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Cornell University Chinese Students Walk Out after Uyghur Student Asks About Genocide 

A woman walks by a Cornell University sign on the Ivy League school's campus in Ithaca, New York, Jan. 14, 2022.

The divide between Chinese authorities and the nation's Uyghur minority is playing out on the U.S. campus of Cornell University, where a debate is raging after a walkout by Chinese students over a Uyghur student's remark and a Democratic representative’s response.

Democratic representative Elissa Slotkin of Michigan spoke at an on-campus event hosted by Cornell Institute for Public Affairs (CIPA) on March 10. During a question-and-answer period, Uyghur student Rizwangul NurMuhammad asked why the international community seems more concerned over Russia's invasion of Ukraine than China's treatment of the Uyghur people, which has been described as genocide. A group of international students from China booed and walked out of the event.

William Wang, a graduate student in public administration and the president of the student group Cornell Public Affairs Society, defended the walkout, saying the students left because they felt the atmosphere was not friendly and welcoming toward them.

"Specifically, after the congresswoman's series of xenophobic, Sinophobic, and American-exceptionalist comments," Wang told VOA.

According to Slotkin’s March 15 posts on Twitter, she responded to NurMuhammad’s question “by pointing out what is well known about Chinese policy toward the Uyghur community: that the government has carried out imprisonment, forced labor, and forced indoctrination.”

Slotkin continued, "I take no issue whatsoever with the Chinese people or the Chinese students in the class, but I won't dance around the human rights abuses of the Chinese Communist Party.

"Since then, the young woman who asked me the question has become the victim of bullying & intimidation by some fellow students. There's no excuse for that behavior.”

NurMuhammad told VOA, "Uyghurs are suffering under China's genocide for the last five years and yet are not getting enough support from the international community including the U.S., I said to representative Slotkin.

"Uyghurs in diaspora like myself have also been impacted by this genocide. I, for example, have lost my brother to this genocide that China has waged against Uyghurs."

Guled Mire, a student from New Zealand who was also at the event, said Slotkin had barely begun responding to NurMuhammad’s question before the Chinese international students in the room stood up to walk out.

"Rizwangul asked that question among a class made up of a majority of international students from China," Mire told VOA. "Some of them even taunted and jeered at her as they left. It clearly appeared to be a coordinated, pre-meditated initiative."

Mire said the international Chinese students' behavior "derailed the possibility for a legitimate conversation" on China's treatment of Uyghurs.

Letter from Chinese students

On the same day, Wang wrote a letter to the leadership of the Public Affairs Institute saying the Chinese students left the colloquium because the atmosphere in the room was hostile toward Chinese students.

"We were not sitting in a classroom; we were crucified in a courtroom for crimes that we did not commit," Wang stated in the letter signed by 88 Chinese students. "Thus, we hope the school could formally respond to our email so that we know we made the right decision of choosing CIPA and Cornell."

The day after the event, Matt Hall, director of CIPA, sent an email to the CIPA community stating that questions "like the one asked of Congresswoman Slotkin regarding the human rights abuses of the Uyghur people, are valuable points of discussion and critical to promoting open dialogue."

"At the same time, we must also respect that walkouts are a legitimate form of protest and an appropriate expression of disapproval," Hall said in the email obtained by VOA.

NurMuhammad told VOA the university "watered down (its language in the letter from) genocide to human rights abuses, that was disappointing."

The event got the attention of Chinese state media Global Times, which published a report March 17 titled "Amidst atmosphere extremely hostile! Chinese students at Cornell University left a venue to protest Xinjiang-related lies." While the report identified NurMuhammad by name, it did not mention that her brother was in detention in China.

The following day, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley told conservative website Washington Free Beacon that Cornell "should be ashamed for not having (NurMuahammad's) back."

Brother imprisoned

NurMuhammad, a Uyghur from China, moved to New Zealand in 2010 as an international master's degree student in international communications and later became a New Zealand citizen. She went to Cornell University as a Fulbright scholar in 2021.

In January 2017, plainclothes police in Bortala city in northern Xinjiang detained her 31-year-old brother, Mewlan NurMuhammad, who was at the time employed as an internet technician at China Telecom, a Chinese state-owned company.

Rizwangul NurMuhammad said she has been in search of her brother since. In late 2019, NurMuhammad learned from the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances that the Chinese government had told the U.N. body that her brother was sentenced to nine years in prison for "splitting the state."

"He has been imprisoned for over five years and is being punished for a crime that he didn't commit. If I were to guess, the only reason for his detention could be that he traveled to Turkey for study purposes between 2012 and 2014," NurMuhammad said.

According to a Human Rights Watch report, China's Campaign of Repression Against Xinjiang's Muslims, the Chinese government detained Uyghurs if they had traveled to any of "26 sensitive countries," one of which is Turkey.

"People who have been to these countries, have families, or otherwise communicate with people there, have been interrogated, detained, and even tried and imprisoned," the report stated.

The U.S. government has described China's mistreatment of Uyghurs and other Turkic groups in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region as constituting genocide and crimes against humanity.

China denies human rights violations in Xinjiang.

Qin Gang, Chinese ambassador to the U.S., told CBS news in a March 20 interview that "there's no such – such a so-called human rights violation" in Xinjiang.

In Wang's letter to CIPA leadership, he wrote "our heart goes to Riz's brother."

Damien Sharp, executive vice president of the Cornell Public Affairs Society, told VOA that Wang violated CPAS by-laws and acted independently in his letter and email to the CIPA administration, in which he identified himself as the president of the Cornell Public Affairs Society.

"Neither piece of correspondence represents the views of CPAS or a majority of those who sit on the executive board," Sharp said. "The walkout of some of our classmates from the room during Thursday's colloquium and subsequent discussions over email lead me to believe that there may be a need for a safe space for civil discourse on the matter."

Wang wrote in an email to VOA, "although I stated I am the President of Cornell Public Affairs Society, this statement only represented those whose signatures are on the signature page in a separate document."