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Chinese Students in DC Establish Safe Space for Dissent to Counter Beijing

FILE - A view of part of the campus of George Washington University in Washington, May 7, 2020. Torch on the Potomac was established by Chinese international students from the university.
FILE - A view of part of the campus of George Washington University in Washington, May 7, 2020. Torch on the Potomac was established by Chinese international students from the university.

A group of Chinese international students studying in Washington has established an independent student union, hoping to provide a safe space and platform for other Chinese students and scholars at their university to express political dissent without harassment by pro-Beijing students and organizations.

Students from George Washington University (GWU) call the organization Torch on the Potomac.

A statement by the organization on April 25 said, "We want to provide Chinese students and scholars at George Washington University, as well as their peers in the diaspora, with a platform, social support and community independent from the Chinese Communist Party and its puppets. In addition, we welcome students from all backgrounds interested in Chinese culture, politics and identity."

The organization has more than 12 members. All have chosen to remain anonymous for security reasons, according to Luo Qiu, one of the organizers who uses a pseudonym.

"Before this organization was established, we were sporadic,” said Thomas, who also uses a pseudonym. “Many of our Chinese students had engaged in some resistance activities, including putting up posters or organizing candlelight vigils. But because there is still this kind of fear on campus - that is, fear of C.S.S.A. and of people who are pro-Chinese Communist Party who may report us."

The Chinese Students and Scholars Association has long been linked to the Chinese government.

"[We want to] let the school, including people outside, know that C.S.S.A. is not the only representative of our Chinese students,” Thomas said. “We also have many Chinese students who oppose the CCP and support democracy. They should also have their own voices.”

The members expressed their disappointment with GWU in their statement, believing that the university has not done enough to protect the freedom of speech of international students who criticize the Chinese government.

The statement reads, "As Chinese students and scholars by the Potomac River, by the Lincoln Memorial, and at the foot of Capitol Hill, we are thousands of miles away from the People's Republic of China but still under the shadow of fear: we find ourselves facing systemic repression. We and our families have faced intimidation, surveillance, harassment, blackmail, and other forms of coercion. We are denied true academic freedom and civil rights despite studying at a university that claims to promote and defend rights."

VOA contacted GWU for comment but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

GWU reaction

Axios reported that during the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, some Chinese students put up multiple posters on the school campus criticizing China's human rights issues. Other Chinese students ripped them down, and some Chinese student organizations who are pro-Chinese-government took the matter to the president of the university, Mark Wrighton, claiming that the posters were racially discriminatory, Axios reported.

At first, Wrighton expressed support in an email for the position of the pro-government Chinese student organizations and promised to investigate the matter, according to Axios.

But after discussing with faculty and staff familiar with human rights issues in China, he pivoted to express his support for the students who put up the posters and promised to protect their freedom of speech, Axios said.

In October, some Chinese students at the university also put up posters on campus opposing Chinese leader Xi Jinping's re-election. But those posters were also torn up.

Torch on the Potomac said in its statement that not long ago, the "Democracy Wall" on campus, which includes posters put up by students from China, Iran, Russia, Taiwan and Ukraine, was vandalized. The wall is in a hallway on the outside of a school building.

Luo said, "We tried to get the school involved in the investigation before, but the response from the school police and the dean is almost nothing."

In a screenshot of an email obtained by VOA Mandarin, police told the students who had called them, “Unfortunately, [when] you post a poster you relinquish ownership to the poster and as long as there is zero damage to the building it will not be a destruction of property.”

VOA Mandarin contacted GWU police for specific information on the damage but did not receive a response.

'Silencing' of students

Rory O'Connor, president of the U.S. student organization Athenai Institute, told VOA Mandarin the vandalism of the Democracy Wall "amounts to the silencing of students who have few other means to safely speak out."

The Athenai Institute website says the organization “is a non-partisan, student-founded nonprofit devoted to educating American students, scholars and the public about the dangers posed by the genocidal, anti-democratic Chinese Communist Party’s influence on our college campuses, and about the tools universities can use to financially disentangle themselves from the CCP and its human rights abuses.”

The Athenai Institute supported the establishment of Torch on the Potomac, according to the organizers’ statement.

O'Connor said, “I can think of few, if any, better uses of our time and resources than supporting pro-democracy Chinese students who, simply by trying to authentically express themselves, are now facing down the proxies of a fascist party-state.”

Other student organizations at GWU have also supported Torch on the Potomac, including the campus organizations for the Democratic and Republican parties, GW Chinese Feminists, GW Uyghur Human Rights Initiative and GW Russian Speaking Association, according to the Torch on the Potomac statement.

Sarah McLaughlin, scholar at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, told VOA Mandarin, “Universities can do more, too. They can make an effort to educate international students about their rights in the U.S. and on campus, and what they can do if they’re facing threats to their ability to speak freely on campus.”

Torch on the Potomac said that the school's C.S.S.A. is behind the suppression of its political demands, and "our top priority remains to protect George Washington University students from being influenced by the C.S.S.A. at the school and the Chinese Communist Party. … For a long time, the C.S.S.A. and similar organizations have maintained a monopoly on Chinese students' cultural and political representation."

A report by Foreign Policy in 2018 said that C.S.S.A. organizations across the U.S. had organized international students to welcome visiting Chinese leaders and paid them a fee for being among the gathering of greeters.

The close relationship the C.S.S.A. maintains with the Chinese government is no secret. In 2017, Liu Chen, president of the C.S.S.A. at George Washington University, said in a video that the C.S.S.A. was "the only official Chinese student union. It is directed by the Chinese Embassy and operates in every international university."

Domination of C.S.S.A.

William, who belongs to Torch on the Potomac and uses a pseudonym, said, "There was no organization like this before. In the past, C.S.S.A. dominated the public domain of Chinese international students."

Another Torch of the Potomac member, Sally, said, "I think the goal of the organization is to show there are alternative forms of representation and that not all Chinese students are monolith.

"Because right now we see a lot of anti-Chinese sentiment and a lot of people who are talking about how they are spies in U.S. campuses," she said. "And we realize these discussions are real, and we want to show that most Chinese students are not supporting the government, and most Chinese students are not here to be Chinese spies. But we don’t have an outlet for our voice to be heard, so we were trying to ... provide those students with support so that they do not feel alone, and they don’t feel alienated and isolated."

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.