at least one Canadian immigration case involving allegations of espionage, the student associations have been widely criticized as subservient to Chinese consulates or embassies, which aim to control and monitor overseas students with ties to China.
CSSAs have been accused of suppressing freedom of speech and academic freedom by attempting to subdue perceived threats to the Communist Party of China and by promoting the Chinese government’s interests in foreign jurisdictions.
Two recent events have drawn scrutiny of the CSSA and overseas Chinese students in Ontario.
However, events at TRU have taken place without controversy, according to university spokesperson Darshan Lindsay. And TRU Student Union executive director Nathan Lane said there have been no concerns about CSSA activity on campus.
“To be honest, the events have been pretty much what you’d experience from any clubs on campus,” said Lane, whose union provided a $5,000 grant to the TRU CSSA for a cultural event.
TRU political scientist Robert Hanlon, who’s spent time in Taiwan and Hong Kong, said the flag-raising event was not unlike one that would be done in China.
The TRU CSSA did not respond to queries from Glacier Media.
Despite no apparent conflicts, some do not see the ceremony as entirely benign.
“I look at it as a very unsophisticated expression of patriotic views by those students who are here as visiting students,” said Tung Chan, a Vancouver-based community leader, businessman and former CEO of S.U.C.C.E.S.S, a large non-profit specializing in immigrant services and integration.
Chan, formerly of Hong Kong, said the Communist Party of China is active in controlling overseas Chinese nationals via its foreign propaganda wing the United Front Work Department.
“Basically what they’re doing is trying to convert – convert to an ideology, convert to a way of thinking. It can be done through the Confucius Institute, business groups or student groups,” he said.
Chan said students might be acting out of genuine pride, or fear.
They “might genuinely feel their home country and motherland has come a long way,” for instance, or “they are doing it on behalf of the government, the Chinese government, and they’re being instructed to do it. In this case, it’s very sinister and influencing Canadian public opinion.”
Given CSSA members are mostly international students and Chinese nationals, Chan said it is incumbent upon all Canadians to educate students, such as those at TRU, about Canadian values, such as the rule of law and freedom of expression. To that end Chan wonders what Canadian universities do to educate its international student base on Canadian values.
Glacier Media requested an interview with TRU president Brett Fairbairn, who was not available. Chancellor Nathan Matthew’s office did not respond to a request.
On March 21 Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a 12-point code of conduct for academic institutions to resist Chinese government efforts undermine academic freedom abroad.
“Colleges and universities that stand together are better equipped to resist Chinese government harassment and surveillance on campuses, visa denials and pressures to censor or self-censor,” said HRW China director Sophie Richardson.
“If the people who were involved in that flag-raising ceremony did it of their own volition, and it reflects their honest view, they’re entitled to do that, and it takes us down one path…. Now, if that event took place at the direction of the Chinese government, that takes us down a whole different path and it’s not OK for a school to shrug and downplay it,” said Richardson, whose group calls on institutions to track Chinese government-directed CSSA activity.
Glacier Media asked Richardson whether the significant amounts of money Chinese international students bring to universities could pose as a conflict of interest.
“Either they’re respectable, independent academic institutions or they’re not,” she said. “That’s the choice they have to make.
“It's unconscionable that schools be aware of these problems and shrug.”
Meanwhile, two universities in Ontario are grappling with events surrounding Chinese politics.
At McMaster University in February, Muslim students expressed concern the campus CSSA was attempting to silence freedom of speech when Uyghur activist Rukiye Turdush spoke at an event about the mass internment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province, which has been condemned by the international community.
The Chinese embassy reportedly asked students to report to it whether any university officials and Chinese nationals organized the speech.
And at University of Toronto Scarborough, the National Post reported, police were probing online abuse and intimidation of Tibetan-Canadian student leader Chemi Lhamo, an advocate of Tibetan independence.
Foreign Policy has reported that CSSAs receive Chinese government funding in the U.S., where consulates relay safety information and the occasional political directive to chapter leaders.
CSSA chapters also veer into the political arenas. Here in B.C., the University of the Fraser Valley CSSA has celebrated Lunar New Year with former premier Christy Clark and several of her ministers.
— Graeme Wood, Glacier Media